The Serenity Prayer and Your Career: Part 1

Things you can change… and things you can’t

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, 
the courage to change the things we can, 
and the wisdom to know the difference. — ”Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr

I have found the Serenity Prayer to be a source of both comfort and incentive when I was looking for a job. The order of the three lines is deeply significant. I think you need to accept what you can’t change before you can find the willpower and motivation to take the next step. In this blog post I’m focusing on the first part of this prayer, and I hope to talk more about the second part in my next post.

What’s outside your control

When thinking about all the things you can’t change, it’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed. In most circumstances, there are many things you are NOT able to control:

  • The organizational culture of your workplace (in most cases)

  • How your boss evaluates your job performance

  • How your coworkers perceive your work

  • When you are laid off or fired & how much advance notice you receive

  • Whether you receive severance pay

Before the “power of positive thinking” crowd gets started, notice that the things I list as outside your control are all the beliefs or actions of other people. You can perform adequately or even exceptionally well and still get a poor evaluation from your boss. You can work diligently and still be perceived by coworkers as slacking off. It’s obviously less likely you’ll get a bad review if you do solid work, but it still occurs.

That’s what makes this part of the Serenity Prayer so difficult. We optimists keep trying to change what other people think of us. “If I could just prove to my boss how essential my work is,” we say. “If my coworkers only knew how much I work from home,” we think. We may even try to document our work, thinking that this undeniable proof will change their minds. We compile spreadsheets to itemize how valuable we are, copying our managers on every email to demonstrate how indispensable our work is.

Often, the perception remains the same.

The Likability Penalty: Women’s Catch-22

Women, especially women of color, know what I’m talking about. In order to succeed in our careers, we need to show leadership, but demonstrating that characteristic brings a level of risk. At various times in my career, I’ve been described in evaluations as “condescending,” “abrasive,” and “too aggressive.” These descriptors are used more often in reviews for women than men. (Read more about this phenomenon from Dr. Kieran Snyder here and Dr. Andrea Vial and Jaime Napier here.)

The greatest frustration I’ve experienced in the workplace is receiving feedback like this, making every effort to work more generously and collaboratively, and then receiving the exact same feedback the following year. It’s almost like no matter what I do, I can’t change how others perceive me… Wait, actually, that’s true, isn’t it?

If you have performed poorly and you know this about yourself, it’s not hard to accept negative evaluations. It’s when you’ve given your best effort and can truly say you know you’ve done a good job, when every objective measure shows your work to be adequate, that this feedback is hard to accept.

We need to accept that a person can do good work and still get an unacceptable evaluation. She can do great work and get negative feedback from coworkers, clients, and direct reports. A person can do good work and still be let go, even. The work you do is within your control. The perception of that work held by those around you is simply not.

Understanding this concept is pretty simple. Accepting this, deep down in your gut? Really tough.

Accepting a disconnect

It helped me to disconnect my actions (trying to make people like me or my work) from the actions of others (performing evaluations, giving feedback). It’s true that in an ideal world, there would be a causal relationship between these two things, and in some work environments that relationship exists. But at some workplaces, these two things can be disconnected.

If you are considering looking for a new job, but you feel “stuck” and have conflicting feelings about your current role, ask yourself if you may be struggling to accept what you can’t change. Give yourself time and space to reflect on the ways in which your work quality is connected or NOT connected to the feedback you receive. Consider whether you may be in an environment where a “likability penalty” is making it difficult for you to be perceived as a leader.

Then think about what you DO have control over, taking action to look for another job! My next post focuses on this aspect of the Serenity Prayer, so check it out here.

If you would find it helpful to work with a career coach to work through some of these issues, drop me a note! You can sign up for my email list as well, and I'd love it if you followed me on Twitter