I started my career as an intern in 2010 and by 2016 I had climbed my way up the corporate ladder to be awarded the title Account Director. All the while, I was trying to be the best manager I could be.
Managing people is never easy and no one trains you for this role. One day you’re taking orders from someone, the next thing you’re responsible for another team member’s career development.
It’s a daunting task, with your superiors putting pressure on you to achieve results while trying to train, mentor, upskill and understand your staff members who you are managing. To be honest, it can all be a bit much. I learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t and how to get the most out of your teammates.
What really helped was that I’d always been lucky enough to have supportive leaders to look up to… until I didn’t.
In the workplace, one of the biggest lessons I have had to learn the hard way is how quickly things can change – and how office politics can derail your career.
In my case, a charismatic team member had developed a grudge against me and before I knew it, I found myself in a bad situation that I was unknowingly contributing to.
The mentor I looked up to was in mutiny against me, refusing to acknowledge any good I had done and even going out of her way to find the bad in my actions. It was incredibly demoralising, but I still thought I’d overcome it. Truth be told, I couldn’t.
Putting my situation into context
The team leader whom I got along well with immigrated. New leadership was brought in, something we’re all familiar with if we’ve had corporate careers. Our new team lead was charismatic, great with words and seemingly efficient. Two team members quickly resigned because of her hard leadership style, but I brushed this off.
Then she turned her attention to my support staffer, telling me that I needed to be tougher on her. I saw my team lead as my mentor. She convinced me that this individual was not performing, and that we needed to upskill her. Tough love was the only way to do it. And so, I got tough. Two months later, she had an anxiety attack and resigned.
The whole situation killed me. I felt personally responsible and vowed that when her replacement was hired, I wouldn’t play the ‘tough love’ game. The problem was that I was quickly realising I had no authority. I couldn’t call any shots.
Going from bad to worse
My team leader became friendly with the support staffer, started running me down and essentially gave someone six positions lower than me the authority to tell me what to do.
So, what do you do in a situation like this? My solution was to be so good that the company as a whole couldn’t ignore me. I’d do the work, always deliver, and eventually my team lead would realise that even though she had tried to break me, she couldn’t. I’d be free to live my life again.
Right. The more work I pushed out, the less sleep I got. I was tired and less creative than usual. I’d burst into tears because I was completely exhausted and frustrated. I started doubting everything I did. I wasn’t thriving. I was just trying to survive and keep the job I loved.
I was told that my tone rubbed people up the wrong way. My tone? Next was my skillset. I was told my writing was so shocking, I couldn’t even be trusted to write an email. Wow. My response, ‘You know that magazines pay me money to write op-eds for them, right? And I blog on the side for fun’. I’ve never heard complaints about my writing before. Now suddenly at a director level, I can’t write anything, not even an email.
I started getting weak, physically, mentally and emotionally. I would play inspirational videos while getting dressed for work and on the drive to the office. I was struggling to find inner strength, so I started seeking strength from the likes of T.D Jakes and Les Brown.
At this point, I was in tears weekly. I made a point to take a picture of myself in the bathroom looking like a hot mess and I told myself every time, this is the last time you’ll let them do this to you. They will not break you; this ends now. But there’s only so much abuse that one woman can take before she admits defeat.
Trying anything and everything
HR: I met with HR, explained that I felt I was being discriminated against and was being targeted. We then had a meeting with my team leader, her boss and myself. We all aired our views and that was that.
One-on-one: I had one-on-one meetings with my team lead, these didn’t go anywhere.
Talk it out: I had meetings with her boss. He didn’t come from a PR background and he sided with her on everything.
Reflection: I took a step back, I admitted that perhaps I was the problem and asked for help to rectify the situation.
The source: I tried to find the source of the problem, but I was told it was all me and I was highly inefficient at my job.
Please help me: I asked for help, I asked for guidance. I asked for training. The feedback I received was that I was hired at a certain level, I was expected to perform at a certain level and that they didn’t have time to train me to do the job I was expected to do. I was astounded. How was I a rockstar for almost two years and now suddenly I was terrible at everything? I was told that I was never great at my job. Clearly, the awards I had won for both myself and our client, and the bonus and raise I received, plus all the positive feedback were just lies? How do you even fight that?
One last ditch attempt: I hired a life coach and started seeing a psychiatrist to help me deal with the pressure. I was told that I am not a psych case, that the challenges I am facing are environmental and it’s my CHOICE to stay in this situation. She told me I could leave any time I wanted to.
I was given an anti-anxiolytic to help me cope, the script was for 6 months and I was told that I would not be getting another script after that and her professional recommendation was that I had 6 months to find another job.
I fought for eight long months to keep the job I loved until I couldn’t anymore. I finally realised that my happiness was more important than a career, especially one who allowed a toxic team member to break people down.
What saved me? An incredible friend, graphic designer and ‘Peaches in the Wild’ blogger, Amanda Bussio. I hadn’t seen Amanda since high school, and when we caught up, she couldn’t believe my situation – I was so talented, and yet I was staying in a job that didn’t fulfil me at all. Did I know I could freelance and become my own boss? What a liberating idea.
I chose to walk away from emotional turmoil. I chose happiness and inner peace instead. I chose to start my own business, to become my own boss.
My advice to someone else in this situation is this: If you’ve tried all the steps mentioned above and nothing changes, resign.
I could’ve saved myself months of mental and emotional abuse. When I left, I was a shell of the warrior I was when I started there. I was not confident, I didn’t believe in myself. It took me time away from the situation to find myself again.
Pulling it all together
To help with my confidence, I said I would work on myself and I would turn my weaknesses into strengths.
My writing was apparently terrible. So, my goal was to get one opinion piece published within the next three months. I got one op-ed published every week for nine consecutive weeks until I realised my writing was never the problem. The way my team lead had felt about me was the problem.
I worked on my strategy; my goal was to have someone pay full price for a strategy from me within six months. Strategy writing became my bread and butter from day one of freelancing, I even wrote the strategy to launch a new haircare brand in the country. Again, I realised I was not the problem.
Regarding my tone, I’ve received repeat business from clients and received additional work from word of mouth and I haven’t had complaints about my tone since I left.
Here are the lessons I’ve learnt. Sometimes it is you and you need to take a step back and re-evaluate what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Sometimes it isn’t you. You still need to walk away to preserve your inner peace.
Moral of this story, while unconventional: If you ever find yourself in this situation, leave. Leave as soon as you can, then kick ass and post pics so they know what they’re missing out on.
It’s true what they say, people don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers. Always choose yourself, your happiness and your mental health over a paycheque. I know that many people find entrepreneurship because they left a bad situation to take control of their lives. I’m one of those people – and if it’s in you, you should be too.