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Get Real – Get Out of Your Box!

I once worked with a woman who was brilliant and appeared to be the only one who didn’t recognize this. Or more accurately, perhaps she recognized it, but her sense of workplace hierarchies caused her to shush her brilliance more often than not. Others would come to her for guidance or assistance, and she would say, “Well, I’m just an Administrator and don’t have the authority.” Sometimes, she tortured others (and most likely herself) with a bit of well-thought advice and direction, then dismiss the information with lack of authority comment. A brilliant idea was conjured up, and then hidden away, like a bad magic trick.

What was this all about? Well, since you’re asking, I think she was paralyzed by role definition. I’d like to think that today’s workplace has evolved beyond strict pecking orders around the corporate org chart and titles. Either she’d not figured this out yet or had become so ingrained with the concept of staying within one’s box, based on position, that she was stifling herself and frustrating others.

She was probably frustrating herself as well, as I know she observed that some folks with fairly significant titles were coming to her with fairly simple questions. Stupid questions, really, but given the expression, “there are no stupid questions”, we’ll call them simple. Because we’re nice that way. She could have been helpful. People and situations could have benefited, but she kept herself in her box and everyone else constantly knocked their heads against the wall in aggravation. Well, maybe not constantly because I don’t think there were any Workers’ Comp claims for head-knocking. Not that I knew of.

Workplace roles have their purposes, like letting you know who does what, who’s ultimately accountable when something bad happens, and who gets rewarded when great things transpire. When adhered to too rigidly, they tend to box us in. Like lack-of-authority-because-I’m-stuck-in-my-box lady. Sadly, in addition to not sharing her ideas, or probably because of her inability to do so given her ideas about her role’s limitations, she missed out on juicy, interesting assignments and ultimately, on upward-mobility opportunities and thus stagnated in her self-imposed box. I can only imagine how painful it was for her because believe me, it was painful to watch. What killed me the most was that she could have been having fun at work and she chose not to.

So where am I going with all this? Throw away org charts? Eliminate titles? Establish democratic (or even socialistic) organizations where everyone’s say is equal? No, not at all. But I do suggest we colour outside the lines a little bit and get outside our boxes.

Take our box-lady friend. How could she have done things differently? Best-selling author Eckhart Tolle suggests “you become most powerful in whatever you do if the action is performed for its own sake, rather than as a means to protect, enhance, or conform to your role identity.” He goes on to say, “When you don’t play roles…your actions have far greater power. You are totally focused on the situation…You are most powerful, most effective, when you are completely yourself.” (pp. 107-108, A New Earth)

Whoa. That’s powerful. So had she thought, “Hmm. I’m being asked something here, and maybe they wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t think me capable. Okay, I’ll give it my best. Here goes,” and then shared her ideas and suggestions, everyone would have been better off.

Another glimmer on our quest to find and strengthen authenticity in the workplace. Here are some clues I’ll be taking with me:

Be yourself. Give your opinion. Be open, honest, and give your best in any situation, regardless of the role you’ve been assigned. When you’re true to yourself and speak your words, everyone benefits. Others get good information from you and the organization can move forward successfully. You honour yourself through sharing your experience and knowledge, and you can move forward successfully, however you define success, whether it be in increments of happiness or career progressions. Or big piles of cash. Whatever you do, just remember to get out of your box and keep it real.


  1. Excellent insight Elaine – this is very applicable to our roles as HR Professionals in the quest to move from traditional transactional functions towards true business partnerships. Often HRPs still shy away from contributing insights to discussions regarding “business operations”, remaining within the confines of “people issues” – which doesn’t move us forward as partners and denies our non-HR colleagues potential new possibilities and solutions.

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