She came home that night, sobbing uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face. It was clear she was coming straight from work since she was wearing a black button-down shirt tucked into dress pants with a pair of heels on. Alisa had spent the last 5 years in her job at a creative agency. She was an account executive, or an “AE” as she called it. She often talked about how it was a tough work environment, one where she had to work long hours, often on the weekends, and had to deal with a very competitive team. This was the type of work where everyone was constantly trying to get one step ahead, always looking for ways to outperform each other and make a good impression in front of the bosses.
As she walked into the apartment, I handed her a tissue and asked her what was wrong. Her only reply was a muffled sniffle as she blew her nose. Walking toward her bedroom, her shoulders slumped while she looked down, feet shuffling across the floor. She was so sad I could feel the despair in the air. As I sat there stunned and helpless, I couldn’t help but think something terrible must have happened. Did someone she loves die? Were they in a bad accident? What could it be?
You see, my roommate was the one that always kept things fun, who made me laugh, who could find meaning in tragedy, light in darkness, and humor in the mundane. As a kid growing up, Alisa had always been told she could be, do, or have whatever she wanted – that she was truly free to create her own path, live out her own life. She had the brains to go after it and the guts to do it – true freedom. Today, she didn’t look so free. Here she was having a total meltdown! This couldn’t be – Alisa always had it so together, she was the type of woman who just sort of adjusted to whatever was going on, took things in stride, rolled with the punches. I often thought of her as having the elegance of an eagle, where if the wind started shifting in one direction or another, she wouldn’t fight against it, but rather would just change to fly with the wind. She usually accepted things as they were, and didn’t resist wishing or hoping things were different. So whatever it was, I knew it had to be serious. Like really serious.
An hour or so later, she came out of her room, now in sweat pants and a t-shirt. I could tell she was ready to talk. With an already opened bottle of her favorite red and some brie cheese with pita chips and grapes ready to go, this was my way of saying I was all ears.
“I’m getting fired,” Alisa said. “I put my time, heart, and soul into this company for 5 f-ing years and they are done with me. I can’t believe it. I just don’t understand this! I mean I heard the words “immediate termination” today but I still can’t believe it is happening! There is so much that I still wanted to do, so much that I wanted to contribute. I feel like I was just starting to hit my stride and making an impact on the company.”
As Alisa went on, she mentioned that her boss hadn’t exactly been her biggest fan. For the last 6 months or so, he was constantly telling her that she wasn’t taking enough initiative, wasn’t doing what she needed to do, wasn’t happy with her performance. She, on the other hand, didn’t understand what he saw. She couldn’t see what he was seeing – she felt like she was doing everything he asked, was on top of her deadlines, was delivering everything he asked her to, was putting in the extra time and effort, was really going above and beyond! The rest of the employees loved working with her, they all seemed to be great friends, and had a lot in common. She just couldn’t see where she went wrong.
“I never did like my boss, he is such a freaking idiot. I don’t understand how he is in the position he is in, and why he has been promoted so many times. Did you know that he uses the corporate credit card, the corporate card to buy food for his family? He takes such advantage of the place! This man literally goes out to eat for every meal, on the COMPANY and doesn’t feel bad about it at all. He is also incredibly sexist! He always makes these off color one liners, like a f-ing frat guy. Everyone around him starts laughing even more, and that only encourages him. I can’t believe HE isn’t the one getting fired. Grow up already! UGH…I can’t stand that guy! What a moron.”
As I talked to her some more, I started to understand maybe, just maybe where things had gone south for her. While I kept listening to Alisa, I realized that she may have had a little bit of an attitude problem. I mean, here she was, complaining to me about her boss. It was clear she had zero respect for him and I am sure he could sense that. As she kept going on and on about how terrible he was and how she didn’t understand why or how he was still working there, a different image of the situation started to emerge in my mind.
I asked her if she had told anyone else about her experience with him, and she said “Yes, absolutely! Anyone that would listen to me, I told them how terrible of a person he is.”
Then I asked, “Alisa, how long has he worked there?”
“He has been there over 20 years.”
“Well, don’t you think after 20 years that there must be a lot of people who support him, who have seen good work come from him, who may even really LIKE him?”
Then, when she mentioned that she had been to HR multiple times to complain about him, things started to become clear. The thing was, it wasn’t the “what” she was doing, it was the “how” she was doing it. She didn’t sound very grateful to have the job that she had so desperately wanted 5 years ago, when she voluntarily walked into the building and interviewed for the position. It seemed like she had lost sight of the way it felt when she didn’t have a job at all, back when she was desperate and vulnerable, having to send out dozens upon dozens of resumes, do countless phone screens, and get prepared for in person interviews. There was a lot she had to do to even be considered for the job she just got fired from! I am sure that her bad attitude was seen among her team and colleagues, which may have influenced how they perceived her.
“Well, did you make any allies while you were there, was there anyone that was on your side?” I gently asked, assuming she would have thought to do so.
“No, I mean they DID assign me with a mentor a few months ago, and she offered to help me with some of my work, was willing to come in on the weekends to assist me, but I wasn’t going to work a weekend for this place! NO WAY.”
I could see, with certainty now, that she was resentful, bitter, and angry towards this company, her boss, and everything in between. She hadn’t taken the time, care, or attention to really try to learn from the people around her. As a result, she lost her positive attitude, ignored all offers for help, and basically shut down, assuming everyone else was the problem, not her. What’s the lesson? Check that attitude…and when at work, it’s best to keep it professional and positive.
Look, there are so many things in our lives and in this world that we have no control over. From the weather to taxes, from politics to healthcare, from traffic to our bosses… often we are at the mercy of a bigger source, greater than all of us, that we have no influence on. As my father used to say, they can take away your house, your car, your money, and your job, but they can’t take away your attitude. The one thing that we have that no one, and I mean no one, can take from us, is our attitude.
Your attitude, positive or negative, is your freedom. Which one are you going to choose?