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How employees hang themselves on the coat-stand by the door?

Whilst chatting to a friend over a coffee yesterday I was reminded about a story I heard several years ago, told by the poet, author and speaker David Whyte.

My friend started a new job recently and I was asking him how it was going.  He explained it was “OK”, in my experience usually an indication of something less than perfect!  There was undoubtedly a tinge of disappointment in his voice as he said it, which surprised me given how excited he’d been when he’d been offered the job.  As we continued to talk he told me that he felt the reason he’d got the job in the first place was because of the skills he had, and that they’d explicitly said that those skills could benefit them.

Less than a year later though he said that the opportunities to use those skills had been limited.  They’d told him that they’d try some of his ideas in the future “when the time was right”.  He said that he’d tried to show initiative and progress some new ideas anyway but was asked by not to do so unless he first had explicit approval.  So he lowered his sights a little and worked on incremental improvements to processes which, when it came to the attention of senior management, again met with a negative response.  The outcome is that he’s become noticeably less enthusiastic and even a little weary of it all.  I talked to him about possible responses and how best to remain positive and add value such that he got more independence and he said that “for the time being I’m going to keep my head down and hopefully some opportunities might arise in the future”.

David Whyte’s story came to mind afterwards when I was driving home.  He explained how many new starters go into their role with excitement and expectation about the positive contribution they are going to make.  They enthusiastically throw themselves into the role each day, seeking ways to be as effective as they can and make the most effective contribution.  They do what they are good at and intuitively use their skills.  But then they meet barriers, they hear people talking about “the way things are done around here”, and are told “if you want to get on you have to …..”.  And so they start to subjugate themselves and who they really are to fit in – metaphorically speaking they take who they really are off at the door and hang themselves on the coat-stand.  At first they pick themselves up again every night before hanging themselves us again the next morning.  But as the expectation of who they should be at work in order to fit in grows, and they become more and more familiar with the person they believe they should be, sooner or later they just pick themselves up at weekends.  And sometimes, if they stay long enough, the real ‘them’ eventually stays on the coat-stand permanently.  They become the person they think they should be to fit in with the culture at work, losing who they really are altogether.

Sometimes I talk to people who have been in the same organisation for many years and they talk wistfully about who they used to be and what they once wanted to do, and achieve.  These are sure signs of people who have left part of themselves on the coat-stand.

An organisational culture that results in people bringing only part of themselves to their role can’t be a good thing for an organisation that wants to succeed can it?  What’s best, a culture in which people comply or one in which people authentically use all of their skills, their attributes and their qualities for the benefit of the organisation?

How many of your people hang themselves on the coat-stand by the door?