I manage a team in large organization. Last spring I was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer and I underwent intense and difficult chemotherapy. I worked from home and didn’t take any undue time off, though now I wish I had. I started back at work two months ago and things are, well—weird. And really hard.
Before my illness, I used to have lunch with my boss once a week. Now she is avoiding me. One of my peers is actually hostile—he sets me up to look unprepared in meetings and is otherwise trying to make me look bad. And one of my direct reports has started to speak to me as if she is my boss, not the other way around.
Before I got sick, I was a rock star overachiever who outperformed everyone around me. I was an idea factory and could pull all-nighters to get projects done. I am just not that way anymore. I get tired—and I still have some brain fog from the chemo. I was beautiful and young and I had gorgeous hair. All that is gone now. My confidence is truly shaken. How do I get my power back and protect myself?
Dear So Alone,
Wow. It sounds like you feel very isolated and vulnerable. I am going to do my best to help you get centered, learn how to protect yourself, and get your mojo back.
Right out of the gate, I can tell you that you are losing ground when you compare your current self to your old self. Any time we compare ourselves with someone else—including our former selves—it isn’t going to go well. It’s not a good use of your valuable brain space or your time. Let’s ask this instead: what do you have now that you didn’t have before your illness?
You may have temporarily lost your hair and your youthful, sparky brain, but you are still the same deeply intelligent, very creative, hardworking woman you have always been. I want to emphasize that you underwent massive, absurd amounts of chemotherapy without taking time off. You are, in fact, a badass warrior goddess. Who are these people who seek to undermine you? You may not be what you once were, but here you are. You have been tested in the fire and you are, in fact, stronger than you have ever been.
So. Here is what you can do now:
- Invite your boss to lunch.
- If you are pushed to respond without adequate preparation, or are otherwise bullied, stop the nonsense and say: “I have nothing to add at this time,” or “I am happy to volunteer an opinion when I have all of the context,” or “Thank you for including me, I will certainly contribute when I feel the need.”
- When you are feeling bullied by your peer, just smile and breathe and shake your head like you don’t know what he is talking about. Saying nothing, or very little, is a tremendous source of power. Use it. Men do it all the time. Only speak when you have something really useful to say, and then say it quietly. This is so radically different from your past MO that it will feel weird—but it will work if you commit and stay strong.
- Pay attention to your direct report’s little tactics to undermine you. Record each instance and also notice the way she speaks to others. She may just be one of those people who bosses everyone around. If that is true, fine; let it go. But if it is just you, you will have to warrior up—tell her to cut it out and draw clear boundaries by making explicit statements such as: “Please don’t speak to me that way,” or “I am interested in your ideas, but please offer suggestions vs. telling me what to do,” or “Please don’t give me what sound like orders, ever—and certainly not in front of others.”
The thing to remember about people behaving badly is that they will do whatever you let them get away with. So it will be up to you to stop it. Find your own words to draw boundaries and practice out loud to get comfortable. When you are prepared, she will get the message that you are strong and she’d better stop her ridiculous behavior.
You asked, “How do I get my power back and protect myself?”
First, I think we need to rework your narrative. Yes, perhaps you made an error never taking time off and coming back to work too soon. However, here you are. So let’s change the story you are telling yourself. Right now it goes something like this:
I feel weak and tired. I still have chemo brain, I’m not as fast as I was before, and I don’t retain things the same way. My boss is avoiding me because she thinks I am a loser. My peers and direct reports smell blood in the water and are circling, gunning for my job. I feel vulnerable and alone.
What if it sounded more like this:
I am a badass warrior who slayed hideous chemo and am still standing strong. I didn’t take time off and I am crushing my job heroically. My boss is dodging me because most people simply don’t know how to talk about cancer so they avoid the whole thing—which in this case means me. My peer is simply a small-minded, nasty person who was jealous of me before and is now kicking me while I am down. I won’t let him get away with his bad behavior. My direct report may be disrespectful to me, or she may simply be super bossy. I am going to stop taking it personally, figure out what is going on, and then take corrective action. I am a warrior and these people cannot take me down.
OK? See the difference? That’s how you get your power back and how you protect yourself.
My final idea for you is to use music. Music has such power. Find some kind of music that fires you up—Alicia Keyes’s This Girl is on Fire, most of Beyonce’s stuff, Sarah Bareilles’s Be Brave—whatever appeals to you. Play it on your phone and hum it as you are walking into meetings.
I spent two years managing a massive global coaching program at a New York investment bank where it was mortal combat every day. I cried in the ladies room a lot. I somehow got the idea to hum the theme music from Raiders of The Lost Ark to get me through the worst moments, and it really helped.
Remember this: take nothing personally. None of this is about you—it just feels that way because you are feeling vulnerable. Now get your armor on, play your own heroine theme song, and go take a stand for this new version of yourself.
About the author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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