Taking the first steps towards change

I am a lifelong devourer of books, but I rarely read nonfiction. I don’t know why, but reading big, fat books about building the Brooklyn Bridge or Lincoln’s cabinet just don’t grab me, narratively, the same way that fiction does. (I think it’s exciting to read a news article about Shackleton’s ship being found, but I don’t need to know every detail of the expedition.) But sometimes I’ll push myself to read a nonfiction book, the same way I push myself to eat a salad when I’d rather have a sandwich.

I recently picked up Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which is part memoir, part an excellent overview of how therapy works, told through the story of her own experience with therapy (as a patient) and experiences she has had with various patients in her own practice. I chose the book because I was interested in the topic—several members of my family and many friends have engaged in therapy, but I haven’t—and also because I think her column, “Dear Therapist,” in the Atlantic Monthly, is incredibly well-written and engaging.

It turned out to be a humdinger of a book. I was utterly engrossed in her story and in the stories about her patients—the plot development was as suspenseful and as rich as that of a spy novel. And every once in a while, particularly towards the end of the book (when both she and her patients were moving forward in their journeys), my breath was taken away by her summary insights and reflections. The experience of reading the book was like breaking open emotionally, in cathartic, but also sometimes painful, ways. I cried a lot and I emerged feeling more connected to myself and to feelings I’ve been having about lots of stuff, like work and family challenges.

One of my biggest take-aways from the book, however, is how much work therapy is, for the therapist and especially, for the person in therapy. The act of seeking out a therapist doesn’t necessarily mean that you are ready to do the work of understanding yourself better and the many triggers and influences that shape your perceptions of the world and of other people. Lori Gottlieb shares lots of engaging stories about how people—including herself—deflect and defend against doing the work of understanding themselves and their reactions to relationships and events in their lives. Sometimes, she and a patient will go through many, many sessions before a breakthrough occurs so the patient can begin to tentatively move forward from the place that’s causing him or her unhappiness.

I know this can be a somewhat joy-sucking character trait of mine, but I tend to believe that all worthwhile experiences in life come with work. I mean, most people simply don’t want to see it that way—like, twentysomethings I worked with kept on talking fervently about finding their “dream jobs” and it was clear, from talking to them, that they expected their dream jobs would make them feel happy and fulfilled most, if not all, of the time. Whereas I was of the opinion—more so, as I get older—that jobs and careers are usually a mixed-bag—with good experiences and with not-so-good experiences, and that you have to usually have to put in quite a bit of work to understand how much influence you have over managing your own employment experience. Sometimes when I’m having a shitty experience at work, I’ve reacted by thinking—feeling, really, “Well, everyone else just sucks.” But other times, I’m more willing to look more deeply into myself and say, “How am I contributing to this situation that’s making me so unhappy? And once I better understand that, what can I do about it?”

The work of understanding yourself is kind of a big deal when it comes to, let’s say, conflict at work, like when there’s a colleague who you makes you scream inside your head with frustration. There’s a whole spectrum of behaviors that can prompt this reaction, from the boss who’s outright abusive and demanding to the passive-aggressive colleague who drives you nuts because you and he/she/them can’t seem to align on anything and you can’t get a read on why they’re behaving the way they are. Lots of colleagues have talked about these situations with me and they usually express one version of, “I wish [the person] would just get fired, already,” or, “I wish [the person] would just leave, already.” Unfortunately, neither of these things are likely to happen, or nor are they likely to be within your control to affect. In fact, usually the only remedy that’s available to people in frustrating situations is to try and understand your own reactions to the situation, learn from others who have dealt with similar situations, and try and determine whether you have influence to change the situation or not.

Reading Lori Gottlieb’s book was yet another reminder, for me, of how nuanced and painstaking the work of change can be, and how we often skip over the parts of understanding what actually needs to change, likely because of our impatient desires for resolution and clarity. And in extrapolating from the work of individual change to the work of organizational transformation, I was struck by how much harder it must be to work towards change, and to work towards understanding what needs to change, when you are working with dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of people. And then I wondered: why is there so much advice being dispensed about organizational culture and employee retention and so little advice about how to determine if an organization is actually ready to engage in the process of understanding what needs to change?  

The latest rash of articles around the Great Resignation have yielded a ton of evidence that is telling us what we already know: that employees are much more likely to leave because of toxic workplace cultures and/or because they don’t feel a sense of meaning of purpose and because their bosses suck or they’re sick of their commutes…or…or…  And yet, none of these articles mention what feels like the threshold question to me: whether or not organizations are willing to put in the work of understanding what needs to change. Like the patients in Lori Gottlieb’s book, many leaders of organizations may know they have a problem (although I have run across CEOs who care very much about poor ratings from employees and incredibly high turnover and some who don’t seem to care at all). They may want a quick-fix, silver-bullet solution to these problems—employee turnover, after all, is super-expensive for businesses and overall morale problems hurt productivity and performance. But they may not understand the dimensions of the problems, what they themselves can or should do about these problems, and how long it might take for transformational change to occur.

I know that nothing I say in this piece will reach the people who need to understand that changing their organization for the better is going to take real, painstaking, labor-intensive work. My audience is too small; I write on this blog as a personal project to share what I’ve learned and am still learning about work. Brené Brown, who I think of as the goddess of courageous vulnerability, just shared a MIT piece on toxic workplace culture; she has an extremely huge platform from which to share this message and she has a teaching/speaking business to help business leaders do it. Harvard Business Review also has a huge platform to reach people about issues like increasing employee retention and workplace culture and gender inequality, but I am convinced that their articles exist solely to convince their readers that Research Is Being Done, and Here Are Five Things That Will Solve Your Problem, and If You Share This, People Will Think You’re Smart.

But I am not, by the way, claiming that I have the answers on how to get an organization to de-toxify its organizational culture and improve ongoing employee retention and engagement issues. For one thing, I’m in communications, which is only one of the things that probably need to change about a workplace culture. In almost every job interview I’ve ever had, people have asked how much of a role communications should play in organizational culture, and my answer invariably goes something like, “A lot, but communications staff can’t shoulder that burden alone, it needs to be an organization-wide commitment to change, like having diversity, equity, and inclusion being embedded in who you are AND in what you do.”

And for another thing, that’s the main point I’m actually trying to make in this piece (I think)—that it’s not about having the ANSWERS to why employees at your company are so unhappy, and are leaving the organization en masse. It’s more about whether people at your company—and it’s usually the ones at the top who need to do this—are willing to ask the right QUESTIONS to begin understanding why these things are happening. Then, and only then, can the work of making change begin.  

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Our younger selves think in terms of a beginning, middle, and some kind of resolution. But somewhere along the way–perhaps in that middle–we realize that everyone lives with things that may not get worked out. That the middle has to be the resolution, and how we make meaning of it becomes our task.”