Life after micromanagement
May 31, 2018 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm having trouble making decisions and having opinions now that someone actually wants me to. This is bad.

A few years of an extreme micromanagement situation, and I didn't realize how much it had affected me until I got free. I find myself almost shocked by the level of responsibility and leeway I'm now given. But it's really the amount I should have given my experience level.

I also find myself shocked by the level of responsibility the younger people around me have. I feel angry when people who are less experienced and less competent speak so freely and confidently while I spend so much time doubting and overthinking every small decision and word. They can also engage in a little polite push back with superiors and get away with it, but I now fold like a house of cards to people above me because I've had that trained out of me. It makes me look so weak. I also find it difficult to speak plainly and confidently because in the past it's just gotten me criticism, and I think it's hurting me. I feel like people don't take me seriously. Every time someone in authority asks me a question I freeze up and stammer because I'm anxious that it's a "gotcha" type question - because for a few years they all were.

I really need to take initiative now and sometimes it feels like I have blinders on in that it doesn't even occur to me that I can ask to change this or that. It's my habit to wait until everyone else has spoken in a meeting before chiming in, as long as no one has said what I was thinking, and it looks like I have no opinions or ideas.

Mostly I'm just so fucking sick of feeling stupid and inadequate and unconfident. I'm meek and docile and I hate it.

To be clear, this mainly occurs in work environments. I'm just fine socially. I typically speak up and talk to others with ease.

I think I had trouble seeing how bad it really was and am having trouble escaping the mindset now because of my upbringing:

- Raised in a geographical area where communication is more passive aggressive and certain subjects are avoided out of politeness
- A lot of situations growing up where I got the message that my feelings didn't matter
- Just generally being female in our society and getting continuous reinforcement that it's important to be nice and being angry or sharing a strong opinion is bad

Answers I am not looking for:
- "Therapy." Self-help books, therapy groups, or a more targeted professional like a skills coach or something like that is fine.
- Toastmasters or other public speaking groups

Thank you!
posted by unannihilated to Work & Money (10 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not clear on whether it's ruled out as something you are not looking for, so it's possible this is exactly the wrong answer, but -- executive coach or leadership coach.

I don't know if this is already covered under "just fine socially", maybe you already do this sort of thing all the time, but f there's some sort of group you'd have an interest in volunteering in a way that would involve going to meetings, this could give you a place to practice speaking up in meetings more without the stress of those meetings being at work. If there happen to be events you attend that are volunteer run, those get planned somehow, and that might be a place to look -- usually it's a shorter term commitment that leads to a specific event. Though of course that is indeed a group where people are speaking publicly, so again, possibly exactly the wrong answer.

Maybe you could videotape yourself while practicing responses to these situations at home.
posted by yohko at 10:02 PM on May 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm from an Asian culture, very quiet and prefer to blend into background and disappear. Working now in the West has been a bit of a challenge where the expectation is that people with ideas speak up early and frequently even if they aren't hundred percent certain of their answers. Some of the coaching I received -

1) Attend meetings and pay attention to what kind of questions senior management are likely to ask. Learn to anticipate how they think and what questions they are likely to ask. Then prepare the answers to a few top questions before the meeting: or ask those questions yourself if no one brings them up and no one (including you) have the answer.

2) Rehearse those answers. I would sit in my car in car park in the morning before work if there was a presentation or meeting and talk into my mobile phone and play back the recording immediately to improve flow, diction, clarity.

3) It's not enough to present some data to "let management know there is a problem". Always go into discussions with a proposed solution if possible. (you want to be known as a solutions person, not a problems person). It does not matter if your proposal may not be the right one, it indicates to management that you're thinking several steps ahead of the problem at hand.

4) Seek opportunities to present ideas and data, ideally this is what your boss is doing to support your development.

5) The ideal balance is always understanding your role in the org - that you advocate strongly for your point of view and offer proposed solutions and are prepared to back up your views with well considered data and analysis - and part of this is a communication skill, being able to do an elevator pitch (like a viral link or click bait writing) within a few seconds to convince a busy manager that it's worth stopping what they're doing for 3 minutes to listen to you, especially in the middle of a meeting of 10 people. And if management make a decision, they have to know that you can turn on a dime and enthusiastically support their decision 100% even though you advocated for the opposite decision (because that is the job you are being paid to do). For example, I fought against the decision to promote someone because I was advocating for someone else I thought more qualified. My camp lost that decision: afterwards I spent personal time giving additional training and coaching to the employee that got promoted because she would need those skills in her new role.
posted by xdvesper at 10:32 PM on May 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

No answers, just a comment: you are not alone. Thank you for articulating so well exactly where I’ve been at for years. I went from the toxic workplace to one with a nice boss who was completely unqualified to manage. I frequently blamed myself for our awkward interactions. I’m now two weeks in to having a new and incredibly good boss and it’s a revelation. She sees my talents, asks smart questions, listens like she actually believes the things I say have value, and I’m seeing the spark of my old self returning. I wish you the very best in this. All I can add is that you’re being given responsibility and leeway because they think you deserve it. Really try hard to believe them, and then bring the best available you to the table. And take good care of yourself.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 11:01 PM on May 31, 2018 [10 favorites]

From your question, it seems there are a few things going on.

a) you find it difficult to make decisions, and overthink/second-guess everything that you do
b) you resent those who speak more freely than you do, especially those whom you perceive as lower on the social ladder than you
c) you're afraid of criticism/rejection
d) you're concerned that your reticence makes you look passive, apathetic or just stupid.

All of these issues are interrelated, but some are more pressing than others. Some may not even be the big deal that you think it is. For example, not speaking up until you've heard everyone else's input doesn't necessarily have to be seen as a sign of passivity. It could be a sign of wisdom - that you want to hear what others have to say, before you say your piece.

But I think all of your issues stem from insecurity and a lack of self-confidence, that's come about through no fault of your own. And now you want to fix that. Which is good!

But - and here's the thing - a basic thing like self-confidence can't be built up overnight. It needs baby steps.

So here's my suggestion: a two-pronged approach.
1: take your anger at your passive nature and weaponize it.
2: reward yourself mentally with praise whenever you do something right.

Whenever you find yourself being indecisive, get angry. "They don't like my decision? They don't think it's the right decision? Well, too bad. They asked me to decide, and I'm deciding based on the info that I currently have, and if they don't like it then TOO DAMN BAD, they can do it themselves."

When your decision turns out to be the right one, reward yourself mentally. "Hey! Turns out I was right after all. I'm actually better at this than I thought."

When questioned, develop a habit that buys you time to think. I've heard that cleaning your glasses works. If not, then repeat the question back at them. "Sorry, you're asking me why I decided on the purchase of x widget?" That should give you enough time to tamp down the panicked thoughts racing through your brain ("was it the wrong widget? was I supposed to have ordered y? did I order too many or few? - no, hold on, all they've done is to ask me why I decided something. I ordered x widget because it had the best combination of price and specs.") And then you tell that last part to the person who asked. Worst case scenario, you say "give me a minute, I can't quite recall..." or "Let me get back to you on that" and then you just think about it until you have an answer for them.

The other issues, where you resent those who speak more freely than you and you are concerned about how you are viewed by others - those will take the longest to address, because they only go away when you are comfortable with yourself and how you think and speak.

And this whole process can only be expedited by you being kinder to yourself. For years you have been under an oppressive environment. Now the environment has changed, but the oppression comes from within. You judge yourself heavily before others can judge you. So be kind, forgive yourself for your mistakes, and realise that 1. You are your own worst critic and 2. Everyone else is not as great as they seem.
posted by satoshi at 11:43 PM on May 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are in the genuinely supportive and empowering work environment that it sounds like you are, why not try bringing this directly to your boss? Let them know that you think you could be more valuable to the company if you were a bit more assertive—within professionally appropriate limits—but that you're coming from a place where that was discouraged and having a little trouble adjusting. Ask for some guidelines regarding what they consider useful and appropriate assertiveness for your role (as well as what they consider to be out of line) and see if they would be willing to give you periodic feedback as you start to work on this issue and become a bit more outspoken. If you have the right kind of boss and the right kind of work environment, it might work out!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:49 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Breathing exercises, yoga and meditation might help. Journaling about situations where you wanted to say more and didn't feel you could - and coming up with what you could have done differently - might help.

Depending on the company you work for, they might have some training on assertiveness or communication available that you could leverage.

One thing I tried was having a friend role-play scenarios with me (she moved out of town and I have't found anyone to do it). I'd give her a list of situations where I had frozen up or was concerned about not being assertive, and we'd improvise a situation where I could practice saying things like "that seems like a lot for an oil change" or "do you want more from this relationship or not."

Harriet Lerner's books are mostly about family and intimate relationships, but she talks about making small adjustments in situations that make you clench up inside - so her books could be helpful.
posted by bunderful at 4:43 AM on June 1, 2018

Other thoughts - spend some time prepping thinking about the big issues for your team and your own goals. I find it easier to speak up about something when I've thought it out. Prep work can carry you through despite anxiety.

Also - breathing exercises and meditation.
posted by bunderful at 4:58 AM on June 1, 2018

I always recommend Alison Green's Ask A Manager blog and archives for work-related questions. A couple of her columns are Are you haunted by your last bad job? and Ask the readers: times when work warped your thinking, that might help you. There are a lot of people who have been in your same boat. Alison does a great job at moderating and the commentariat there at self-policing so the comments are usually really helpful, too.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:12 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Can I offer a really out there idea? Would you be open to reading books about taking control of one's life after prison? I've seen a few articles about them (especially about "Beyond Bars" by Calvin Johnson) and they all seem to have some focus on taking control after having none. Similarly, you might consider books about life after the military.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:58 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've been where you are. I found that repeatedly reminding myself, "They hired you because you can do this, because this is what you're good at!" helps.

I also found some good methodologies in Susan Scott's book, "Fierce Conversations," which details how to become more assertive in your conversations and hitting that fine line of advocating for yourself and your ideas while catering to the group's needs.
posted by writermcwriterson at 9:25 AM on June 1, 2018

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