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Never Feeling Good Enough
In a world overpopulated with outsize egos, Paul seemed to be an anomaly. He had an ego that was too small for his considerable abilities and his position. A big international bank in New York hired him away from a smaller bank in Texas for a high-profile job taking charge of a group of loan officers who, after some heady early successes, had involved the bank in several dangerous arrangements in Latin America. When the Mexican peso collapsed, the bank had taken a financial bath, suffering tens of millions of dollars in losses. Paul's assignment was to rein in the lending group, to ensure that the necessary "due diligence" had been done on major loans before any further commitments were made.
Paul, who was in his early forties at the time, clearly had both the intellect and the experience to handle the job. Although he had never been a manager, he had considerable know-how as a banker, and Latin America was his specialty. Moreover, Paul had succeeded at everything he had ever done. He had been a top student in both college and graduate business school, and he was promoted quickly through the bank he joined in Dallas after getting his MBA at the University of Texas.
But in his new position Paul was suddenly a misfit--or so it appeared, and so he felt. He was self-conscious and awkward, unable to speak with authority, and unable to comand the respect that he needed to excel. He felt like a little fish tossed into a very big pond, a small-town kid from fly-over country way out of place among East Coast elites. Sure, he had been at the top of his class in school, but in schools without prestigious names. Now he had to take charge of a herd of headstrong and arrogant deal makers with degrees from Harvard, Colombia, and Wharton.
The coterie of loan officers who had been operating on their own before Paul arrived understandably were not delighted to welcome an outsider charged with keeping them under control. Still, if Paul had presented himself as a confident manager, he might have been able to defuse their resentment quickly enough to establish himself as their skillful leader.
But he never demonstrated the confidence and as a result never took command in the fullest sense. He had a look of intensity and concern that sometimes seemed to approach panic. He worked long hours, much too long--and work that he should have been delegating, he took upon himself. His superior, who had hired him, was afraid that Paul was going to burn out. In the eyes of the lenders Paul supervised, he was respected as a hard worker and a technical specialist, but not really admired and certainly not looked up to as a commander.
Troops want a leader who exudes self-assurance. In a battle at sea, sailors want to look up at the bridge and see "the old man" calmly overseeing the battle--not struggling nervously into his life jacket! But everything about Paul said worry. He had no stature in the lending group; people avoided him.
But at his new job, instead of strolling through offices in comfortable command Paul scurried down the halls with an intense, inner-directed gaze on his face that signaled to everyone that he was in trouble. When he stopped to talk to people he was all business, almost curt. There was never any small talk.
Paul was telling people, without knowing or intending to, that he couldn't get away from them fast enough. It was as though if he lingered too long, people would see through him and would recognize that he didn't belong, would know that he was in over his head--and the fact was, he did feel over his head. Instead of looking upward and contemplating whether he might be CEO someday, or at least head of all of International, he was frightened that he had already risen too high. He wondered whether he didn't really belong a peg or two below where he was.
Those in the department followed his instructions when necessary, but they didn't seek out his advice. Nobody invited him to lunch. Meetings were held without Paul being aware of them. One of his colleagues said of Paul, "He's a hard worker...and it shows." Another said, "He's very smart, and everybody respects him--but nobody want to be him." When Paul stepped outside himself and took a close look, he didn't want to be himself either! That was the point at which he came to us.
The Dynamics of Pattern
Paul's actions and feelings fall into a pattern that we've come to think of as a kind of career-related acrophobia. Acrophobia is the term for a fear of heights, or more to the point, of falling from those heights. Paul's "career acrophobia" was born of his belief that he was incapable of surviving on the heights he had somehow scaled. He felt in his heart of hearts that he didn't deserve to be where he had been placed. It's a feeling a surprising number of people have to a greater or lesser extent.
There is a metaphor involving an elevator that graphically conveys his agony and that of those like him. People like Paul feel as though they are on an elevator with their feet stuck on the fifteenth floor while their heads have been carried to the fortieth floor, with their bodies stretched in between. The feel--in fact, they absolutely know--that they're really fortieth floor people and promote them accordingly. That tension sounds excruciatingly painful, or course, and what these people experience is indeed anguishing--we are not, after all, made of rubber.
In fact, the tension is so difficult to bear that people have only two choices. The first is to somehow unhook their feet from the floor down below and "rise to the occasion" of having been picked to move up to a fortieth floor. This is the happily-ever-after scenario. Less happily, people in this position commonly sabotage their own careers, doing things that get them demoted to the level where they think they belong. One person we worked with had committed a series of gaffes so spectacularly stupid that he actually got himself fired--for no better reason, as we discovered, than because he felt he didn't belong where he was.
Of course, Paul's case is somewhat extreme. But a lot of people, because of lack of self-esteem, feel that way and, subtly or more calamitously, undermine themselves or find ways to hold themselves back so they never "suffer" the fate of rising too far or too fast in an organization in the first place. They simply never rise out of their comfort level. One of our clients, a woman who was a competent scientist in her own right, had spent her career acting as the aide-de-camp to a series of others. Another client worked for many years as an editor of others' work. He wrote his own essays and articles but only occasionally allowed himself to "rise up" and take the risk of submitting them for publication.
This pattern of acrophobia carries some special dangers. If you are "running roughshod" over people (Chapter 5), it's going to be obvious to those around you, and you can see evidence of it by stopping to look at the bodies you leave behind. Not feeling that you deserve to go higher and sabotaging your career advancement, on the other hand, is likely to be invisible to other people, and the fear is so difficult to face that it may be invisible to you as well. It takes an extremely astute and psychologically minded friend or manager to notice what you're doing to yourself and point it out to you. Yet without facing the ways you are hamstringing yourself--perhaps by being late with projects, by procrastinating, by failing to exercise initiative or by not going the extra mile you know will get the job done right--you may lose out on new assignments, be overlooked for raises or promotions, and potentially even jeopardize your job if the environment changes.
Michael, for example, discovered this pattern of acrophobic behavior in himself when he was interviewing for jobs in his last year of law school. Michael was a generally self-confident individual with an apperntly high level of self-esteem. He was unaware that he was communicating a sense of uncertainty about himself in his interviews. It was brought to his attention by an interviewer, who pointed out to him that during the interview, every time she (the interviewer) signaled to him that he was the sort of candidate they were looking for, Michael started backpedaling, expressing concern that maybe he really didn't have the experience they needed, saying that he wanted to make sure they knew what they were getting, and so forth.
It was both insightful and forthcoming of the interviewer to give Michael this feedback. Unfortunately, it was too late to salvage his contact with that firm, and even more unfortunate, he had already done himself in with most of the other recruiters he had signed on with. But by recognizing it in himself, he was able to face his fears and change his pattern of behavior in future interviews. The fact is, even if this pattern isn't the one you'd call "home," even if it's a pattern that few other people would associate with you, it is important to recognize it for what it is and factor it into how you behave wherever you are in your career. Even an occasional occurrence of such a "fear of heights" can, if acted out at the wrong moment, do substantial damage to your career aspirations. Everyone is afraid at times of a particular assignment, a new responsibility, a new environment. The key is to not allow that fear to leak out, in unintentional ways, into your performance or behavior.