Growing up as the only child of a single mother, I spent a lot of time alone. I was never one to be part of a crowd. I had few friends, never played team sports, and was determined to do and say things in my own way. I was often surrounded by adults, all of whom spoke to me and treated me as if I were an adult too, albeit a rather small one who wasn’t very bright. From an early age, I learned to communicate with everyone in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner.
Fresh out of college, I landed a position working for a large corporate company. A generous salary meant I no longer had to eat ramen for dinner three nights a week. I had fourteen whole days of paid time off every year. I was eager to begin adulthood and apply my talents and skills to this esteemed organization.
It was an early stage of my working life and I knew nothing about the so-called corporate game, much less how to play it. I was taught to speak my mind, to be honest, and direct. But I had a rather abrupt awakening when I realized that my adult style of communication wasn’t encouraged among the other adults at work. In fact, it was less than encouraged—it was frowned upon. From day one, my supervisors asked me to communicate my ideas in a way that “considered everyone’s feelings” and cautioned me to keep my opinions to myself.
I was beyond confused. I had always thought of work as a place to come and do work, not make nice and tiptoe around everyone’s feelings and opinions.
I had been thrust into the corporate game. It was a game that required more than just talent and skill and one for which all of the important rules seemed to be obscure and unspoken.
While I worked and tried my best to keep my opinions to myself, my boss leisurely cruised the halls stopping by one office after another, saying hello and asking about people’s kids and weekend plans. It was as if she were the marshal of a parade winding its slow route through the halls of our office.
When I needed help, I would wait for the parade to pass by my office and ask my questions. But the response was always a resounding “I don’t know” which was also the cue for the parade to continue on. There was a complete lack of effort to help me find the answers to my questions. While I was floundering and being reprimanded for my communication style, my boss paraded around, was promoted, and showered with praise.
From my perspective, this corporate game seemed broken. The rules, if there were any, didn’t seem to make sense—I was baffled by this woman and our working relationship.
So, as I had done since I was a child, I decided to address my problems head on. I approached my boss and explained by struggles and shared my feelings. Yet once again, she scolded me for my abrupt communication style and accused me of being aggressive and inconsiderate of others.
You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules
I quickly began to realize that I was losing the corporate game. My role and the teams I worked with shifted and then shifted again but the rules remained beyond my grasp. The only constant was the feedback I would receive about my communication style. Every single annual review reminded me how this area “needed improvement.” For five years, this sentiment remained unchanged.
After each performance review, I would collect my feelings and try to “fix” my communication problems. I even attended mandated courses on workplace communication. These suggested a “fix” that equated to retreating—becoming an observer in the workplace rather than an active participant. They suggested I change who I was.
The same open, outspoken qualities that had brought me praise as a child, were now considered faults—big red flags in the eyes of my employers. The rules of the corporate game had translated my “direct communication” into “insensitivity.” Being assertive morphed into aggression; open and honest had become inconsiderate.
I never intended to hurt people when I spoke to them, I was just doing what I thought was my job. Perhaps my hall cruiser boss never intentionally meant to hurt me by ignoring my problems. But the unwritten rules of this game were forcing me to understand and appreciate the opinions and views of my colleagues and bosses without requiring them to do the same.
My communication style had never been an issue in my personal life. In fact, people valued my honesty and openness. But year after year, my professional performance reviews suggested that I had a problem, that something was wrong with me. Eventually, I started to believe them. I did have a problem—there was a glaring disconnect between my personal and professional lives and I had no idea how to even begin to correct it.
It’s not me, it’s you
One day I listened to a podcast, where the host recalled her experience working in the corporate field. Her experience was very similar to mine. She too was constantly criticized for her communication style.
But rather than turning inward and placing the blame on herself, instead of believing that she had somehow lost the corporate game, she decided that it was actually the corporate game that had failed her.
Perhaps there wasn’t anything wrong with me after all. Perhaps the corporate world just wasn’t the right place for me. I wasn’t comfortable playing nice like everyone else at the office. I didn’t want to talk about people’s kids. I wanted to do work. I was different, outspoken, and unique.
I liked (and still like) the way I communicate. I believed, in spite of years’ worth of criticism, that my direct, no-nonsense approach was one of my strongest qualities. So how could it be both my best and worst quality at the same time?
Learning that I wasn’t the only person with this experience helped more than I can describe. I realized that I was playing the wrong game. I needed to find an environment that would see my communication style as my best quality rather than my worst. I needed to find a new game—one suited to my strengths.
A different kind of game
In a mostly ironic turn of events, they laid me off shortly thereafter. Unsure what to do with my recent realization, and not wanting to return to the environment that had caused me so much grief, I decided to try freelancing.
The longer I did, the less I could envision ever returning to a job that criticized the best aspects of who I am. And after a year or so of working for myself, some parts of the corporate game that had baffled and irritated me suddenly began to make sense.
Managing my own projects meant managing people. In order to manage people, I needed to understand them. And in order to understand them, I need to get to know them. Basically, managers sometimes need to be hall cruisers. I get that now.
When you work on a team, even one that’s remote, you interact with different kinds of people. You need to consider the role everyone plays and you need to take accountability for your role and your actions—especially when you make a mistake. People have different strengths, different methods, but no one acts alone; everyone has a part to play and everyone needs a part to play. I get that now.
And now that I have a better understanding of how the corporate game works, it’s easier to notice when people are cheating—not everyone plays by the rules. Cruising the halls is one thing. Helping and supporting the people that work in those halls is another. Pointing out other people’s mistakes is easy. Being accountable when you make them yourself is harder.
Since I’ve been self-employed, I have yet to encounter any issues with the way I communicate. I know that I communicate in an upfront and candid way. I know that I may come across as aggressive rather than assertive, inconsiderate rather than honest. As such, I am careful and discerning in choosing clients that share and appreciate those same qualities. I show up on time and let others know that I expect the same from them. I draw a clear line in the sand between what I will and won’t do and I hold people accountable when they do the same. Above all, I communicate my beliefs, and values, openly, honestly, and as directly as possible. It’s easy to play the game when everyone knows the rules.
Corporate no more
Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that I sucked at playing the corporate game. I wasn’t willing to change who I am—the things that make me, me—for the sake of fitting in at a job. The corporate world is not an environment in which everyone can or will thrive in.
And while I definitely didn’t thrive in the corporate world, I’m still glad for the time I spent there trying to learn the rules. It gave me a better understanding of who I am, what’s most important to me, and how work can be done.
Some games are easy. Some games are hard. The corporate game taught me that values translate into behaviours—good or bad—and that my communication style is a reflection of my values. I’m a clear, no-nonsense, direct communicator. It’s not just something I do. It’s who I am and I’m not going to change.