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When Work Politics Shakes Your Professional Image?

Updated: May 14, 2020

It's the Paradox of Authenticity!

It is not enough to be honest and trustworthy… sometimes, you must demonstrate it.”

These words pierced threw the room, drawing my attention to the reality of the places we work and by extension, the world we live in. I was in a session with two men who I have come to deeply appreciate and respect in my work. They were talking to me to address a potentially explosive work situation, and they needed me to “fill in the gaps” and “tell my side of the story”. Trouble was, I had earlier decided that I didn’t want to “touch” the issue anymore. Long story short, someone at work had made several damaging statements about me. Having dealt with them for over a year, I had decided the day before that I couldn’t handle it anymore. There were too many half-truths to my disfavour and a seemingly relentless zeal to discredit me. To me, the situation had reached a level of toxicity that wasn’t worth my efforts or emotions any longer. “My mind and spirit have taken enough and for the first time, I am drawing the line. I am not working on this anymore.” I said decisively.

My mind and spirit have taken enough and for the first time, I am drawing the line. I am not working on this anymore.” I said decisively.

The Sage, (as I have come to fondly call one of the people talking to me) sedately interjected: “The point is, Hannah, you walk away now … you are giving more power to these accusations. Now is not the time to lie down or stay quiet. It is time you woke up and realized how serious this is…

Amidst tears triggered by a tapestry of emotions - frustration, hurt, indignation and I don’t know what else; I finally relented and agreed to review the 20-page document that contained numerous half-truths and some blatant lies. See, I awakened when the Sage advised: “Bangi, we know you. When we read the document, we knew that wasn’t you. I just kept thinking: ‘That’s not Hannah… Hannah wouldn’t do that…’ but that’s because we know you. Not everyone knows you and can stand up for you…”

It is then that I realized that I have been operating from a point of trust. I trusted that if I lived and worked openly and ethically, then the people around me would see that and trust me in turn. I tend to live with an assumption of good will. It is a principle I picked up in my organizational development work which is essentially rooted in the premise that if you live life with good will and focus on the good – then good comes out of your relationships and in life. Sort of karma, I guess…

But I am sure there are many of you who would be more cynical (or should I say, “practical”?). Perhaps you even have a slight smirk on your face as you ponder such naivety. Indeed, my ex-boss always reminded me to “trust, but verify”.

The thing though is: I genuinely tend to trust people. I guess you would say I think people are innocent until proven guilty. I know, I know… apparently, we are supposed to think people are guilty until proven otherwise. Anyhow, to each his or her own…

But I am going off on a tangent … my aha-moment in this is that I had not fully realized how much I needed to shift my workstyle to fit where I am working now. You see, I was blessed to work with a fast-growing private organization which thrived on a young, vibrant and committed workforce. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I worked my butt off – bringing on board new ideas, setting up systems, driving implementation, initiating programs in an environment that was trusting, supportive and open. Most people who visited noted the vigor, enthusiasm and commitment – it was your typical learning organization. Authentic, setting the pace, pushing boundaries, breaking new ground. And having fun while at it…

I have never been one for impression management so all that I gave was my best self – my thinking, my hard work, my commitment. I thrived and built a strong professional reputation.

Fast forward over ten years later, I landed in a larger organization fraught with work politics, self-interest and a “dog-eat-dog” culture, as one of my friends would say. A “jungle” … others call it. I innocently stepped into this context with the same principles of trust … a mistake that I am only appreciating now. (I know, you can stop rolling your eyes now because I am sure there is at least one of you who identifies with me).

What I didn’t fully realize is how far this error in judgment would have an impact on my professional image – insidiously. The “dogs” nipped away at my image. They slowly nibbled away the substance of my professional confidence. This came in all shapes. The whispers behind my back, the subtle sabotaging of initiatives I led, the silent audience to my “failures”. But I have never been one to walk away from a challenge. I think my nickname could be “Ms. Resilient” if you asked people I have worked with. Plus, however bad a situation is, something always works … so that keeps me going.

But again, I digress. The lesson I learned is that we should never enter a new situation and trust that our past means of success alone are enough to guarantee success in a new situation. Never ever think that you will be trusted, simply because you are trustworthy. (And I am talking about a nebulous level beyond the obvious “trust is earned”). When you are building a new house, you do not extend the existing foundation to support the new one. You build a new foundation. Even when you are who you are, you need to shape anew the person that you will be seen to be. Your inner values are not enough. Your words are not enough.

Dale Carnegie’s urges: “be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others THINK you are.” I strongly agree with this, but the events in this article have also reminded me that your character is silent. It is only when you build a reputation that you can be “heard”. So, in difficult situations, turning the other cheek is not enough. When you are confronted with an attack on your character, it cannot speak for itself. Lies can only be destroyed by bold truth that is spoken, not felt.

The joy is that amid the pain of betrayal or false accusations, there will always be people who truly know you and support you. So be yourself. Just remember that sometimes just being is not enough … at times, you are required to prove yourself.

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