Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
- Helen Keller

You're on the wrong path


Some conversations are tough as hell for mentors in the workplace, as well as for the person they are speaking to.

Leading with courage and compassion can be a great kindness.

I was lucky enough to have a career mentor who showed me great compassion after I burned out many years ago. Let’s call her “Emily”. I had been digging deep into my emotional and physical reserves for so long I hadn’t realised quite how far down the slippery slope I was until it was too late. My body had shut me down as a survival mechanism.  During my recovery, I had a phased return to work and quickly realised that I did not want to return to the same format of work I had done before.

In one of our check-in meetings, and despite my professionally polished exterior, “Emily” knew I was still exhausted, wearing my emotions close to the surface and not at my best.  I was clinging on to the self-image I had of my capacity for work prior to my burnout as though it was a life-raft. It was not serving me well. How does the saying go? You can’t get out of a mess by using the same thinking that got you into it… or something like that.

“Emily” took a deep breath and gently asked me what I wanted for my life, whether I wanted to continue what I was doing and what other options might work better in this moment.  Still in denial, I offered the rehearsed answers expected of the environment and other options not too distant from the role I was currently doing. My heart sank, that’s not what I wanted at all, I wanted to run and hide under the duvet and have a magic wand fix everything. Of course, I knew that wasn’t an option, but in my depleted state I was finding it hard to decide what to have for lunch never mind make career choices.

“Emily” said that of course it was up to me, but she felt that I’d be far happier doing less travel, being closer to home and doing the elements of the job I enjoyed the most, more often.  She genuinely had my best interests at heart, it seemed hard for her to say. I know that there will be some cynics who will say she was acting in the best interest of the company and she wanted me to resign. I’ll be honest and say that thought occurred to me too, much later when I was fully recovered.  That said, I will forever honour “Emily” for having the courage to have that conversation with me, internally I was an emotional mess and that carries a risk of unknown consequences.  Ultimately, that conversation held up a mirror I couldn’t look away from, I decided to leave and found a less demanding job which gave me the space to get fully back on my feet. Several years later, I left corporate and started my own business.

I have been delivering training on personal resilience for the last 7 years and so I am called to the role of “Emily” from time to time. Sometimes directly, other times supporting someone in HR or a line manager who needs to prepare for a similar conversation.  It’s always tough and the decision always rests with the individual. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is hold up a mirror with absolute compassion and hold the space for the person to see what’s there.

An even greater gift is saying “I’ve been there, I get it, there is a road back to vitality, let me show you how”.

(2 minute video clip from West Wing, "What the hell are you doing, now we're both in the hole!")

Please comment below with other examples of tough conversations that have required you to show up with courage and compassion to support someone else, or when you've been supported.


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