Barbara’s Story: Unlearning Helplessness and Gaining Influence

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Note: Barbara is a fictional character inspired by common situations and patterns. Clients’ personal stories are and will always be kept strictly confidential.

Our first phone call

“Hello, Audrey. Things have been very challenging at work lately and I am feeling so discouraged that it’s affecting my confidence. I don’t think I can stay here much longer; I need a new job!”

“Barbara, I am so sorry you’re going thought this. Before I ask you about the kind of job you’re looking for, do you mind if I ask you some questions about your current situation? It will help me better understand where you’re coming from and I may have some ideas about how to improve your situation for whatever amount of time you have left there.”

“Actually, I haven’t even had the chance to ask myself what I am looking for specifically. I just don’t want to deal with the dysfunction, the favoritism, the lack of accountability, and the politics anymore. Just this morning, my boss overruled a decision I had made and now I look like a fool. People are quick to go over my head and my boss makes decisions without having enough information or consulting with me.”

“What’s been your approach so far to address this with your supervisor and your direct reports?”

“I can’t talk to them. There is no point. We don’t respect hierarchy here. People play favorites and there is nothing I can do about it.”

“Are there some people you respect who can offer you support? For example, do you have any quality relationships with other members of The President’s Cabinet?”

“People are too competitive instead of collaborative. I can’t trust them. I always have to watch my back.”

“How are you currently coping with the lack of trust and team spirit?”

“I am sick of being dismissed so I don’t speak up anymore. I am tired of feeling powerless so I don’t try to improve things any longer. I am trying to have a thicker skin and not let things get to me but everywhere I look, I see injustice. I don’t know how to stop caring.”

The root cause of the problem

As the conversation unfolded, it was clear that Barbara was so discouraged by what she observed that she became helpless. Her attention was solely focused on noticing injustice and dysfunction, which aggravated her on a daily basis, and left her no energy or creativity to start thinking about solutions. Deep down, she dreamed of changing what she deemed unacceptable, but she had become a judge rather than a problem-solver. Her criticism intensified her own pain. Even when she was off the clock, she couldn’t relax and enjoy life because she was ruminating and unable to compartmentalize.

As much as I wanted her to have what she desired – a fresh start at a new job – I knew that she would take her criticism and powerlessness with her and was likely to be dissatisfied again. To improve her chances of success and fulfillment, I suggested working on two goals during the same timeframe, (1) job search and (2) leadership development.

Instant relief from stress and helplessness

Guiding Barbara to take her attention away from the things she judged and focusing on the next chapter she wanted to create in her career gave her an immediate sense of relief. She started to realize that she had lots of options and was in no way powerless. Reading job descriptions of open positions gave her a chance to picture herself having a new life. She started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Once we established rapport and trust, I helped her see how her sense of helplessness had kept her from doing what was in her power to influence what was happening. Every time she told me something was impossible or hopeless, I helped her question her assumptions and see possibilities that weren’t apparent to her before. She not only felt better; she was excited about implementing the strategies we discussed and felt hopeful again.

Reclaiming her power as leader

During our weekly sessions, we tackled one problem at a time. First, we worked on shifting the dialogue from what “should not be happening” which used to infuriate her and make her feel powerless, to what she “wanted to see happen.” Once she could articulate what she wanted to do (e.g. “I want to speak with my boss about consulting with me and supporting my decisions) we were then able to plan how she was going to broach each topic and strategically influence decisions. Her mind was no longer limiting her because she had shifted from criticism to empowerment.

We strategized before every sensitive meeting to make sure she was not speaking in a defeated or defensive manner and that she knew how to become more influential. Her most powerful breakthrough was to realize that what she thought was favoritism was simply people choosing to work with people who were easy to work with and avoiding those who were too confrontational or unsupportive. By changing her own mindset and outlook, Barbara felt safe enough to trust others and radically changed the nature of her relationships.

She realized that most of the past incidents that used to make her feel dismissed, excluded from conversations, or disrespected, were actually the results of her guarded attitude and criticism. Barbara no longer felt like a victim and didn’t have any reasons to quit her job anymore. However, her job search resulted in an offer too tempting to refuse. She left her university, not because she had to, but because she was ready to serve at a higher level.

Barbara is a fictional character but this story is extremely common. It is natural to try to understand why people do what they do, but if the story we create in our minds turns us into helpless victims, we need a better story! Focusing on others is never the solution; empowerment comes from doing the best we can with situations we face, rather than becoming critical.

If you are struggling at work, I invite you to click here to schedule a time to speak with me. It’s time to discover a more empowering perspective and change your mindset and outlook. I also would love to share with you my most powerful techniques to gain influence and improve confidence. You can feel much better long before you accept a new position elsewhere. Talk to you soon.

 About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.