We have to make sense of things. Somehow.
And if things don’t make sense, or don’t fit, our brain will work on putting together the reason, the intentions, the story.
We will literally make up a story in our own head to help us understand. We’ll say “oh, I see, they wrote that email in that way because they’re tired of me asking them for help”, or “ah, I get it, that prospect never replied because they don’t want to work with us”, or “they didn’t invite me to that event because of that conversation we had a few months back”. Or whatever. We make up the story based on what we know (or think we know).
The problem is, the story we tell ourselves isn’t always the real story. Or the full story.
Sometimes, often…and maybe always, it’s a story that has more to do with us, and our fears and concerns and doubts and current situation, than it does with what’s actually going on. Or what another person wants us to understand and feel.
When I make up a story, I’m making it up with the information I have. But what I’m missing is the part of the story I can’t possibly know without asking for help.
Brene Brown introduced this concept in her book Rising Strong (although I’m sure she’s mentioned it in most of her other books and work, and she drew on the work of others who explored it and researched it, too). And I instantly connected with it and felt like I was being given such a beautiful gift.
She explains how one of the most powerful things we can do is to first admit to ourselves, “The story I’m telling myself is…” – and even more powerful, when there is misunderstanding or miscommunication or hurt or blame or frustration, we can share that thought with someone else in order to clear things up. To get to the real story. And to prevent a continued cycle of more misunderstanding and miscommunication, leading to more hurt and blame and frustration and broken relationship.
We use it in the PF team at times – probably not as often as we could, and I know as the business leader I can be a better example by using it more often. And recently one of the team used it to help explain the way they saw things, and it was literally like a light went on in a dark room.
We’ve been talking for at least a year or more about a “pod” concept for working with our clients. The idea is that instead of just one person working with one client, each client has a team of people who are dedicated to that client. To understanding them and knowing how they work – and in our case as a creative agency, being familiar with their brand, their style, their tone, and everything that helps us do better work for them.
So there’s still a full creative agency team, but there are 2-3 people who are assigned to each client, each with different responsibilities to make sure no one is overwhelmed, the client is understood and gets everything they need, and there’s always more than one person who knows what’s going on with a client or a project.
The pod concept is not new – it’s used by creative agencies and accountancy firms and has been for years. Many of our clients use the pod format to make sure their clients get what they need and to make work efficient and profitable, too. Our own accountants use it, and whilst there are different people who come and go working on PF’s payroll, bookkeeping, or management accounts, I’ve got one client manager who I meet with monthly and who is always in conversation with the rest of the pod, so I don’t have to repeat or resend things. Every once in a while people in the pod change, or move around, but my primary client manager stays the same, and that helps give me confidence and quite frankly saves time because he knows me and PF so well.
For PF, one of my ideas was to have what I called a “relationship manager” and a “project manager” in each pod. I got the idea from another creative agency owner a few years back – they created those roles because it meant that the project manager wasn’t having to be pressured with always looking for new opportunities (which would simply give them more work to do), and the relationship manager could just chat to people and keep the relationship strong and make sure the client had everything they needed and trust the work would get done.
Perfect. Made sense to me. We had a few discussions and everyone was happy.
Until I realised not everyone was happy.
After lots of conversations and chats and slack comments and questions and catch ups, I realised the inference it seemed to give was the relationship manager got to do all the fun stuff, and was more important than the project manager. The relationship manager would sell stuff and check in with clients and have random chats and sort of swoop in to save the day….and then the poor project manager is left with all this work to do, lots of detail work which can feel tedious at times, doing the bidding of the relationship manager.
This was not AT ALL what I was envisaging, but I had absolutely no clue that’s how it was coming across until some of the team explained how it appeared to them. How it might feel.
They said the story I’m telling myself is this.
The way it appears to me is this.
I was congratulating myself for this great idea and this great efficiency and this great way to use everyone’s skills (some people naturally love selling and strategy calls, and others love planning and organising, I thought), but I was only seeing my side of the story.
And the deeper we got, and the more perspectives were shared, the more we came to realise a few things:
It’s really easy to put people in boxes, fast. “You like these kinds of things, so you’ll want to do more of those things, okay great, everyone is happy.” But actually listening, and asking curious questions, and asking with an open mind, means you’ll find out things you didn’t know. You’ll realise expectations you had which are wrong. I’m realising how easy it is to do that, how hard it is to see things differently once you’ve set that in your mind, and how hard it can be for a team member to say actually, I feel a little differently or my experience isn’t the same.
People will only share the story they’re telling themselves, when they’re in a place of psychological safety. If I’ve learned anything leading a growing agency, adding more team members all the time, it’s that this is the single most important goal I can have for my company. That it is a place of psychological safety for the team, and me, and our clients: a place we feel safe to share failure, confusion, concern, and mistakes, without fear that we will be punished for it. This is VERY hard to do, and every time the team grows the whole company has to adjust and settle a little and seek to be that safe space. You cannot SAY you’re a safe space: that is a determination only the other person can make for themselves. They can feel safe, and you can rejoice in it, but safety is felt by each person in different ways and over different time frames.
It’s important to use the specific phrase “the story I’m telling myself is”. This sets the tone so much differently than if you just said “well I feel like this”. You’re saying okay, prepare yourself, I’m going to give you a different perspective. We’re going to open a door here which you thought was an ordinary wardrobe but turns out there’s an entire magical land behind it. We so often only see the wardrobe, we presume it’s a wardrobe, and we even go to the back of it and knock on the wood paneling and say “yep it’s a wardrobe”. But when someone says they’re going to tell us their story, it opens up and there’s so much more in there than you knew. And it changes your perspective and your decisions.
Using that specific phrase also helps the person saying it to recognise they could be wrong. They’re telling themselves a story, but they’re open to realising their story is misinformed, or a little confused, or mixed up with their fears or doubts. SO often (if not always) our stories are mixed up in that way. “I think you meant this, because I used to work in a company where when this happened I was treated in that way”.
PTESD is real. (Post Traumatic Employer/Employee Stress Disorder): I’ve made up that term myself, but how your team members were treated in a former place of employment, particularly if it was bad or negative or hard or unsafe or stressful, ALWAYS affects how they work in the new place. Even if the new place is good and safe and lives up to the values and strives to listen and cares. It takes time, and everyone’s PTESD manifests itself differently.
In the same way, a leader or boss can have PTESD from how former employees treated them. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own actions – no employer is completely perfect or imperfect – but it’s important we as leaders realise we might be telling ourselves a story based on this team member because of another one from the past. That does not mean airing dirty laundry or rehashing old hurts (you can do that with a therapist or counselor or mentor), but it does mean saying, “When this happened, the story I’m telling myself is you felt this about me or the company”. You don’t have to explain exactly why that’s the story you’re telling yourself, in order to say that’s the story.
“Circle back”: telling the story is only the first step. Another specific phrase I particularly appreciate from Brene is “circling back”. In her team, when someone says “I want to circle back to….”, it’s a very important statement. Everyone stops, puts their pen down (or their coffee cup or apple pencil or whatever) and gives their attention to that person. It means, there’s something I’m still not clear on, or I feel I wasn’t understood, or this is still hovering and it’s not fully okay yet. This is still a phrase I’m working on using, but more and more I see the power of it.
Telling someone the story you’ve been making up is simply the first step. In hard conversations, you don’t explain your side and they explain their side and you shake hands (or wave over zoom) and all is perfectly well. You need to work on it, and keep working on it, and keep the conversation going. You may need to say “the story I’m telling myself” multiple times. You may need to circle back, often. And that’s okay. That’s how the process works. We may see the new story quickly, but we don’t accept it instantly. It takes time to change our view of the story.
You need to talk to yourself about the story you’re telling yourself. Sharing it with someone else is important and needed: but start by telling yourself. Work it through in your own mind. Be honest. Be really, really, really honest with yourself. What is the story you’re telling yourself, and where did it come from? Who treated you in that way which led to this story? What’s going on in your life this week or this month or this year which would contribute to that? Are you worried, scared, tired, lost, sick? How are those factors affecting this story?
You can explore other stories it might be, besides the one that first came to you. If I’m making up a story because I’m worried or sad or sick or tired, it’s often a hard story. A scary story. An “it’s all my fault” story or a “they think this of me” story.
But what if the opposite was true? What if the client who wants a meeting actually wants more services? What if the prospect who hasn’t replied is working hard to save up the money to be able to work with you? What if good things?
It is really hard to accept good things, especially this year. I’m finding myself almost suspicious of good news because I wonder how long it will last, I distrust it, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. But being positive doesn’t mean pasting a fake smile on: it means looking, diving deep for what is good, and believing it’s there. Even if it takes a while to see it. And rejoicing in the good when it does come.
We haven’t sorted the whole pod thing yet, but I’m completely confident we will. Stretching through the stories we are all telling ourselves is the hard part: respecting those stories and each person and how they feel as we go will only make the process smoother and easier as we go. What we’re discovering is much deeper than figuring out names for some roles within a pod and being profitable as a company. It’s learning more about each other and how to listen and how to care, as we do it.