Note to Self: “You Are Not In Prison”

prison desk

It is a beautiful Friday summer afternoon and you have had a long, challenging, deadline driven workweek. There is one more assignment to go before your weekend will begin with a date at 7:30 pm. Your boss has twice reviewed the document due next week, edited it, and asked for additions and deletions. One more draft to go. The trees outside are green and leaves are waving gently in the summer breeze…

Finally finished, you:

  1. Attach it to an email,
  2. Press send,
  3. Stand and stretch,
  4. Punch the air,
  5. Walk to the restroom,
  6. Return to your office,
  7. Shut down the computer,
  8. Pack your briefcase and…

Just as you are about to turn off the light and walk out, your boss appears at the door and calmly says, “I know this is taking longer than expected, but I have a few more things I’d like you to change for me….” and he asks you to remove things that he had asked you to put in before. He suggests a different word here, a new word there, and an idea about how an excel chart might be helpful, too. He asks if you could cancel your evening plans because he just wants to get it done tonight. You both know that he doesn’t need it until next week but he’s hyper-focused. You say “yes” but you want to roll up in a ball and die. After all, you’ve been at the company five years longer than he has and you know that your new boss is probably trying to impress his new boss and feeling pressure to deliver on promises made during the interview process that landed him the job.

You get it, but you feel disrespected, abused, demoralized, and exhausted. You can’t push back, you don’t night-work_590x332know how to say ‘no’, and you don’t have the energy to do that tonight. You take a breath and start to work another late night. You call your date and cancel; you are both disappointed. It wasn’t too long ago, when you were happy at work, but this new, hypercritical, overbearing, and self-centered boss has ruined that. Its Friday and you are already dreading Monday. You don’t want to quit, you like your work, and so what do you do?

You Are Not In Prison

When there is intense pressure from above, it will roll down throughout all levels of an organization. Leaders, blindly driven by their own pressures and anxieties, often pass that on to their subordinates. This can damage morale, motivation, productivity, and emotions of the people needed most for success. In an ideal environment, all employees feel safe giving feedback to one another to help co-create a productive, responsive work environment. Good leaders, who are able to listen with their ears and intuition, respect personal boundaries and are aware of how their behavior and demands impact others who have less power and status at work. During times of intense pressure, when there is a foundation of trust and respect, everyone on the team will willingly bear down together to give extra time and effort.  Then the team will share the relief when the job is done and  share the success or disappointment that would follow.

When your boss makes demands based disproportionately upon what would make him or her look good, then you have to remember that you are not in prison. You are in the present moment. When the day began you chose to be there and you can manage how you feel about it by exercising strategic, respectful, self-preservation. You can wallow in or learn from the challenges because it is not easy to see the clear path. It takes courage to sidestep pressure from above, and presence of mind to not label a challenging environment as either “good or bad,” but simply what it is. It takes self-awareness and self-respect to act in a way that is professional, ethical, and fair to you.

In the scenario above, there is a lesson about managing up by not letting down until you are truly done. Next time, when you complete the onerous, last task:

  1. Stand and stretch,
  2. Punch the air,
  3. Walk to the restroom,
  4. Return to your office,
  5. Pack your briefcase,
  6. Shut off the lights,
  7. Attach the document,
  8. Press send and shut down your computer,
  9. Leave the office,
  10. Turn off your phone.

Even if you get an email or call asking that you finish something “important” by Monday, you will at least have had a few hours to decompress. You are not in prison. You don’t have to escape and run for your life. But you owe it to yourself to preserve your health and enforce reasonable boundaries.

Enjoy your weekend.