Sanctuary for the Troublemakers
I joined the Collective Impact Agency (CIA) back in April of this year. As I look back over my first quarter here I’d love to share some reflections on my experience of working somewhere that, as I’ve learned, isn’t what you might call a ‘normal’ workplace.
Several times over the past few months I have caught myself thinking or saying aloud: “I can’t believe this is my job”. I have jumped at the opportunities to have long walking meetings in the sunshine or getting to know another organisation and its staff on a bike ride. But I have often felt guilty about getting paid to eat ice cream with people or block out days for reflection, reading and writing. I worry that it might seem like I am skiving or being lazy and inefficient. But really it is taking the time to get to know people and creating the space to grow and learn – and that is so important to our work at CIA.
Theoretically, I knew that working at CIA would be different, but it is only after stepping into this environment that everything stifling about existing workplace structures has been magnified. Before I started at CIA, I understood that the company focuses on pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo to get things done in a better way. What I didn’t know is how flexible and supportive an environment it is, how everything is shaped by the people doing the work rather than by a distant management team. And, my oh my, what a difference it makes!
I’ve only been here 3 months, but I already struggle with the idea of having to go back to a traditional workplace with a nice, neat hierarchy. And that’s not because I have a problem with authority. I just can’t understand how workplaces have evolved to force people into boxes that don’t fit, where you have no say, and it seems the only thing people care about is maintaining order. This is considered ‘normal’. It irritates me that in a ‘normal’ workplace, you might go to your line manager and say, “This is what I need” (say flexible working hours to accommodate family duties) and that they can just say “No” as “It doesn’t work for the organisation.” So much of what happens in ‘normal’ organisations involves trying to catch your line manager on a good day. It feels disrespectful to everyone that this can be the norm. What a power imbalance! Surely, the only person who knows what it is like to do any job is the person doing that job – why do they not have the power to make decisions about it?
I really value relationship-building, having a voice, and creating systems and environments where people feel equal and respected. For these reasons, the environment at CIA really suits me. For example, now I don’t need to ‘get permission’ or ‘present a case’ to managers when I have an idea for a new piece of work. I can genuinely just do it. But while I can’t imagine anyone coming into this environment and hating it, it would be foolish to assume it would suit everyone. At CIA, we don’t believe that one size fits all, but the core principles at the heart of CIA are widely applicable.
We create a lot of space for reflection because it is integral to learning and growth. We genuinely and deeply listen to the voices of people and explore the things that people say. We aim to be radical. We are always trying something new. We are never satisfied with “this is how it has always been done”. In other work environments, I feel I’ve either been forced to become the stubborn donkey or a complete pushover. But here, I’m able to challenge and disagree with my colleagues without having to sacrifice who I am. The whole point is that our work, ethos and structure are shaped by the people involved according to their needs. In just three months, I have been able to reshape the way people are paid across the organisation. But we have all acknowledged that as soon as another person enters our team, we have to start that conversation again, because they will bring different perspectives, experiences and ideas to the table. Here, the conversations are never over. Nothing is ever cut and dried. Everything is done with Velcro, which means we can rearrange it whenever we need to.
Another principle we practice is the importance of taking the time to relax and get to know each other as people – not feeling we must be all business all the time. In fact, the better we know one another, the better we work together – and the easier it is for me to be a respected individual, rather than the stubborn donkey. We make space for checking in with one another and learning what matters to each other.
Exploring things and coming to conclusions collectively is so important, but it’s also really hard. In the past 3 months, my working life has felt joyful, energising and exciting. It has also felt confusing, anxiety-inducing and exhausting. I’ve felt like the lonely kid in the playground wanting to join in, but worried that no one wants them. But I’ve also felt entirely accepted and valued for who I am, no bells and whistles. I have felt my creative brain returning and remembered what it is like to hope for a positive future.
I like that there has been such a broad emotional spectrum in the first few months at CIA (I’ll be honest, it’s not like I feel things in small degrees anyway). At my last job, I ended up just feeling angry and hopeless, as I have done in a lot of jobs previously. But no job has ever started like this one. They’ve all started with me trying to please others, prove myself, and feel worthy. At CIA, I haven’t felt ‘worthiness’ matters. There’s been a lot of building my confidence, but I’ve felt my inherent worth was always implicit from the very start. I haven’t felt the weight of other people’s expectations on me. I have felt able to carve out my own niche based on what I’m good at and what I have the expertise to do.
What I hope to impart from sharing this experience are these three things:
A sense of hope – for those of you who feel stuck in jobs that don’t support you, please hear that it can be different. It is possible for work to work differently, to work better, to genuinely work together.
You should be valued as a human being and your voice should be respected. These are absolutely fundamental. You should be trusted to do your job and have the power to make decisions related to your job. This feels so freeing!
I encourage you to be confident and use your voice. Unless we all start acting for and enacting the change we want to see, change won’t happen. So, be yourself, use your voice, and act.