When I tell people about my job I often get enthusiastic responses.
“That’s my dream job,” people will say, with a big smile and bright eyes. And I understand because for a long time being an OD consultant was my dream job too. But OD consulting isn’t my dream job any longer. It’s my real job. And while there are plenty of beautiful moments I am no longer sashaying from project to project with rainbows shooting out of my ass.
Yes, my work is positive and life-affirming. But being at the center of organizational change can be emotionally difficult. There is a dark side, and I’ll tell you what it feels like.
- Sometimes it takes me days or weeks to “shake off” the negativity that I pick up like lint from a difficult set of meetings.
- I’ve had a client “use me” to bring people hope and enthusiasm (temporarily) without intending to follow through.
- I’ve brought difficult feedback to the surface and it blew up in my face.
- I’ve seen someone I trusted use my words to“prove someone else wrong” in a petty argument.
- I’ve had clients lie to me (and their teams) because they were worried about looking bad.
- I’ve had a CEO ask me “who he should fire” after facilitating a team building day. He didn’t like my answer (no one) and I wasn’t invited back.
- I’ve had an executive pull me aside and tell me (with great sadness) that as much as my efforts were appreciated the organization’s leadership didn’t really want to change, and our work was ultimately pointless.
Even though I have twenty positive stories for every bad one, there are times when being a facilitator breaks my heart.
Last winter was unusually tough, and one particular day comes to mind. I’d been raked over the coals by a client during a difficult meeting. Afterwards I drove my rental car to a Taco Bell parking lot so I could bawl my eyes out in private. I had just texted P to tell him I was going to cry for another 20 minutes to get it out of my system before I got on the freeway to come home because I didn’t want to crash the car. And that’s when my heart whispered:
i don’t know if I can do this anymore
In ten years of OD consulting that was the only time I’d ever seriously considered quitting. Up until then I’d been able to roll-with-the-punches, but all of the sudden my work seemed untenable.
What had changed? Where had I lost my way?
I’ve been searching for my answer.
The Problem with Idealism
Most of the OD people I’ve met have something in common. We do this work because we care deeply about things like fairness, honesty, progress, and helping other people have a voice. We’re idealists! We believe in the goodness of people. We feel that goodness. And as a result we tend to put our hearts on the line when we walk into a conference room or when we start a project.
I wasn’t crying in my car that day because the meeting was hard. Hard meetings happen and I can take my share of tough feedback. I was crying because I’d believed deeply in my client and I felt that they had let me down. I felt like everything we’d been working towards was a lie. And I was ashamed of myself for being duped.
I was heartbroken. I felt like a teenage girl who had fallen in love and belatedly realized she’d been dating a jerk and everyone knew it except for her. And because I was so focused on my own feelings of betrayal I wasn’t able to do my job, which was “girling up” and dealing with the immediate issue of what had happened in that meeting.
What a mess!
Putting Away the Pedestals
Consulting work pushes me, hard. What I learned last year is that I have a tendency to put my clients up on a pedestal.
These are the good guys, I tell myself. And then when they fell off the pedestal and proved that they were as human as anyone else I got all butthurt about it. Change is hard and I expect a certain amount of struggle, for sure. But integrity failures make me feel personally betrayed. Things like not following through. Not being honest. Being disrespectful. Not taking the work seriously. Being closed off to feedback. Using me as a ping-pong ball in a petty squabble. Being mean.
We all make mistakes. Hell, I know I do! But I don’t think that heartbreak is the correct response to client behavior. Therefore something in my thought process needs to change.
I think I need to replace my idealism with something healthier. Pragmatism?
Because when an Idealist gets her heart broken she thinks:
I believed in you.
I threw my heart into this.
I thought you walked the talk.
I told your employees they could trust you.
I thought *I* could trust you.
But I was a chump!
But when a Pragmatist has a bad interaction she thinks:
Perhaps should explore this.
Surely there is something to learn here.
After all, we all have bad days,
And if it turns out this leader is horrible after all,
I can probably help, if they want help,
And if that doesn’t work, I can walk!
I’m a free agent, after all.
Pragmatism seems healthier. More professional certainly. And also a tiny bit sadder. There is a part of me who mourns the old-Cheri who could pop into a meeting full of naive belief that all people were inherently trustworthy.
- I used to waltz into a new project full of hope and optimism, convinced that my clients were going to “fight the good fight” and operate with integrity 99% of the time.
- I never used to worry about covering my own ass.
- I accepted what people told me at face value without looking for (or expecting) deception.
- I assumed that so long as I was honest and I was respectful that others would value what I brought to the table.
- I assumed when people said they were willing to do the work, they always meant it.
Looking back on the way I used to be, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I miss my blind idealism. It felt so good! But I’m glad I’m not being a Pollyanna any longer. Old-me was sweet but she was also pretty naive.
When it comes to my work I still trust but I expect people to earn it. I still believe but it’s not unconditional belief. I’m a lot more skeptical than I used to be, back in the day. And I’m better able to see the truth of what’s in front of me, both the good and the bad.
Being a facilitator can break your heart. Being a facilitator might even change your heart. I hope these changes are for the better. But are they?
Whenever I ask myself that question, my heart whispers:
do your work with love
and have faith
Faith in what, I want to know.
have faith and you’ll see, she answers.