He sat at his desk in front of me, tapping his pen in frustration, ‘She’s affecting everybody. She’s just toxic.’ He was describing a dilemma he was facing at work. One of his employees, a woman who was contracted over several years, was proving to be a real hindrance to his team.
‘She finds a way to get everyone into dramas. She starts gossip and just creates a lot of conflict between people.’
Legally she couldn’t be fired. She could only be ‘encouraged’ to move on through a covert strategic means of making her work ‘less and less interesting’. ‘Well, that just feels totally unethical,’ said my client. ‘So, I’m just stuck with her I guess.’ He exhaled in defeat.
For months he’d tried all number of things to inspire her to do the things she enjoyed, in hopes that she’d become more engaged, and hence cause less trouble in the workplace. He and his team had bent like pretzels to ‘bring out the best’ in her. All to no avail. It seemed the more they contorted, the more toxic she became. The entire team was caught in an enabling pattern and it was beginning to cause stress.
‘What is it costing your team, your being ethical?’ I questioned with a wink.
He thought for a while, ‘Everything.’
Like most charismatic leaders, Richard was sensitive and hence had won the trust and support from his team through equal measure of intuition, finesse, heart, care and a natural gregariousness that inspired people to not only follow him, but love him. His team was powerfully engaged and effective.
But also like many sensitive people, he had one Achilles heel – the attachment to one’s values. Disclosure—I have this heel. And I have noticed that this attachment manifests through a desire to ‘be good’ and not go ‘against’ anyone.
We tend to, in our desire to stick to certain values, either ignore a situation and go passive, or after bending for too long, explode in frustration. If it goes chronically unattended, the whole system will explode.
Richard’s team was about to detonate.
‘Sometimes you have to drop your values,’ my friend said to me on the phone the other day. I was confused. I thought my friend might have lost their sanity for a moment. Sensing my worry, he proceeded to tell me a story. I love stories. So I curled up with my coffee mug clasped between both hands and listened intently. The story goes something like this:
Once upon a time, he began, a king named Agamemnon, and leader of the Greek coalition before and during the Trojan War, encountered a strange lack of wind to carry he and his boatloads of troops over the ocean to Troy. It was discovered that the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon (as goddesses are want to do with kings), and put a curse on the wind. In order to set the winds towards Troy again, she demanded, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Well, Agamemnon was horrified, outraged, and cursed Artemis with fowl language (according to my friend).
He refused, his honor as a father at stake. But he was in a dilemma. Agamemnon was also risking the lives and honor of his army. Months, passed. Each time Artemis requested Iphigenia, the father refused. The troops starved and became ragged and ill. At some point, Agamemnon finally succumbed, and sent poor Iphigenia to the alter of Artemis. The winds blew and you know the rest of the story – at least on the Troy side of things.
Accounts of Iphigenia’s fate are blurry. Some say a deer took her place, other’s say that Artemis did not sacrifice her at all but welcomed her into her divine kingdom.
So, what’s the moral of (this version of) the story? ‘If you lead with your values, you’ll narrow your options,’ said my friend. ‘Rather you be open to all the options first, and then apply your values.’ Well I had to think about that. So I did.
I began to recount events where, in order to be ‘good’, I lead with certain values, rather than responding presently in the moment, appropriate to the circumstances.
That proverbial road to hell…
I wanted to be the ‘balanced one’, the ‘fair one’, the one who could be counted on for equanimity, loyalty and maturity. I respect myself that way of course, but there was a hidden agenda in there too—I wanted to be liked. I didn’t want to go ‘against’ anyone.
Some circumstances require rigorous self-inquiry. Sometimes we have to pull back the veneer of what is parading around as virtue, morality or ethic and be willing to see the self-interest that is there. And here’s the key: when one is stuck in a pattern of holding on to values, other more creative options are eclipsed.
Back to my client Richard. After our conversation, Richard spent some time suspending his ideas, beliefs and values and allowing for something else to emerge. Suddenly a stroke of genius hit him. He called together his team, and outlined with them a ‘new interpersonal best-practices policy’ whereby certain behavior was not tolerated, among the list was gossip, innuendo, back-stabbing, and triangulating.
Each behavior had a constructive means to incapacitate it. For example, if someone heard gossip about themselves, they would immediately approach the party or parties concerned and engage in a constructive conversation to clear assumptions.
Within two weeks, the team was brighter, healthier and more trusting. And the toxic employee, starved of all the drama she was used to creating, quit. Apparently things were way too boring for her.
Sometimes, to serve the greater whole, the beloved daughter has to be sacrificed to the goddess. In my client’s case, the daughter was his precious identity as the ethical boss. When he let her go, his team could set sail. And the daughter didn’t end up being sacrificed after all.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.