I'm being jerked around at my agency

I report straight to the top, but now some hot shot has moved in

Published September 2, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work in a powerful position at a highly creative, competitive and successful agency. I report directly to the top, and have a lot of responsibility and freedom.

Recently a new position was created at the top level, over me, an additional superior to me with a "global" focus (my focus is on headquarters). I was excited to be learning from him, but in his six months with us I see he often does my job better than me and beats me to it.

It's easier for him because he has more experience. What he offers is external expertise because he is new. And he has a lot to prove. But I have a lot to prove too, and also a lot to learn because I have been in my role only one year. I am eager and I have a lot of history and care deeply about the company as I have been with the agency 15 years. They took a chance on me by giving me the job but now I am not getting a chance to do it.

I am being cockblocked from being effective because this new guy is more concerned about making himself look good than enabling me. Since he is new I don't have much trust built up with him so I am afraid to address it directly with him. And if I talk about it to the other people on the management team, I feel it'll reflect poorly on me that I am questioning him when he's looking so good right now. This feels politically sensitive and I am not sure how to address it.

Paralyzed by Politics

Dear Paralyzed,

Congratulations. You work in a powerful position at highly creative, competitive and successful agency. You have worked there for 15 years and have recently been promoted to a position very near the top.

Do me a favor. Enjoy that. It sounds pretty good from here. Seriously.

Now let's think about what this situation could mean.

Oh, my God! It could mean anything. That's the absolute truth. Some people will read your letter and think they know exactly what is going on. It's possible that one or two of them will be right. But every time I begin to speculate about what your bosses might be thinking, and what the significance of this guy might be, I start to feel I'm headed in the wrong direction.

What I do feel confident in is that for you, this situation means something very particular and emotional, related to you and your past and your expectations.

I say that because not everyone would react to this situation in the same way. For some people, what's happening now might be no problem at all. You know the kind of people I am talking about? The kind of people who make the best of a situation? Who say, well, this guy is here, and he is a resource, and he is talented, and I'll work with him to achieve the best outcome, and if he seems prickly, or out to show off, well, that's his business, not mine. And if it turns out that he is a threat to me, well, short of sabotaging him or getting into a contest with him, there may be nothing I can do about that. So perhaps, to be on the safe side, I'll begin showcasing my talents to other companies to see what kind of opportunities are out there, just in case this turns out to be a situation where it's best that I leave.

There are people like that. I've seen them. They seem very grown-up. They're not like me at all. I can imagine reacting like that, but I can imagine being a cowboy or an astronaut, too. I react more like you are reacting. So let's consider what this means for you as a person.

Like many of us, you have powerful emotions about your job. These emotions are rooted in who you are as an individual. They are not a part of the job. The job is just a job. You do things and they pay you. When the situation changes you are expected to adjust. Nonetheless, certain changes bring about deep emotional reactions.

So my guess is that something is going on here that has to do with your emotional and family life, or with your relationships with men, with brothers, with friends. Think of ways that you might be carrying your personal struggles with an older brother or father figure, an uncle perhaps, or some teacher, into your situation at work. Just shut your eyes and feel the situation. What comes to mind? What does it remind you of? Does a figure from your past come to mind? Who?

Look at your relationships with other men and with any brothers you may have, and see what disappointments may lie in your history, what moments there may be where you did not feel supported, where you felt that someone was standing in your way. You are probably carrying into your work life some such unresolved matter.

I can hear already a chorus of people claiming that this is not useful advice.

It may not be. It may, in fact, lead you to a course of life that is less "successful" in monetary terms, and in terms of business hierarchy. When we begin examining our lives carefully, sometimes we find that our apparent success is not what we really want. That's OK. There is no rule that says your ultimate duty in life is to continue to pile more success upon more success, no matter the cost, no matter what else you might want. You are free -- in a much larger sense than you mention above. In fact, I would question the use of the word "freedom" in connection with any job. My admittedly dour view of "freedom" as it relates to paid employment is that there is no such thing as "freedom" in a job. There are widening circles of responsibility and trust that require increasing levels of creativity. But there is no "freedom." You're not free. You're just a dog with a bigger yard.

None of us who is employed is "free" in any real sense. We just know how long the chain is.

Behind your difficulty and pain at work is probably some unresolved matter, perhaps one that you have for years considered to be settled. (Isn't it interesting how we carry around "truths" that we think represent settled matters. Consider a time when you "learned something that has stuck with you." Think about beliefs such as, "There is one thing I know I do not want," or "There is one kind of behavior that really irks me," or, "I am an open and honest person, but when the higher-ups start hiding things, I find it unacceptable." Each of these statements hints at powerful emotional patterns.) Usually, if we comb our past carefully, we can find some time when we were wounded by dishonesty or misuse of power, when we felt we'd been treated unjustly. We find we are always on the lookout for similar situations. When we feel we are encountering a similar situation, we become hyper-alert. We freeze up. We do not know which way to turn.

So I suggest that when your bosses brought in this new person, it mirrored some pattern in your life regarding your relationship with, or access to, a parent, a brother, a beloved intimate. It woke up some fear that left you paralyzed.

Once you find what that past experience or pattern is, perhaps you can untangle this.

Then you actually will feel free, and you can decide what to do next.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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