When I put the numbers 1 through 5 into the random number generator this week to help me choose a writing prompt for Mama Kat’s Writing Workshop, I got 5: Describe a moment when you saw someone hit their breaking point.
It was me. I saw myself hit my own breaking point.
In 2008, our organization switched Third Party Administrators (TPA). A TPA (in our case) handles the computer system for insurance enrollees, along with eligibility, payment processing, correspondence, customer service (pretty much everything). The contract had gone to the lowest bidder, who also had scored the most poorly on the assessment tools. As a staff member, it was not my place to question why it worked out that way, but to make it work. As the staff member overseeing activities related to customer service, I was centered firmly in the eye of the storm as the transition from the old TPA to the new one unfolded, with problems galore. (All transitions have problems, but these were worse than “average” and I was the one getting much of the feedback from unhappy enrollees and legislative offices).
Several months into the transition, a typical day would find me with 20+ emails open, each one interrupted by the most pressing crisis. My seven staff members were valiantly trying to figure out a convoluted, sporadically performing system, while fending off hostility from our partner agencies who weren’t getting what they wanted (and needed), meaning they too were awash in dissatisfied enrollees and important stakeholders who were complaining that their constituents were complaining.
The day I broke, I had the 20+ emails open; our external consultant (who was there to deal with some of the technical glitches but also to make recommendations related to how our staff should function) was sitting with me discussing a project; my phone was ringing; I am sure I had some child-related (as in my children) issue on my mind. My staff member who asked frequent questions came to the door, asked me something about refunds, a situation that the TPA was supposed to have handled but had not, and I don’t recall what I said (I think it may have been something along the lines of “if they would just do their **?! job), but I know that the next thing I knew I was in tears, the consultant was beating a hasty exit back to her office to give me some space, and I had reached this point:
I realized deep inside that it was never going to be enough to be passionate about the cause of the agency I work for. As much as I love management and leadership theory, I had not managed to bridge the gap between what I knew and how I applied it.
The tears I cried that day were a mixture of frustration, anger, sadness, grieving, resignation, and probably a few other things. As Seth Godin wrote in his post, “Organizing for Joy,” there are companies out there that “give their people the … expectation…that they will create, connect and surprise.” When an organization lowers its expectations, the “chances of amazing,” says Seth Godin, “are really quite low.”
The day I broke was the day I knew we had given up on amazing anyone, especially ourselves.