How free can we be at work?


Anabelle holds a very promising job in the online products department of a prestigious investment company in Paris. She’s been coming for monthly coaching sessions for the last few months because she’s struggling with some management issues within her team, and would like to explore how to handle them differently. In parallel, she’s not getting on with her boss, who she feels is micro-managing her, and thus stifling her abilities.

One day she comes in, looking much chirpier, all smiles and lightness. As she sits down, she launches straight into telling me her great news: “I’m quitting my job!”. With that she goes on telling me how much better she feels since she’s taken that decision, how lighter she feels, how suffocating the last few months had been at work, what with her boss always breathing down her neck, leaving her zero freedom, how important freedom is for her, and how by taking that decision to quit she feels she has recovered her freedom…

Rather than congratulate her, my response came in the form of a question: “Are you sure that it is in freedom that you have taken that decision?”. It must have felt like a bit of a cold shower, I guess …

“Well yes of course, why are you saying that? I wasn’t feeling well in the team, Fred [her boss] is treating me like an 8-year old, I worked so hard to get where I am, so I want to choose what’s good for me and what isn’t. That’s why I made that choice, and it’s freed me up – both the result (I can choose where to move on to now), and the process (finally, I could exercise freedom, no more of this stifling environment!). So why are you trying to spoil my fun? Are you worried that our coaching will end prematurely and you’ll lose your client ?”.

Yes, good questions. Why indeed did I question whether she’d acted in freedom, rather than rejoice with her about something that clearly had generated joy for her? Was I annoyed that she’d taken that decision without bringing it to our coaching sessions first? Was I – as she suggested – worried about losing a client, or at least fearing premature ending of our work-relationship? As a coach, I feel it is my duty to question my own inner dynamics, lest they come and derail me off my role.

But none of that resonated with me. Paradoxically, I felt some sense of non-attachement, of “inner-freedom” as Jesuits might call it, in relation to the decision being taken outside of our sessions, or at the prospect of the coaching ending.

Rather, what had struck me when she announced her news is a powerful sense of déjà-vu. History repeating itself, patterns weaving their web and catching their prey unaware. No freedom there, as far as I could see, but instead the sense that she was a puppet held-up in her own inner drama – so that’s what generated for me such a direct – and rather challenging – response.


A bit of history might be helpful here.


Anabelle is the eldest of 4 siblings, with probably loving, but certainly anxious (1st time) parents, who grew up with a sense of constant restrictions: she couldn’t go out to play when she was a kid, or with her friends to parties when she was a teenager; her school subjects were chosen for her by her parents, and so was her university path later on – until her first act of self-affirmation, when she dropped out of engineering to sign up for one of France’s top business schools.

Her career was then off to a promising start, when she was recruited by Total, after a 6-month internship there. But soon she grew restless, feeling that her creativity was being restricted, that the management culture was infantilising, so she sought a way out and quitted.

Her time with Danone was more promising; she liked the culture there, and held several roles until she found herself (again) with a boss that, she felt, clipped her wings, but seemed to let the others in the team off the hook (“just like at home when I was a kid”, she commented once in a coaching session, “when I kept being told I couldn’t do this or that but later on my siblings were allowed much more than me”). So Anabelle quitted her job – again.

Then came a spell with a retail bank – which ended in the same way, and for the same perceived reasons.

And now this new decision; in other words, 4 times in about 12 years. I can’t help it: my job is to try to identify my clients’ patterns, and to help them discover them. And what Annabelle’s pattern was revealing, is that, far from acting out of an inner freedom, she was in fact helplessly repeating a pattern that had been governing her life hitherto – deceiving her into believing that she was making free choices, when in fact she was unconsciously projecting her unprocessed childhood experiences onto her current work situation, and rebelling against it in a way that she had not been able to do as a child.

If it was freedom she wanted, it would need to be about freeing herself from the very pattern that controlled her behaviour. It would require her acknowledging and owning the feelings that growing up with such parents had triggered in her; claiming back those parts of herself that she had not been allowed to express; and learn to discern and decide from “the whole of herself”, rather than only from that wounded part of her that kept seeking reparation.

Thank God our working relationship was very good, so Annabelle – despite raising her own challenging questions to me – was able to hear me out, trusting that somehow I was speaking from a place that might hold an interesting perspective, one that she might be blind to.

And indeed the rest of the session was very constructive. She was able to recognise how she was repeating an old and long-buried pattern, and work through her own initial feelings of guilt and shame for having done so.

However, her decision to quit her job had been taken, and our joint task now was to help her manage as best as possible this period of transition, and of letting go: of her job, and of these coaching sessions, paid for by her current employer, which would end when her job with them ended.

In the couple of sessions that followed – and were the last of our work together – it became clearer and clearer to her how this particular session had been pivotal for her, because it enabled her to finally see the elephant (her patterns) in the room (her life at work), to name it, to recognise it, so that next time she will face it, she will – at last ! – have a real choice: to follow the elephant once again, or to ask him to leave the room.