Recently, I had an encounter at work that left me perplexed….during a team meeting someone made a comment regarding a project I was managing and called it “the wild west”. The comment caught me off-guard, as I believed I had communicated the process and the development with key stakeholders at every stage…and it highlighted clearly that -at least for one person- this hadn’t been the case.
I focused on asking what about the project was not clear…and the answer was as vague as the initial description…”wild west”.
Later that day, someone else who was at the meeting came to ask me if I was ok…interestingly, up to that point, I hadn’t put too much stock on the event other than the facts; someone felt out of the loop…and they needed to feel informed. However, after realising how others had interpreted the event, I started feeling that the comment was an attack on my work and ultimately on me.
Interestingly, at that point, my strategy changed. Instead of just focusing on how to better communicate the stages in the project to this particular person, I realised I needed to emphasise the fact that there had been a process in place all along…and that I couldn’t let the “wild west” comment remain uncontested…as it was not really a fair evaluation.
I felt pretty good about my strategy…and yet there was something else I did not feel good about…my feelings. At the point when I was asked if I was ‘ok’, I started feeling attacked…because others had perceived the comment as an attack.
The narrative of our circumstances is – to a great extent – determines how we feel about them. Interestingly, in my case…switching the narrative from “someone is out of the loop” to “someone is attacking my work” triggered a different narrative in my mind, and I started thinking of the event in a whole different light…and getting mad about it.
In his post “What stories are you telling yourself” Michael Hyatt highlights how the stories we tell ourselves (i.e the narrative we apply to an event or circumstance) affect our daily performance and provides strategies on how to re-write our stories when these are not leading us to a productive outcome.
What I noticed in my own experience is that both interpretations of the “wild west” comment were valid and applicable to the circumstances. The person who made the comment felt out of the loop…and as a member of the team, it is important for this person to be informed and feel included. Nonetheless…the fact that one person doesn’t have the full picture of the project at each stage does not constitute enough grounds to question the body of work as a whole and to use unfair/inaccurate characterisations in an antagonising manner…which also needed to be addressed.
On my part, I realised that the reason for my initial inclination towards focusing on the initial ‘narrative’ of the event (i.e. the other person feels out of the loop) instead of the unfair characterisation of my work is that I did not want to engage in a narrative of antagonism…where I am placed in a situation of either victim or attacker…I don’t want to feel negativity towards my co-worker or act reactively in a manner commensurate to this type of behaviour.
When someone attacks you, it is a natural response to react in a defensive way. I did not want to act from that place…because it is a place of powerlessness and fear, and more often than not it creates a flight or fight response. Operating from this mode has few good outcomes; it comes from a primitive form of cognition that was useful in a hunter-gatherer existence, a wild-west type of society and NOT in a complex organisational setting. This made me wonder;
Is there a way to engage with ‘unfairness’ without participating in the narrative of powerlessness and fear that comes from being a victim? Conversely, is there a way to maintain my position without engaging in the narrative of antagonism when someone is clearly on the offensive?
As I was reading the bible…I came across the passage in Genesis 48 to 50 that looks at the reunion between Jacob and his son Joseph.
The story shows how Jacob was especially close to Joseph…more so than any of his other children. Joseph, on the other hand, always strove to be a good son…and this enraged his brothers, who sold him out to slave drivers and told Jacob, their father, that Joseph had been killed.
I can’t imagine the world of emotional pain and psychological hurt caused by this unfair and abrupt separation between father and son, aggravated by the injustices Joseph faced in Egypt and the fact that his own siblings had been the instigators of all this pain. After years of separation…when Joseph gets to see Jacob again, he is old and frail, and passes away shortly thereafter.
As I read some of the dialogue between Jacob and Joseph…it is clear to see the depth of emotion caused by the separation.
Jacob says to Joseph in his death bed “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.” (Genesis 48:11)
After he passes away, the bible says that “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)
After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers become afraid of Joseph’s reaction…they think that if they have been spared up to that point, it had been for Jacob’s benefit…but now, there is nothing to hold Joseph back from re-paying their evil in kind. Full of reservations, they approach Joseph to beg for mercy…Joseph response is detailed in Genesis 50:19-21
“But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
It is clear that Joseph is not sugarcoating the intentions of his brothers…they clearly wanted to do him wrong, BUT…and this is the caveat that changes everything…BUT GOD…God intended it for good.
As Christian, part of living out my faith means that the narrative that permeates my worldview is my faith in Christ, and my understanding of his instructions through the Bible. There are people in this world who clearly mean to harm others…it is not productive to engage in a narrative of victim or attacker neither emotionally nor with actions. It is also not a good strategy to ignore their intent…the clear way from the biblical perspective is to focus on God’s power to move his purposes in spite of people’s intent.
This is not always easy…actually, it is hard most of the time…but it is the only way to productively engage in these instances.
In his deathbed, Jacob pronounced a blessing over Joseph, that in my mind, encompasses the dynamic of Joseph’s life and how he dealt with the opposition; he never drew his emotions or actions from the circumstances around him, but from God and his purposes.
22 “Joseph is like a wild donkey,
like a young donkey by a spring,
like colts grazing in a pasture.[e]
23 People attacked him and made life hard for him.
Men with arrows became his enemies.
24 But he won the fight
with his mighty bow and his skillful arms.
He gets power from the Mighty One of Jacob,
from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
25 the God of your father who helps you.
May God All-Powerful bless you
and give you blessings
from the sky above and from the deep below.
May he give you blessings
from breast and womb.
26 My parents had many good things happen to them.
And I, your father, was blessed even more.
Your brothers left you with nothing.
But now I pile all my blessings on you,
as high as a mountain.