Sunday, April 4, 2010

"You Can't Do That"-The Fine Art of Discouragement

This morning I went to breakfast with my cousin and she told me something that I have been thinking about all day. She is already a manager for a certain company, but lately she has been exploring different ways that she can possibly have more flexibility over her work schedule. Lately she has been recruited for an insurance company, and she asked her mother if she thought that she should go to the interview.

"Do you think that I will like that job?" my cousin asked her mother.

My aunt told her, "Why don't you stay where you are? I wouldn't buy insurance from you. You don't even have experience. No one will buy any insurance from you".

My cousin asked her, "Why wouldn't you buy insurance from me? Why would you say that?". But my aunt hung up on her. (I don't really have the energy to explain the dynamics in this mother-daughter relationship, but rest assured that my aunt is an abusive person).

I asked my cousin, "Why the hell would you ask her if she thought that you would like the job? Don't you trust yourself enough to know what type of job you would like? Besides, don't listen to her. People have always told me that I can't do something or I won't be successful at something".

"Me too, come to think of it," she said as she squinted at me.

This conversation sparked memories of my childhood, high school and early adult years when people would routinely tell me something that I couldn't do, something that I wouldn't like, or something that was what they perceived to be completely unrealistic.

I've heard my share of "Oh, that's an unrealistic goal" to "That's a stupid idea" and anything in between from the mouth of my mother and former friends. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I just wouldn't tell anyone anything that I was planning to do, because I would either get a negative reaction or people would make fun of me if something didn't go as planned. I have just kept my ideas to myself, and since then I have earned the reputation of being sneaky with some of my family members.

I've never quite understood the phenomenon of when people at work frequently tell me that they were groomed for a certain position at work. My last boss and current boss frequently have discussed their mentors and constantly discuss the fact that they are always being encouraged to apply for a higher position. It's bizarre to me, because in my experience people have done little to encourage me to climb the ladder at work. In fact, I have had to claw my way to the top.

When I was a teacher, I always sat and watched some of the crappiest teachers get leadership positions and I constantly listened to my boss tell me about how capable that other people were. I only got the leadership positions when they were offered to everyone else and were not accepted for one reason or the other. It used to frustrate me that I would see people that I didn't respect getting important leadership assignments.

Later I  applied as a manager and I was discouraged from applying for each of the four management positions that I have held. Each time I have been told that I am too young, or that I am not politically skilled enough to do this or that, or that I won't enjoy working with this or that person. I've been told that I lack experience, or that I won't be able to handle the stress and the rigor of the job.

During my last promotion, I could not figure out why two of my most beloved mentors completely discouraged me from applying from the position. Later, I found out that one of my mentors applied for the same position. When I asked someone (who is now my boss) for a letter of recommendation and was denied the letter, I found out that my other mentor had spread blatant lies about me to this particular person about my work performance. (The person who denied the letter is my current boss now and has apologized that he once believed the lies).

When I was denied the letter of recommendation, even close friends with good intentions told me that the "writing was on the wall" and discouraged me from applying for the position. They claimed that someone else had been hand picked and groomed for the position.  They were absolutely sure of it, and offered me tons of supposed proof that Mr. So-and-So would get it.

But I persisted, and got the job. And according to my boss, I knocked their socks off in the interview and blew all the other interviewees out of the water.

So I've learned my lesson all of these years, and I have learned that I don't listen to a damn word of what anyone else tells me that I can't or shouldn't do. I hardly even tell anyone any of my plans anymore. Yet I've never been able to understand this phenomenon that there are so many people out there who claim that they were nurtured and mentored into their positions by mentors since the day that they set foot into the office.

And I see it happening all the time. I don't personally think that my boss is extremely competent, but I always hear people telling him that he should apply as a superintendent or that he should do this or that. It is always amazing to me, because I never would think that he would be able to pull off some of the things that people encourage him to do.

I expressed this to my boss the last time that he was talking about how he was pushed out of the classroom to be a manager after only teaching for three years. "I have never been encouraged," I said. "In fact, people do nothing but discourage me. I have had to claw my way into this position".

"I'll admit-you haven't had it that easy. It's because you are scary competent and you intimidate people", he explained.

Boo. I'm tired of hearing that type of comment. But then he went on to say, "I think that some leaders overinflate certain people before they are ready, which can set people up for failure. Like me, for example. Ever since I was a second year teacher people were telling me that I should be a principal. They set me up to think that I was much more competent than I really was".


But why does this happen? Why is it that some people who are not very competent have people kissing their asses, while other competent people are constantly discouraged?

Am I the only person who has experienced something like this? Is this is a pattern? Or is it just me?


Meg at Demanding Joy said...

Yes!! I am told that I'm intimidating (when only rarely do I try to be) because I'm organized and competent. That translates into people thinking that I don't need encouragement or words of support. If only I felt as strong and self-assured as others see me, this wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, I'm pretty much making it up as I go along, so not letting thoughtless comments cut me has been a difficult lesson to learn.

The irony is that giving someone a compliment actually makes you feel good. So why is it so rare?

I too see other people far less capable than me get promoted easier and faster. It makes me wonder why I bother to work so hard. I used to aspire to rise to the top, but now that I know all of the douche bags at the top, I've reprioritized my life - and put my career last (after an enormous amount of soul searching).

Anonymous said...

It's all about their smooth social and soft skills. An ability to transport positive feelings to their direct environment to which they respond by (verbal) recognition. It's nearly something natural they got...but it's just an impression, nothing more. But an impression they try to maintain whether they want it or not. The problem is later that those people try to maintain their highly payed jobs and positions. This is on what they are in reality working...not losing their job and trying to maintain their positive image with competent employees. They are dependent on their employees!