What Holds Us Back?

I was at a conference last week. There was a panel about women in technology. Of course, I went.

I heard several concerning stories. One woman said something like this:

My previous husband was concerned when I went out for dinner with professional colleagues. He was concerned I was “seeing” other men.

Note that she said her previous husband. She got rid of him and has a different husband now.

Another woman said something like this:

“My company expects I will work 24/7, that I am available for email and phone calls all day and night. I am not willing to live like that.”

Both women recognized something in their situation did not make sense and decided to do something about it.

What about the rest of us? I learned the hard way about 25 years ago. I was lying in bed, waiting for Mark to finish brushing his teeth. I checked my voicemail on my work phone. (I dialed in and listened.)

Mark opened the door to the bedroom and asked, “What are you doing?”

I replied, “I’m checking voice mail. Why?”

He said, “What are you doing?”

“You heard me, right?” I was surprised he asked me again.

“It’s 11:30 at night, and you’re checking voicemail? What are you thinking? You’re tired. Will you make good decisions now?” He persisted.

Well, when he put it like that, it was clear the answer was NO. No way I could make good decisions. I decided then and there to stop playing the “who-left-voicemail-last” game.

By trying to “do it all,” I was holding myself back.

I’d thought I was a good manager, a good corporate citizen by making sure I got through my voicemail all the time. It was as hopeless then as getting through all your email is now.

I learned—from Mark calling my attention to it—that no company needs me 24/7. Oh, they might think they do, but what they pay for is a thinking human. If all I do is react, I’m not thinking. And, if I react all the time, I’m not so human. Well, not enough. I tend to be irritable when I haven’t slept enough. Yes, I become even more snarky than I already am.

We might decide to “blame” our companies for their requests. I certainly have explained to managers that even as a manager, I need sustainable pace. Some of my managers didn’t want to hear that. One of them accused me of not being a team player.

I responded this way, “If by team player you mean I only take your directly stated needs into account, I can be a yes-woman. I will say yes to anything you say and do what I like. But, if by team player you mean I am fully present to be a leader and decide or help other people decide what they need, then I can do that without saying yes to you. I will provide you reasonable responses in reasonable timeframes.”

When we swallow and accede to unreasonable requests, we placate other people. We don’t stand up for ourselves or our beliefs. That makes work untenable. We hold ourselves back from our potential.

We might think the company holds us back, and maybe that’s correct. And, when we allow our circumstances to take advantage of us, we also hold ourselves back.

You might decide that for now, you will accommodate your organization while you look for another job. You might decide to change things, for yourself or the organization. Those are just three choices. You might see more.

I need to think about what’s holding me back. Sometimes, I have created barriers where there might be none. I follow rules I didn’t create. I don’t see other choices. I have to take my marriage and family into account for my choices. My choices might not be clear and my context matters.

That is the question of the week: What holds us back?

6 thoughts on “What Holds Us Back?

  1. Ed

    Another good article.

    “Sustainable pace” is what I took away from this. I have been learning about healthy boundaries. I have always known about them, but only in the last few years have I been able to say “No” and utilize them. It has changed my life.

    My manager at my last job knew I would always say yes. Often at 4:45pm he would tell me about a crisis that had to be done by tomorrow AM. He would go home to his family, and I would work past midnight. Later, I would find out he usually knew about the crisis for weeks and procrastinated knowing he could count on me, a good team player. Was he a poor manager? Yes, but I was also a poor employee, not setting healthy boundaries at work was my responsibility. I gave a lot to that company: time with my kids, my life, my happiness. In the back of my mind I was worried they would let me go if I didn’t do all this extra work, or think negatively about me. It didn’t matter if I had worked less or more, in the end, they let me and 200 others go one day to increase record profits even further. They didn’t look at my or anyone’s past work performance, they looked at the bottom line.

    No is a complete sentence.

    1. johanna Post author

      HI Ed, yes, the boundary stuff is tricky. Tricky to discuss, tricky to navigate, and for me, it has changed over time.

      I love the “No is a complete sentence.” No one needs anything after no.

  2. Sridhar

    Working overtime(including many weekends) , expectations of taking phone calls after office hours,etc these are things which are taken for granted in all Indian IT companies. Excuse managers give is “customer service” and anything in the name of customer service. If you say NO there are only two ways..either no promotion or poor performance appraisal ratings(which are just a farce) or in some cases even worse fired from company. Unfortunately that’s the culture in many of Indian IT companies including major ones. I think this whole business of saying NO and people how they react to NO is more to do with country and culture. I worked for American companies and UK companies where i find it much easier to say No and in India NO means i am in trouble most of the times. In India all time you lost with your family on weekends,etc will be termed as “Extra effort” that employees need to put. Talking about women at work place and their challenges in India, its whole big topic altogether. Bottom line is i think its a cultural thing and varies from country to country.

    1. johanna Post author

      HI Sridhar, yes, I do believe the problem is partly cultural.

      One other piece of this is the problem that you in India are many time zones east of the US or UK (just as example countries). In my experience, the managers who create geographically distributed teams have no idea about the human cost of that team. I might even say team in quotes. You are at a disadvantage because:
      – the company who contracts with you (and that’s a manager-to-manager conversation or sales-to-manager conversation) expects you to “fulfill the contract.”
      – Too often, they treat you as outsourcers: throw stuff over the wall and expect them to catch it. If they don’t, yell and scream.
      – the people who ask you to work crazy hours often don’t work those hours themselves. They don’t have empathy for you.

      It is possible to have great geographically distributed teams. It is possible to have a useful outsourcing relationship. There is a continuum of integrated team to outsourcer. What I see is insufficient definition and too much attention to wage cost as opposed to project cost.

      It’s too bad you can’t claim overtime. (I suspect you cannot.) If you were able to, the financial dynamics might prompt some changes. (Not that you shouldn’t be part of the project. I’m all for that. I’m not excited about inhumane working conditions.)

      I have the second edition of the project portfolio book coming out next week. Maybe I will write a post about how to say no on my Managing Product Development blog as part of that promotion.

  3. Susan

    I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised there is always a choice, and the trick is understand what they are. Saying No to a request doesn’t always have the negative effect we think it will.

    Enjoyed the article as always Johanna.

    1. johanna Post author

      HI Susan, I am pretty sure that back in my younger days, I thought I only had the choice of “this” or “that.” That kind of binary thinking often leads me to prematurely shut off alternatives. That’s why the Rule of Three is so helpful for me.

      I was thinking of a “ways to say no” post since many people might also think the repercussions can be substantial.

      Thanks, glad you liked the post!

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