Over the weekend, a close friend shared with me that her direct manager was going to be transferred to the UK. She took a big sigh of relief and her excitement about this news was written all over her face. Listening to my friend prompted me to think about an image I had seen over two years ago. It was the image of the workplace dragon. The story behind the dragon had made such an impact on me that I have not forgotten it ever since.
The theory by Jan de Dreu goes that everyone has got specific talents, but at the same time people have one or more dragons. Dragons are forces that make you and your talents small. When reflecting on my talents, I realised that a big portion of my success was due to my great level of optimism that seems to come to me quite naturally. Being able to view the world as a place of infinite possibilities helps me to look from different perspectives and aim high beyond usual standards.
“I felt the weight of my manager pushing on my back”
Identifying my dragon, so the force that inhibits me to thrive, was an easy task. I knew straightaway it was my direct manager in my previous job. Whenever I interacted with him, I didn’t dare to think differently or challenge him on his ideas and solutions. As the picture shows, I felt the weight of my manager pushing on my back. The frustration I had been feeling was now suddenly captured under this ‘dragon’-nametag. It felt quite comforting, as if I was being protected from taking personal responsibility. I could now blame somebody else for fueling my own feelings of insecurity of not being good enough. It was so much easier to think: “I don’t give a damn”, than to say “I’m hurt”.
It turned out that this feeling of soothing was only temporary. I soon realised that blaming my manager wasn’t going to help me move forward. I was actually giving away my ability to control and change the situation. Instead, my dragon had caused me to set off a series of protective responses for fighting my feelings of frustration:
- Fighting Holding my ground and fight the need to be right in discussions based on a strong desire to be understood.
- Fleeing – Withdrawing emotionally, by for example limiting the amount of time interaction to an absolute minimum.
- Freeze – Accept the situation of being stuck and not being able to move from the impasse of the situation.
“I was actually giving away my ability to control and change the situation”
Even though the defense mechanisms of fighting, fleeing, or freezing seemed to be serving me in the moment, the undeniable truth is that I knew it wasn’t helping me to grow. The most troubling relationships are the best learning opportunities to gain insight about ourselves. What really struck me the most in reflecting was that the people who get under your skin can be our best teachers. So instead, inspired by Brené Brown, I told my dragon: “I need to circle back on something”. There was an immediate silence and interest in what was coming up. I invited him to have a courageous conversation and asked him to be open to explore and reflect on our working relationship. As I allowed myself to be vulnerable, the ego bouncers of anger, blame and avoidance on his side immediately disappeared. This conversation was the turning point in our work relationship. I learned that dominant people are just as afraid of rejection as shy people.
“What really struck me the most was that the people who gut under your skin can be our best teachers”
There are numerous, complex reasons why there is so little open discussion and engagement around overcoming workplace dragons. Engaging and asking questions invites discomfort. At the same time it inhibits our talent. My intent for this blog was to share with you my personal story to invite you to reflect on the elements that challenge you to thrive. I believe it’s the only chance to change the ending of our dragon stories. But we must be willing to reflect, become conscious and aware of the feelings that trigger us and have the courage to have a meaningful conversation about it.
A big part of my job is helping people to reflect on their working relationships and build the confidence to have these kinds of conversations when they move to Activity Based Working. Why? Because at Veldhoen + Company our core purpose is to create a better world of work. I believe when we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. And not everyone is going to be transferred to the UK…
So first step of slaying your dragon, is letting me know if you have a dragon or not? Shout it out… or mention it below.