Episode 149: Forgiveness at Work

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, how much should we forgive at work…

“If you’re constantly internalizing dozens of these interactions in a day, you have to have an outlet, you have to have a way to let that go.”

Work can be the source of plenty of slights and upset. My guest today says she’s thrived by making forgiveness a career tactic.

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

A couple of shows ago you heard an episode called Forced Out, about leaving a job in bad circumstances. In that show we discussed ways of dealing with painful situations at work from being fired to just having a really poor relationship with your manager. But today the more under the radar stuff gets a lot of attention too – not that they haven’t been around for a while - micro-aggressions, the little things someone will say or do that can make someone feel distinctly like they don’t belong.

Christie Lindor is something of an expert in dealing with them. She describes herself as first generation everything.

“First generation American,, first college grad of my family, first corporate professional.”

Christie’s parents are from Haiti, and Christie was raised in Boston.

“We grew up speaking 3 languages at home, so when you’re always context switching, we spoke French, we spoke Creole, which is a local dialect in Haiti, as well as English, and I hear this happens a lot in bilingual or multigenerational families, we’ll speak one or two sentences and we’ll speak 3 languages together…and we understand eachother, but outside sometimes people are like, you have your own language!”

Her parents entertained the immigrant parents’ dream: that their girl would become a doctor or a lawyer or maybe an engineer. But Christie, once she got to college…she found out about this thing called…a management consultant. And that’s what she ended up becoming after she graduated. She loved the idea of helping clients solve problems, working as part of a team. She’s been at it now for close to 20 years.

I told her I’ve met a lot of recovering consultants over the years.  

“Most people on average don’t last more than 2, 3 years in the business. I had no idea going into it that was the case at first, I just knew it was incredibly hard. There was kind of an elitist club to it – you were either in or you were out. If you were in that meant you had opportunities for apprenticeship, for mentors, for exposure to really cool projects and if you were out, it took a lot more for you to be able to really prove your worth, be able to get a seat at the table, and I had to learn that the hard way.”

She tried not to feel intimidated by the Ivy League graduates around her with their sparkling pedigrees. And she put up with a lot as she started to crack consulting’s culture.  

“In consulting, I usually spend most of my days being the only woman and sometimes the only person of color in the room, and with that comes a lot of subtle but not so subtle acts of whether it’s sexism or racism or ageism…when I was younger there was an ageism thing…there was a lot of biases that just came with my mere existence coming into this space.”

Back in the day, when she first started out, she was just concentrating on being the best she could be, getting the work done. But one incident really took her aback. She had interviewed to be involved on a particular client project. She says in consulting you interview with the client to make sure the role is the right fit for you.  

“So I remember I had a really great interview over with phone with the client and with the engagement manager, I’d had a series of conversations with them, sounds like it was a great fit,  I was really excited about the opportunity I think this was my third or fourth project into my career so right out the gate, within my first two years starting in this type of work. So I flew out to the client site it’s my, first day on project, I was really excited, I was supposed to meet the engagement manager at the security desk, to give me access to the building.”

Now this was in the days before everyone had a photo attached to their online profile. The manager had described himself and what he was wearing that day. So Christie’s standing there in the busy lobby and she knows what she’s looking for.  

“So I remember him getting off the elevator, and I saw him, and he was kind of looking up and down, looking for me to be able to meet up. Since I recognized him from his description and I naturally went up to him, said hey, my name is Christie, I’m so excited to meet you, and I put out my hand to shake his hand. And I distinctly remember, Ashley, the facial expressions he had – his face transitioned from being really upbeat and excited to him being surprised, to being a little confused, to being disappointed, in like less than ten seconds. And then he kind of blurted out, ‘oh, you’re Christie!’”

She says she was clearly NOT what he was expecting. This was about 15 years ago now. Still…

“I’ll never forget it because it was such an awkward elevator ride up to the client site. I’m uncomfortable because he’s uncomfortable, and while you think about that instant, he didn’t really do anything to me. He didn’t harm me. But his non-verbal cues were felt and on a subconscious level. And that really played out. It was a three-month engagement and I had to mentally push that out of my head.  I remember I said to myself you know Christie, you gotta move on and it’s your first day on the project you gotta make a great impression. But deep down that was always nagging and it really affected my experience with him and with the client. And I can think of literally thousands of different types of examples like that, that happened to me on a regular basis. So for me forgiveness became a survival technique. It became something I had to lean on to be able to focus on what mattered, to pivot my energy, for me to be able to kind of not let people’s biases or their stereotypes about me, affect me.”

We’ll talk more about forgiveness in a minute, but first…I wondered, did that awkward situation ever resolve?

“It never really did resolve. I think he got over the fact that I am who I am. He never said anything out of the ordinary to me…I moved it out of my head as I mentioned and focused on the day and the work. But that initial reaction did impact my ability to trust him. So from the get I never really trusted him, and he was a nice guy, I learned a lot on the three months that I worked with him, and I think by the end things were fine, we delivered the work, things were great, but I walked away from the experience not really trusting him, there was never a reason to bring it up. It was early in my career so it wasn’t like I had that kind of courage to bring that situation up to him and honestly Ashley at the time I didn’t really have mentors or anyone to talk to about it.” 

She says internalized it. She did the same with subsequent situations like the time a leader she admired acknowledged everyone else in the room’s ideas…but didn’t even make eye contact with her. Or the time she found out a colleague with 8 years less experience than her was making almost 50% more. 

“I wasn’t sharing as much of myself, sharing ideas, bringing those to the table, I was already an introvert but certain situations I experienced made me even more introverted, made me more quiet. Which obviously in a very collaborative career like consulting being quiet and not being able to share your thoughts and ideas on a particular solution is actually not the best thing to do. So when I caught myself being more internal, even though I was dealing with different things, I realized I had to come up with a different paradigm of how I was interacting with the world in order for me to thrive.”

So she came up with this idea of forgiveness to make lemons out of lemonade, as she puts it. She had to have an outlet, a way to let go, otherwise she says she might just have quit consulting altogether. But one big blow put the whole forgiveness thing to the test. She had worked like crazy all year – as usual – she was always the most knowledgeable, most prepared person in the room. She was expecting a top performance rating and a promotion at the end of the fiscal year.

But she didn’t get one.

She was crushed. And after wallowing for a few days in shock, anger, grief…she decided to take a new tack. She calls it ‘release’ – where you take control of your hurt and upset and use it to move forward. In her case, she realized she had been spending all her energy trying to get ahead within her organization – but no one outside it knew who she was. She couldn’t control what happened at work – at least not as much as she’d like. But she could control what she did next. She set about building her own brand outside of her company – in just over a year she wrote articles, a book, she did a TEDx talk, launched a podcast…and the year after that she even got that promotion. But it didn’t matter as much any more. Because by that time she felt powerful in her own right.

She says too many people still cleave to the idea that if you forgive, you’re letting someone off the hook.

 “There’s a story or belief that’s out there that forgiveness means that everything is OK – or if you’re forgiving someone it means there’s an absolute, someone was absolutely wrong or right in a particular scenario. I’ve had to look at forgiveness in a different light. I’ve had to almost redefine what forgives means for me, and for me it’s more about self-care. There’s a saying out there that I really love – if you don’t forgive someone it’s like you’re drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That’s essentially what happens if you’ve gone through something and you’re holding onto something, it doesn’t serve you a purpose.” 

I relate to that. A painful work experience for me came out of me being pitted against a younger colleague in another city for a job I really wanted and felt I deserved after years of building up to it. I did not get the job. It was a small office, and of course this new person was gonna be around me all day. I was smarting with indignation. Part of me…there was nothing I wanted more than to be snarky or cool with this person because I was feeling aggrieved that they got ‘my’ job. The other part was more mature. I thought, bitter as I feel about what’s happened (and there was a whole history to this), who am I helping by playing to my worst instincts? Management made this decision. I’m just making myself look bad and getting a little petty satisfaction for a while, perhaps…but in the end being mean wasn’t going to serve me any purpose whatsoever. But I did have to swallow hard to do this. Then after being friendly for a while it just became normal. And I did take matters into my own hands and tell the company I needed more money if I was going to stay there. I got a 20 percent raise. So ultimately I came away from the situation feeling that I had channeled my bitter feelings into something more rewarding.

Circling back to a situation Christie outlines in her new workbook, Release – Use the Power of Forgiveness to Get Unstuck and Thrive in your Career. She knows this woman called Quinn. And maybe this rings bells for some of you, but Quinn was an up and coming leader in her 20s, she was promoted to manage a 20-person team. But after that promotion her longtime supervisor, Martha – who’d been with the company ten years – suddenly turned on her. She was verbally abusive, she belittled her in front of the staff. It was awful. After trying HR, with no effect, Quinn thought OK – what do I really want out of this situation? Martha clearly feels threatened by me. But I want her as a mentor, I can learn a lot from her if she’ll only treat me like a human being and be collaborative.

“She said you know what, she said I really want to have a relationship with this individual. I have a lot to learn. Martha will be a great mentor to me even though I’ve come to this supervisory role. So even though she’d gone through a lot with this individual she felt she was at a place where it would be more beneficial to her to repair the relationship and start over, but start over from a lens of ‘let me share what really happened, how it made me feel and what kind of relationship I want with you.’”

Quinn did just that. She approached Martha, told her she wanted to learn from her, she wasn’t trying to take her job. And it worked. The older woman was totally disarmed by her words, and they went on to have a fruitful relationship.

That feels like a very mature approach and it’s one that again it can be hard for us to take when we’re clouded by emotions like anger and hurt and resentment. But it’s worth pausing to think about what you want at the end of the day – not just how aggrieved you feel.  

Finally I asked Christie if she doesn’t at least sometimes take someone to task for something they’ve said or done. She does. Like the time a colleague of hers casually dissed Haitians because he’d had a bad experience with someone. She took him aside, explained to him among other things that Haitians weren’t monolithic; she says she was satisfied with his apology. But she’s careful about who she speaks to.

“I think it’s situational. There have been times I have said something to an individual. There has to be a care factor – I have to care enough about really creating, maintaining, strengthening a relationship with another person to want to be vulnerable and share that, but that’s a choice I decide that I make. It has to be resolved in a way that is mutually beneficial. I have to walk away having voiced my opinion and being heard and the other person walks away hearing a different perspective.”

Christie Lindor is the author most recently of a workbook called Release – Use the Power of Forgiveness to Get Unstuck and Thrive in Your Career.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time, and this is the last episode you’ll heard for a while…I’m putting the show on hiatus for the first time in seven and a half years.

I have a big work project that’s going to dominate much of my time for the next several months. I know I can’t do that and this show well – at the same time – so I’m gonna take a break, and use the time I’m not producing the show to think about where it should go in the future.

In the meantime, there is a large archive for you to delve into. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for your support…and thanks for listening.