It was the waiting that grated. You could sense it across the office, a palpable air of fidgety discomfort blended with impotent uncertainty. It felt like we should all be out stock piling canned goods and bottled water; hunkering down and bunkering up. I think that’s why I was daydreaming about escape all the time. Anything to be out from the slightly oppressive sense that something bad was coming. It was hard to maintain ‘business as usual’ knowing that business was currently quite so unusual. Hard to keep a professional face on it. What happened to authenticity? That was supposed to be the buzzy new thing in leadership. Be authentic. Bring yourself to work. Get to know people, show your vulnerability, watch that Brene Brown TED talk, dial up your emotional intelligence. I guess submitting to your basest instincts and retiring to the corner of the office to crouch, sobbing, whilst gnawing repeatedly on a pencil, fists bunched, occasionally stamping a foot and letting out a yelp of inchoate rage would be considered too authentic. It’s a fine line. I walk it delicately.
The strange thing is that I’ve been in this film before. Had a bigger role than I wanted. It was my estranged, disappointed face they cut to when they announced the runners up in the “who gets to keep their job” category. No gold statue, no tearful acceptance speech. No after show party in Venice Beach. More like being hit by a tsunami on Venice Beach as the fault line running through California finally cracks open and LA is disgorged into the ocean. It’s like a bereavement. That wave, that tsunami, hits, you lose your feet on the sand, and for a while you’re thrashing and tumbling in the sea, fighting for breath and a solid place to stand. I guess some people cope with it better than others, find some exhilaration in the loss of control, give themselves up to the swell, emerging laughing and shaking the water clear of their ears. It wasn’t really like that for me. After the shock I just sank, cold and numb and adrift. Even after I found the shore it was like I was always ankle deep in it, as if the tide line had shifted, and from time to time, without warning, the undertow would pull me over and I’d pitch back into the water. I don’t think I’ll ever really stand on the beach again. Or, at best, it’ll always be a beach flying the red warning flags. Probably without David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.
Having seen this film before I know that once the end credits roll that life goes on. The lights come up and you pick your way out of the cinema, popcorn scrunching under foot, and emerge blinking into the day. Maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far. There’s other films, other roles. That’s the point. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being out of the industry for a while – a resting actor if we’re going to keep this up – wasn’t appealing. A chance to start again and to break out of all the little boxes that working in a big corporate puts you in. My favourites:
- Talent grids. There’s nothing quite so motivating as a three by three, nine box, talent grid. Performance on one axis and potential on the other. You can tell a lot about the prevailing culture by the labels assigned to each level on the axis. I’ve been rated ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘over performing’, ‘out performing’, and ‘astonishing and sensitive’ all within the same box, just in different places with different scales. That last one is a lie. That’s what Caroline Josephs said about me the first time we slept together. That may also be a lie. Potential is even worse. Like the myriad of possibilities and capability that anyone possesses can be wrapped up and summarily dismissed with an ‘x’ in a box. You have no potential. That’s the truth of what Caroline said about me. At least, to be fair to her, she gave me this feedback in the moment, with quite specific details on where I was going wrong, and didn’t hide it all by talking about me with her peers and putting me in a box on a spreadsheet. Who knows? Maybe she did that too.
- Myers Briggs. I’m using this as a catch all for all those development questionnaires that they make you fill out to discover who you are, a grand voyage of self discovery and awareness. The ones that are introduced with great sincerity by name dropping Jung, principally to distinguish the outputs from, say, reading your horoscope. But then I’m an INTP and so I would say all of this, wouldn’t I? And I would also violently kick against being put in a box. So maybe there’s something in it. I guess I believed it all more when I was junger. Yes, all of that was just leading up to that pun.
- Org charts. Here’s the rub. Org charts are for roles and not for people. I know they have people’s names on them, implying some kind of security sitting there snuggly within the confines of your rectangle, but they’re not for you. I’ve gotten short shrift in a variety of situations when I’ve claimed that it was my role’s responsibility to do something and not mine – paying for stuff in shops, that incident with Caroline Josephs after we broke up and I turned up drunk at her flat and shouted through her letter box that I had been practicing my skills and that she should give me another chance – that kind of thing. Turns out, as a pretty nice police woman patiently explained to me, that those things are my responsibility and not some amorphous, ambiguous title in a box in an org chart. Turns out that it’s people that do stuff and not roles. Live and learn. (Technically as an INTP I don’t so much live and learn as observe, over think, and learn but that’s less snappy and hasn’t been adopted as universal parlance).
Be authentic but fit in this box. And this box. And this box over here. It’s almost as if the beautiful complexities and contradictions of human essence – of an individual – can’t be contained in a one-size-fits-all categorisation. And yet that’s what we do to fit in and get on.
Right until they tell you to get out.