Employment Baggage

We all know about personal baggage. You know, that “stuff” from our past experiences that we carry around with us and bring into future experiences and relationships. That baggage that everyone else has, but we deny that we ourselves have. That baggage that we sometimes use to hit other people over the head to make sure they know about it. The concept has been the foundation of comedy and humor for many years, including a brilliant episode of How I Met Your Mother that concluded with people walking the streets of New York carrying luggage with stickers stating the nature of their “baggage.” Yes, baggage is real, and yes, contrary to your own beliefs and hopes, you too have baggage. Just admit it.

However, there’s one form of baggage that is often overlooked and ignored, all to the extreme detriment of leaders, teams, organizations, plans and objectives. It’s employment baggage, and everyone has it, even a brand new employee who has zero prior employment experience (more on that phenomenon later). Basically, employment baggage is what every employee brings to their new employment, new employer and new business relationships. This employment baggage is based upon all of the employee’s prior experiences (personal and observed), life experiences and even cultural messages. This also includes for all of us, even brand new employees, the possibility of baggage that came from what we saw or heard modeled by our parents or other authority figures. If Mom or Dad tell each other (or you) how no one at work can be trusted, then you’re likely to start work with the employment baggage that people can’t be trusted. See my point?

Employment baggage comes in all different shapes, sizes and forms, including the following:

  • Uncertain trust or lack thereof
  • History of physical, mental or emotional abuse
  • History of taking risk with no support or being blamed when risks don’t work out
  • Unacceptability of mistakes or failure
  • History of no delegation or delegation without letting go
  • Dumping projects or work at the last minute
  • Poor or inadequate communication
  • Not being listened to or poor listening habits
  • Accountability with shame or beatings
  • Inadequate or misguided leadership
  • Poor or vague setting of expectations

Hopefully, you get my point and can see how the list goes on forever. The key is to be more aware of the existence and reality of employment baggage and to assume its existence (versus our typical approach of ignoring its existence).

Think about times when you can’t figure out why someone doesn’t trust you, when you believe that you’ve done everything you can to build and earn their trust. Yes, it’s possible that you have missed something in your own actions or modeling, but it’s just as likely that this person has employment baggage from prior experiences that impact their willingness or ability to trust, their speed of trust or their depth of trust. Because of the reality of employment baggage, we often have to exaggerate our alignment, communication, relationship building and trust building in order to overcome the possibility of that baggage causing a breakdown or disconnect.

Imagine a team member whom you very much want to encourage and empower through effective delegation so that they can grow both personally and professionally, but they come with employment baggage that taught them only to do what they were told,  never to take risks, and to expect  mistakes or failure to be met with shaming or harsh criticism. In light of the existence of this type of employment baggage, you would need to take different approaches to empowering this team member to grow. In fact, in some cases the employment baggage can be so heavy and entrenched that the team member is not willing to put it down, and this may determine the role that this person has or plays on your team.

In what ways will you lead differently in light of the reality of employment baggage? In what ways will you communicate differently? What different or additional questions will you use to assess and adapt to employment baggage? Employment baggage is often the elephant in the room for your team and organization, often without anyone quite being able to describe or see it fully. Rather than blindly proceeding as if employment baggage doesn’t exist, assume its existence, plan for its reality, and focus on communicating and modeling ways in which employment baggage is minimized and not allowed to be the obstacle to your goals and objectives. And while you’re at it, ask yourself what your employment baggage is because remember, everyone has it!

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