Enspiral Story Dojo #03 — “The Saviour” and other lies we tell children
Story by Rupert Snook
Imagine this. A friend is having a hard time, and you want to support them. You decide to cook them a nice dinner. You spend a bit of time thinking about the healthiest ingredients to put in. You start feeling inspired. This dish is going to be healthy and delicious! Your friend is going to love it, and it’s going to be just what they need. What a great friend you are.
So you take your beautiful dinner over to your friend. But, they’re already eating. They look at you, confused. Why did you bring them dinner, of all things? They already have dinner. And why does it look so healthy? Are you trying to insinuate that they don’t take good care of themselves? Who are you to judge?
You’re absolutely gutted. In just a few seconds, you’ve gone from great friend to annoying judgement maker.
I had an experience like this over the last year. It was one of the most challenging experiences I’d ever faced. It was also an opportunity to do some of the deepest learning I’ve ever done.
I’d like to tell you about it. Settle in for a story of best intentions creating the worst outcomes. A story of idealism meeting reality. And if you’ve ever faced a similar challenge, this could be a story of hope for you.
The offer: engagement and purpose
We were talking about healthy ingredients before — but imagine eating a food that feels so good for you, it changes your relationship to food. That was my experience of joining Enspiral, a collective of purpose-driven people with very high collective EQ. The first bite gave off the “people” flavours: being part of a great team, collaborating, having fun, caring about each other. But wait, what’s this? On top of that, we can work on things that we really care about? We can make meaningful impact in the world? That was an upgrade from good team to awesome community.
It was an intoxicating experience for a first timer like me. Every day at work felt like a modern day utopia, and I was loving it. The word “work”, with all its connotations of toil and begrudging effort, didn’t seem like the right word to describe it.
But something was nagging at me. What about the rest of the world, the people who aren’t working this way? We’re building up some amazing practices here at Enspiral, but what if the Enspiral DNA only lives in our bubble? It was an uncomfortable, itchy thought. Having a nice time inside the bubble was no longer enough. I was ready to break out, to transform the rest of the world with the insights that I had gained from doing values-driven work with values-driven people.
So I started sniffing around for jobs outside Enspiral. I found the biggest, most hierarchical organisation that I thought I could find. It was a bank. A perfect contrast, a perfect fit for my transform-the-world mission. I would offer this bank everything: engaged people, engaged teams, inclusive culture, purpose-driven work, self-management… all the applications of Enspiral DNA that I could imagine.
I was feeling good. Having experienced the joys of the future of work at Enspiral, I wanted to bring the things I’d been learning to the biggest traditional company I could find. And I’d found one that was willing to hire me! I was all set up to bring our beautiful Enspiral values to the poor suffering working stiffs of corporate New Zealand.
This big bank — they would be the ones who needed our Enspiral values and practices the most, right?
Falling on hard times
I took a deep breath, and walked through the bank doors as an employee for the first time. It was nerve-racking to see so many new and unfamiliar faces, but I knew I had my ideals and values in my back pocket — I drew strength from my resolve to make this working environment a better place.
Ok, let’s start small by introducing some collaboration. Who’s ready to work on something together with me?
… Resounding silence …
… Everyone is avoiding eye contact …
My face fell. This was going to be harder than I thought.
That sums up my first few moments at the bank: excitement followed by a lot of trepidation. What had I gotten myself into?
Not to be discouraged by this initial setback, I continued to speak fervently about the value of engagement and collaboration. My new team eyed me up nervously, and kept doing what they were doing.
Damn. This isn’t working! I’d better push harder. I spoke more, I waved my arms. My gentle encouragements turned into more forceful suggestions. People around me started pushing back. Doggedly, I kept on trying, sure that I would find a way in soon. But the resistance just grew stronger. Things started boiling over into conflict. It weighed heavily on me.
How were things going so wrong? It was the first pivotal steps of my dream mission to save corporate New Zealand. And here I was, tangled up in interpersonal conflict and disagreement. I was trying to bring the bank and the “future of work” closer together, but at that moment, they couldn’t have felt any further away.
The downward slide continued. Even though I’d arrived with the mission of changing the bank’s culture, that wasn’t the job I’d been hired to do. I was a business analyst, and I’d been hired to do a business analyst’s job. And I was finding out that being a business analyst was a lot harder than I thought. It needed every iota of my time and energy to learn, and that meant there was nothing left for my mission of culture change. I was feeling very green, and very out of my depth.
My idealistic missionary zeal was turning into shyness. I was struggling to build meaningful relationships with people. I no longer had any time or energy to be creating the impact that I wanted to create. My days were full of conflict, self criticism, feelings of inadequacy and the unfulfilled desire to connect.
Falling on harder times
I was smiling when I said my fond farewells to her at the airport. The smile probably didn’t look very genuine, but hey, I was doing my best. We kissed, she went through the departure gate. I sat down on the floor and stared at my knees for a few dozen minutes. Things had been hard enough before, but now I was standing on emotional quicksand.
I had just watched my partner Jody, one of my key support people, leave the country. I knew she wouldn’t be back for months. My personal life was following the same trend as my work life: things were falling apart. I was losing my natural ability to see the best in people, and started noticing I had less kindness in me. I have two old friends that have been with me always — one is called Resilience, the other Optimism. These old friends had now walked out the door, with no note saying when they would be back.
This felt like a fundamental change of identity. Sometimes, I’d hear the things I was saying in a conversation, and it felt like a stranger was talking out of my mouth.
Many times, I thought about leaving the bank. I fantasised about going back to Enspiral to lick my wounds. I fantasised about a trip overseas to meet my partner, taking a few weeks holiday to recover. But none of this happened. Somehow, mostly through stubbornness, I hung on and kept working.
A glimmer of hope
Suddenly, a ray of sunshine emerged from the black clouds. That ray’s name was Justin Connor. Justin is a strategy expert, someone who’s used to dealing with massive global initiatives and high-powered people, to help them find the way forward. He offered to help me, to apply his formidable strategy facilitation skills to my life.
We met for a coaching session. I talked, he listened. He wrote things on a whiteboard, reflected them back, and helped me to see the patterns. We made three discoveries:
- I had a serious saviour complex, wanting to “save” people from the suffering I was assuming they were experiencing. My sense of self-worth depended on whether I could force other people to act in line with my values, so that they could live a life that I assumed would be more fulfilling to them.
- I was trying to come in with solutions. I’d seen things working so beautifully at Enspiral, and wanted to cross-pollinate the Enspiral DNA in this corporate environment. But I wasn’t talking to anyone at the bank to understand what their actual problems were. I was just imagining what problems I would have if I was in their position.
- I had a core belief that if things weren’t working, it’s because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was too stubborn to change my approach or leave, because that would feel like running away from a challenge.
In summary. I was so set on bringing the future of work to the bank, that I lost sight of the very people I was trying to help. And I couldn’t stop trying to help, because my ego was too attached to getting results.
Luckily at Justin’s session, we discovered the possibilities for a different way forward (shown in yellow and green in the image)
Great! I had seen the light, knew what I could try next, and felt empowered to take the first steps. Change was afoot.
A solution emerges?
Bank leadership team: Rupert, you’ve been recommended for a leadership position. You should be very proud. Do you want the job?
Mental voice 1: Same place, different job, that’s one of the options you dreamed up with Justin! And it’s just being offered to you on a plate! You can finally make some change happen as a leader! What incredible luck!
Mental voice 2: Actually, I don’t like the look of this. It’s new, and it looks threatening. Besides, you’ve been enduring fine in your current position, why bother rocking the boat and moving?
Mental voice 1: How can you be resisting? Didn’t those new possibilities feel so empowering when you figured them out just a few days ago? Why don’t you want to change now?
Bank leadership team: Sorry, but it doesn’t matter how much you resist. We need you to move into this new job, and you need to do it immediately.
Have you ever been in the position of thinking you wanted something new, but the moment you find it, you discover you’re not as ready for change as you thought you were?
And now imagine that you’re forced to accept the new thing anyway. What would you do?
Would you walk away?
Would you work on yourself to understand where the resistance is coming from?
Unfortunately, I no longer had the resilience to invest in making good choices. I chose a bad response to this situation — I chose to pretend. I pretended to myself that this was the new role was what I wanted. After all, it was one of the new ways forward that I was so excited about before. I hoped desperately that “fake it til you make it” was going to pull me through.
But here’s the problem with pretending. I was selling it to myself, but deep down, didn’t really believe it. It’s very painful to mislead yourself, and conversely allow yourself to be misled. Justin had helped me to see what I needed to do — and yet, I was holding on to my existing patterns, unable to invest in this new way forward.
So here we were. I’d experienced huge challenges, but had found a glimmer of hope. Seeing that glimmer of hope had used my last reserves of energy. A pathway had opened up, showing me a possible way out of this predicament, but I had no energy left. I couldn’t even take one more step.
This moment was the real rock bottom.
Turning things around
In this geography, we’re often taught to seek answers from inside ourselves. But after hitting rock bottom, I discovered something different. When I really needed it most, help started to arrive from the outside. Although Justin had helped me to discover an answer from inside, it needed lots of encouragement from other people before that answer could bear fruit.
The people around me could see that something was wrong. Malcolm from Enspiral sat me down, saying he’d never seen me so unhappy. We talked. It helped to bring a little more clarity. The seed that Justin had planted grew a little stronger.
Some good things happened at the bank. The new people I was working with were awesome. I was spending more time around leaders, people with strong values and a collaborative style. It felt a little like Enspiral, kind of like a visit back to the hometown. My seed was growing stronger still — strong enough for me to ask for more help.
So I asked Derek Bond, an awesome agile coach at the bank, for a one on one coaching session. We talked about some of the challenges I was facing. He summarised them beautifully, and honed in on a very important point. I had come to the bank for a reason. I wanted to encourage more engagement, more purpose, stronger alignment to values. But that drive to grow purpose wasn’t right for the role I was in. He helped me to see that the opportunities I wanted didn’t exist at the bank, so I had to look elsewhere.
Reaching out for help was a good thing. Derek, Justin, Malcolm, my partner: all this external input had finally pushed me over the threshold. I started looking for new opportunities, applying for other jobs.
On the road — finally!
I still remember that first moment of clicking “send”. One CV, winging its way through the ether towards a new possible job. What a moment! After months of challenge, self-criticism, frustration… finally there was momentum towards something new and exciting. Such a small step — just one click of a button — but such an important outcome.
Now that things were moving again, it was time to get serious, time to think about what a new life could look like. I was starting to dream, and I wanted some tangible ways to reach those dreams. Lo and behold, more help arrived! I met Tamara Buckland, another awesome coach. Tamara helped me to see two key things:
- The value of a strengths-based approach. I was focusing on my weaknesses, trying to plug my gaps by learning new skills. But generally humans are much more effective at using their strengths to learn new things and build confidence.
- A different strategy for changing culture. I could experiment with creating change by simply modelling the behaviours myself that I wanted to see in people around me. If those behaviours were right for the environment, then people would naturally start to adopt them.
I was pumped. I went in to work at the bank, ready to act on these insights.
And the strangest thing happened! I got lots of energy from the people around me. I got lots of signals that the culture of the teams around me was improving in a positive way. This is what I had been looking for since day one. Remember that saviour complex we talked about before? About coming in thinking I knew why the bank was suffering, and I had all the solutions? Following a strengths-based approach had pushed all of that to the side. Life was so much easier without trying to save people.
Rediscovering what was lost
Suddenly, it didn’t seem like I needed to leave the bank any more to end my suffering. I had options, I could go where I wanted. Staying there looked great. And who knew, maybe a new opportunity would pop up somewhere else, that looked even better.
It didn’t matter which path I chose, because I had rediscovered something I lost. I had found that space of non-attachment again — that awesome feeling of not having any ego attached to what happens.
Long ago, I had taken a first idealistic step to try and bring Enspiral values to corporate New Zealand. My idealism was shattered on the sharp rocks of reality. My ego was caught up in wanting others to validate that the Enspiral cultural DNA is the right stuff — the best way to bring maximum happiness to working people. And that ego led me to a dark place.
Now, ego is gone. And it’s so much simpler to sow the seeds of trust, joy — even culture change — without it there. Gone is the feeling of responsibility to fix the things that are broken about corporate New Zealand work culture. And in its place, there’s a feeling of acceptance. Acceptance that it’s possible to change things by focusing on strengths, and using those strengths to model different behaviours.
All of this was only possible with a lot of help from a lot of people. And so — a final note to you, the reader. If you ever find yourself in a position like this, I hope this story reaffirms that you’ll find your way out eventually, even if it doesn’t work on the first go.
Somewhere, somehow, someone can help.
This tale was about (and written by) the Rupert Snook, a software team facilitator and Balinese percussion enthusiast living in Wellington, New Zealand. He is part of Optimi, an Enspiral venture that automates people’s admin so they can work on the stuff that matters. Narrative support by Joriam Philipe, Enspiral catalyst.
An extra note from Rupert: If you’re looking to make a work related change, I can recommend getting in touch with Justin Conner, one of the coaches who helped me: justinconnornz at gmail dot com
Enspiral Story Dojo #03 — “The Saviour” and other lies we tell children was originally published in Enspiral Tales on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.