Damaged…but Redeemable?

“We can rebuild him; we have the technology.”

“Damaged?” I gasped, “He said I was damaged?” I’ve been called all sorts of things over the years, some of them justified – some of them very justified – but this was unexpected.

“Yes, so we’re going to have to move you to something lower profile for a while,” relied my manager, trying not to look at me.

“Damaged.” I muttered, thinking about the events of the last few weeks. Looking back on that moment, I remember vividly the simultaneous feelings of choking and sinking. I wandered back into the open plan office feeling like every eye was on me, but nobody had noticed. They weren’t aware that my career had just hit an iceberg.

The feelings that followed quickly progressed into anger over the injustice of the situation. I’d done a job I’d been asked to do (I won’t go into details today) and fed back some information that announced for the first time that a critical project was failing. I gave recommendations to get back on track, but general disbelief of the severity of the problems (to be fair, this was a surprise to the audience) meant my message was not accepted, and there was greater interest in scrutinising me than the project. It’s a small comfort to have eventually been vindicated by the later failure and cancellation of the project (I take no pleasure in that) but at the time I had no comfort at all. I was seen as “damaged”.

The following week, I attended the first scans of my unborn son, saw him for the first time, and felt the joy in that moment overshadowed by the looming threat of being fired. How can I support this kid and my wife? I’m damaged…

As mentioned, I was vindicated by time. I did as I was told, worked on lower profile work, before later being called upon to carry out another audit on a project that had run out of control. Feeling restored I left the business shortly after for new opportunities, adventures and the thrills of PMO blogging.

But it’s not so easy to be rebuilt, restored or redeemed. Sometimes we can have a bad day in the office, a wrong decision, or fail to call for help when we realise things aren’t right. Maybe the project you’re working on goes out of control and you didn’t see it soon enough. Maybe your style and manner rubs a boss up the wrong way. Maybe you got chucked in at the deep end on an assignment you weren’t skilled or experienced enough to handle. And next thing you know, you’re damaged.

I’m not talking about the kind of damage that earns you an immediate dismissal – I’m talking about the ones that get you onto performance management, the bad side of the end of year bell curve rating, or just distrusted with key work.

I guess the key thing to do in these situations is to understand whether you are genuinely at fault or not, which involves taking a dispassionate look at yourself, and maybe seeking honest – and sometimes painful – inputs from others. In my story above, I did learn there were ways I could have communicated the outcomes a little better – so I wrote a guide for colleagues on how to deliver feedback with my hard-earned “lessons”. With hindsight you can look back and see what you should have done better and resolve to learn these things.

If the judgement on your failure is completely unfair, there is still opportunity to learn. Maybe it’s about political intelligence, corporate behaviours and how to better judge people and situations.

Besides learning, the next thing you need to focus on is regaining trust. Take on the smaller assignments, demonstrate through action that you have learned, and don’t (don’t don’t don’t DON’T) show any bitterness.

If it’s too painful to stay, fine – find another job, but in the meantime do whatever you can to rebuild your brand. You may not ever fully recover your untarnished reputation, but you can demonstrate growth and maturity as you head out of the door.

No matter how damaged they say you are, you can be rebuilt. Not the same as before, but maybe better and certainly wiser.

PS A note to managers. When you have a damaged employee, they will be no use to you or anyone if you don’t try to rebuild them. It’s easy to write them off, but if you can see a willingness to improve, don’t waste your future meetings beating them over the head with previous failures. Rebuild their confidence, their self worth and their ability to do the job you hired them for. You’ll be a better boss for doing so. Helping to salvage someone’s career will probably be one of the most rewarding management experiences you ever have. I’m

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