In a Café at Work

“I have a story about fear at work for you.”

David* declared this as we sat down to lunch in the café in my office building. He and a colleague worked in the private sector and were visiting A Human Workplace: Olympia from another state. I forgot about my lunch as he shared his story:

When I was consulting to the US Army, I worked under a wonderful General.  He was a humble, wise leader who treated people well. Even though I was just a contractor, he demonstrated that he valued me and my work. He gave me support, opportunities to grow, and recognition when I did well. Shortly after I left, he deployed to Afghanistan. 

A couple years later, when I was working for a defense contractor, the entire organization was summoned for a VIP visit.  I was surprised and excited to see that same General now speaking at my new company! 

After his speech, I made my way to the front of the room where he was talking with the C-Suite and VP level leaders.  He saw me approaching and interrupted a VP to enthusiastically greet me and vigorously shake my hand. He praised my work to the executive team.  I was grinning from ear to ear, and hoped that I’d be able to leverage my relationship with him as an asset to the company. 

I returned to my cube and about an hour later my phone rang - sure enough it was one of those VPs.  He asked me to come to his office.  As I made the walk, I brainstormed to myself about how I could help the company with this relationship.  Would I work more with Sales?  Would I just have this one meeting and be done? 

As I opened the VP's door, I quickly realized none of these things would be happening.  An HR representative and my own manager sat in the mahogany office as well.  I was sternly asked to close the door.  The executive behind his desk pointed his finger right at my face. 

"You will NEVER speak directly to a VIP at this company again.  Who do you think you are!?" 

I flashed back to the days of my mother's discipline. 

"Are we clear?"  He shouted. 

My face was now beet red as I searched for words.  "Yep." I answered.  And I left. 

The day after my contract was up, I left that company.

David told me that VP was internationally renowned and successful by every worldly measure. But in this moment he failed. Fueled by arrogance, he used his position to intentionally induce fear in David to “keep him in his place.” But his organization paid a high price for his ego: He cost them a capable, smart, enthusiastic employee.

This cautionary tale is a reminder that a fearful workplace is really bad business. 

Everywhere I go I hear stories of fear and love in the workplace.

Everywhere I go.

*This story is used with permission. Names have been changed for privacy.