On the play ground, I’ve always hated when mothers say “it doesn’t matter who started it.” I understand that it is often difficult to unravel and unpack the exact trigger for a fight or an argument — and how an exasperated parent may not want to unpack who started it. 

However between you and me – I’ve always found not holding the instigator accountable problematic. One of the things I practice and coach folks on is acting in a way that makes sense in terms of game theory – and that involves understanding if you are in a cooperative or transactional environment. As a creative and collaborator I do my best work in environments where people can open up, explore and trust.

Unfortunately trust is fragile

Recently I was in a situation – where a collaborator refused to do her job, refused to be held accountable, and more than that started try to hold other people accountable; condescendingly telling them they couldn’t do their job because they didn’t understand her specific domain. Then she came after me. 

Oh boy. I’m not going to lie, she pissed me off. Yes, I know I’m a meditation teacher and I’m supposed to be all zen and calm. But I am also human and her lack of humility, her lack of self-awareness and her need to take all the credit was tough to swallow. I also don’t have any direct authority over her, so I had to be careful about how I responded.

She was so convinced that she was right it was like talking to a brick wall. She was armored up and used to stream rolling over everyone – which given her primary job was great – but when it comes to creative collaboration is counter productive. Unfortunately, she clearly wanted to be doing the create “cool” work – since she kept trying tried to assume leadership on those projects – but was completely unaware of how her domineering destroys the contribution of others – much less how little she understood about the actual project. 

Working with her, felt like going into battle. I had to armor up, move slowing, not rise to her baiting and double check and document everything she said. It took a lot of effort and frankly I wanted to cut her down. When she patronized me, I wanted to point out how she was not as smart as she thought she was. How she was totally lacking in self-awareness and how it was hurting the work. 

Unfortunately like many bullies, she was also very good at only picking one target at a time – and unfortunately for a time that was me. I watched as she was all sweetness and light to others, especially those that have clear authority. Me? – she saw me stepping on her turf and she did a lot of subtly, insincere and dirty tricks to stall/delay and obstruct the effort – to keep me off her turf and preserve her power. 

Did I start it? 

Perhaps, being good at my job, reviewing her work and holding her accountable to her word – is threatening. It’s obviously an area she wanted to be in and wants to be in control of. Still, she has revealed that she is a taker, and non-cooperator.  Those of you who know game theory know that when dealing with takers, we can’t be a giver. The right strategy is to act in a transactional way. This is what I coach clients on all the time. But holy crap is it hard. 

It’s hard to compartmentalize, to continue to be open, transparent, honest, and collaborative – knowing that there is a snake on the team, just waiting for an opportunity to point out any mistakes or failures – waiting to blame me for the same hubris and pride she possesses – that she does not hesitate to project onto me. As you imagine it is not conducive to psychological safety and I know if I fully I armor up – reacting and even defending myself – she will play the victim – accusing me of being the instigator. 

And maybe she’s not entirely wrong. 

I am powerful – even when I don’t do anything. I am strong and I know my stuff and am wise enough to get help when I don’t. It breaks my heart but even when I am kind and collaborative there are some people who are going to be threatened by my competence, who are going to want what I have. I love teaching folks — but I can’t share with a taker, because once I do, I know she’ll do everything she can take get rid of me and “lord it over” everyone else.

I can lead my example but I only have as much power and authority as I do. I have to let my leadership manage this – I have to trust my leaders – while at the same time act in such a way that that preserved my energy and quality of work.

That’s why we need leaders (or parents) to preserve boundaries, to maintain cultures of trust and hold people accountable when they disrupt those cultures. Yes – perhaps we should turn the check or walk away once may be even twice – but after awhile enough is enough. After a while if you don’t stop folks from “starting it” we’ll have to deal with what happens when it’s finished. 

Photo by Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash

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