Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Everyone Knows She Failed

Here’s a strange letter that reflects a strange attitude. The letter writer, who I assume to be female, has done a bad job in a training program. She disappointed herself and disappointed colleagues and supervisors. She now awaits a ritual graduation where management will offer a dollop of praise to each of the trainees. Fair enough. But, she dreads this ritual because she believes that their praise of her will be dishonest, and that everyone knows it. Or does she dread it because she fears that they might be honest?

After all, in a world where we are told that honesty is a transcendent value, she is trapped between thinking that people are lying about her in order to spare her feelings or are telling the truth and making her look like a pathetic failure.

So, she writes to Washington Post advice columnist, Carolyn Hax:

I am finishing a training program and the ritual is a gathering of the senior people standing up to say (presumably nice) things about each of the departing trainees. I’ve had a rocky year and my close supervisors and I know it’s well short of my potential and we’re all kind of disappointed in me. So it sounds just excruciating to go to this “graduation” thing and sit through someone trying to publicly praise me for show. Is there a graceful way to get out of going to something like this?

Dreading “Graduation”

At the risk of sounding repetitious, I would point out that we know next-to-nothing about this situation. We know that DG is ashamed of her poor performance. We do not know why. We do not know where she was working, with whom she was working, what kind of job she had, what tasks she failed at. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. We only know that she feels shame.

And that she wants to run away, to hide her face. Apparently, when people feel shame, in the current cultural historical juncture, they ignore all specific details and realities… in order to make it more difficult for anyone to help them regain their bearings.

But then, DG seems most bothered by the fact that she will be praised at a gathering of senior management. In truth, she does not know what they are going to say. She does not know how they will say it. She is seriously torqued about receiving unearned praise. And yet,  things are never quite that black and white. She might have contributed effectively to one project while failing at several others. It might be that management will praise her for the good work she did, while graciously overlooking the bad.

Would she prefer openness and honesty? Would she prefer that management call her out for incompetence? It does not and should not happen. And yet, why would she be ashamed to hear a compliment she does not believe she deserves? Could it be because she will know that everyone is thinking that they are just doing it for show, and thus, that it redoubles her shame? It might also happen that her supervisors will find some saving grace, some area of competence and will point it out... thus changing everyone's picture of her as a failure.

As I said, she is confused. Thus, her request is confusing. Her dread amounts to cowardice. As for what she should do, she ought obviously to sit through the presentations and accept whatever praise her bosses are capable of offering. Gracefully. In nearly all cases, managers will be tactful and considerate. They are not in the business of humiliating trainees.

Of course, her fellow trainees might use the occasion to laugh at her, to humiliate her further. We know nothing specific about the situation, so we cannot know.

Again, we do not know whether she has been systematically humiliated by management. We do not know whether she has been made to feel like a scapegoat for failures.

In any event, Hax advises her to suck it up and to sit gracefully through the ritual. That is, to hold her head high, even to accept that she might deserve some modicum of praise for having done some one thing right. I am especially impressed by her opening line, words to live by, namely that there is almost always a graceful way out.

Hax responds:

There’s a graceful way out of just about everything.

But, I’m not sure that’s your best play. You had a rocky year, okay, you didn’t live up to your full potential. Bummer. And now ... onward. Sit through your moment of less effusive praise than you had hoped for, clap for everyone else’s turn, have a cookie and go home.

Then you become praiseworthy for something maybe you hadn’t anticipated (and certainly didn’t hope for) going in, and may ultimately serve you better: your ability to show up and hold your head high even though things didn’t break your way.

Hax believes, reasonably, that the ritual will highlight the fact that she has disappointed herself, and that the perfunctory and ritualized expression of appreciation can only make her feel worse. She has an excessively negative view of herself. We suspect that she is exaggerating, seeing the glass as a lot more than half empty.

Then again, one can only wonder why she would not take pride in whatever successes she has achieved, however limited they were. As it happened, DG feels like a failure. In truth, she might have discovered that the job was not for her. She might have discovered that she would do best to look in another direction.

The key, Hax correctly asserts, is to have a stiff upper lip, not to let them see you sweat, to hold her head up high, and, I would add, resolve to do better the next time. To do much better the next time. As Hax sees clearly, if DG holds her head up she will command far more respect than she would have if she had hung her head in shame. Or if she had failed to attend the meeting.

We would like to know how DG can change her ways, but we know nothing about her or her job.  This tells us that she needs more grounding, that she needs to relate to objective realities and not her emotions. In other words, that she does better to direct her attention away from her feelings and toward her jobs. In short, she should overcome one of the bad habits she seems to have learned from therapy.

1 comment:

Doug Cranmer said...

What the aich. We all fail. Suck it up. Move on. Who cares about anybody else?