''What do you feel passionate about?'' is a key question in any meaningful discussion about career choices. While those who have a clear sense of purpose are more likely to thrive in their professional roles, there is a distinction between those with high job satisfaction and those whose passion to create change and achieve the impossible is a zealous lifelong project. These are the individuals who stick their necks out, risk-takers who sacrifice security and ease while shouldering the responsibilities of making the world a better place.
Think of mission driven roles such as NGO campaigners, political activists, and health care workers. And let's not forget civil rights lawyers and investigative journalists. What all of these outstanding professionals share is a passionate commitment to social justice and making a concrete difference in the well-being of people and planet.
Whatever you do – don’t let others down
Besides a sense that these professionals live and breathe their passion every day, they all tend to have something else in common: a deep conviction that they must not let others down. While this belief can inspire the qualities of tenacity, responsibility and self-belief, the shadow side of this mindset can drive some self-sabotaging behaviors such as micro-managing, inability to set boundaries and neglect of physical and emotional needs.
Loyalty in the mission driven workplace.
Based on shared values, the positive side of loyalty is that it binds people to a group, an organization or a cause. However, when loyalty becomes the primary standard for action, there is a constant potential to let someone down: Is it your manager who is pressuring you to stay up all night to finish a grant proposal? Your colleagues who don't want you to accept another job offer? Is it an invitation to another international conference? Or is it an entire village in Malawi waiting for you to lead a project that will require a long-term separation from your family?
Numbing out our needs
Of course there are times when rising to the occasion is the right thing to do, and the sense of achievement that follows boosts morale and maintains motivation. The problem occurs when the systematic fear of being disloyal - of letting others down- has a numbing effect on our ability to stay connected to our own needs. When these vital messages are blocked from the command control center in our heads, they find other ways to get our attention. We become irritable and argumentative. No matter how long we sleep we never feel rested. We seem to always feel harried and rushed; we make careless mistakes, and that queasy sensation in the pit of our stomachs is a constant reminder that we have already exceeded our limits. Yet these signals get routinely ignored, fueled by the belief that if others found out the truth, we would be letting them down.
So the question is: How can we avoid the trap of depleting ourselves physically and emotionally, in order to remain loyal to the causes and goals we feel passionate about? The key word here is vulnerability.
Your Personal Alarm system
Feelings of vulnerability trigger the alarm system that lets us know when things have gone too far: when the gap between the demands being made on us and what we are capable of at this moment in time has gotten too wide.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable means recognizing the signals your emotions, your energy and your body are sending you.
Be loyal to yourself
Whereas loyalty refers to ideals, people and organizations outside of ourselves, vulnerability is a recognition of our inner needs and our ability to express them constructively to others. Being tuned in to your own vulnerability can be uncomfortable. It means letting go of the idea of always being strong, being able to cope and being in control. In a mission driven environment, your expression of personal needs could be perceived as undermining the plan, going off message or selfishness. Your loyalty to others may be called into question, and it is important to remember that this is not the issue. What matters here is loyalty to yourself - telling truth about what is really going on with you and trusting that your passion and commitment for what you do will continue to make a difference over time. The decision is yours: Are you going to burn your candle at both ends or be sustained by an eternal flame?
One principle used in coaching is to replace habitual limiting beliefs with fresh helping beliefs. Instead of thinking ‘’I am letting others down.”, you can also think “I am taking care of myself in order to keep my commitment to the cause I believe in.” Or “I can trust others to take on my responsibilities.” Or simply, “It’s OK for me to rest.” Focusing your attention on shifting what you believe about the situation you are in, will help you to stay positive and give you the courage to follow through on making other choices.
Synergizing Loyalty and Well-being
From a practical standpoint, there are several constructive ways to promote your own well-being while remaining loyal to your cause. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Don’t wait until the last minute: Whenever possible, don't wait until the last minute if you need to back out of a commitment. Show your support by giving stakeholders ample time to find a replacement or create a Plan B.
2. Support the new plan: Be willing to contribute help or expertise to the new plan, including coaching the person who will take over (some of) your responsibilities. This is not a moment to become protective or possessive of your own content or role. However, you can certainly request that you receive credit for your contribution to the endeavor.
3. No blame: Desist from blaming yourself or others for your need to pull back. You are not a victim, you are an empowered person asking for help and understanding with dignity. Your positive attitude will be a role model for others.
4. Troubleshoot: Learn to recognize colleagues and direct reports who might be suffering from a loyalty conflict. Show compassion and support for the idea of them looking after themselves and the value of their contribuion to the organization in the long term. Be catalyst of changing the culture in your organization from one which promotes ''loyalty at all costs'' to " support the well-being of our team."
Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach for women and an intercultural consultant.
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.