Are You Feeling Boxed In at Work?



  • Why some dissatisfied employees find it’s better to stay than to go (2:00)

  • How things look from inside the box (3:25)

  • Three questions for empowered, impactful, sustainable change (5:30)

  • Why you find yourself doing the same “dance” even after changing partners (6:55)

  • How to change a situation by changing yourself (8:30)


My question for you today is: Are you like a mime?

I had this giant aha! the other day…

In an online coaches’ forum that I participate in, a question came up. A leadership coach asked about what her responsibility is if more than one person she’s coaching at an organization tells her they’re contemplating leaving because of too many problems with their supervisor – and they all have the same supervisor.

Her dilemma: Does she break confidentiality to notify the company owner there is a problem? After all, he is footing the bill for her services, and wouldn’t he want to know?

My initial response was kind of technical. I said that my coaching agreement clearly states that everything is confidential unless something is revealed that puts the organization, the client, or another person in physical, financial, or legal danger. This exception could provide an avenue for a conversation with the owner. In her case, there is a significant financial impact if many are considering leaving the company.

Then I jumped in the shower to get ready for my day, and that’s where I had my big aha! (I love those ahas that you have in the shower.)


I’ve been fortunate to do a great deal of coaching in government agencies. Coaching within these agencies is much different than coaching in the private sector because of government bureaucracy, contracts, and unions.

Many employees who work in these environments feel hopeless when it comes to dealing with conflict or making change. Also, people with significant time invested in government employment are more likely to stay within discomfort because leaving their job means a loss of many accumulated and valuable benefits, such as pensions, vacation time, and opportunities for salary advancement.

So, in my government coaching work, clients don’t often say, “I’m thinking of leaving.” Our work together, then, must become about improving how to stay in place.

Coaching at the management and executive level within government agencies has been a great training ground for me. I’ve had to learn how to coach at a much deeper level around the power of the Navigating Challenging Dialogue® mantra—

The only person I can manage is myself.


The image that immediately comes to my mind is that government employees often (but not always) show up as The Mime – you know, a street mime who’s playing a victim stuck inside an invisible box of their own making.

I’m on the outside looking in, while they are on the inside looking out, their hands pressed against pretend glass and with a perplexed look on their face. Their wide eyes look at me as if to say, “Don’t you see? I’m hopelessly stuck in here!”

If I were to offer solutions such as “Go talk to your supervisor” or “Go talk to HR,” they’d simply push against the imaginary glass and shrug their shoulders in helplessness. Now, it isn’t that these professionals are helpless; they most certainly are not.

But the ones who are unhappy, unsatisfied, or totally focused on how many days/months/years until their retirement are a bit like that boxed-in mime. All they see is the imaginary glass holding them stuck in place; what they can’t see is that yes, maybe they have limited options for dealing with challenging subordinates, peers, or superiors, but they have unlimited options for creating change within themselves.

Consider how, at any time, the street mime can stop looking to passersby to help them out of their imaginary box, and simply step out of it on their own.

The government coachee also has to stop looking to others to create change and, instead, look at how they can make changes within themselves that will create the energy they want in the relationship. Because truly, the only person they can manage is themselves.


The coach who posted the question on the ethics of approaching the owner herself was missing the true power and depth of the growth she can facilitate within her coachee.

The most powerful work is to hold the mirror up to the coachee and ask three simple, yet empowering, questions:

  1. What about this relationship, as it is now, is actually serving you?

  2. What are you bringing to the relationship dynamic that is actually sustaining what you don’t like?

  3. What within yourself can you manage differently?

The most impactful and sustainable work the coachee can do is to really look at themselves and their behaviors to honestly answer those questions.


You see, the dynamics of work relationships are like a dance – each partner has to be responsible for their own timing and footwork to make the dance work.

But when the dance doesn’t go smoothly, instead of checking our own steps, we frequently point to our partner and focus on what we perceive to be their flawed footwork.

Now, don’t get me wrong – their footwork may very well be flawed. But I have absolutely no power over making my partner change their footwork. I can only be responsible for improving my own (and the same is true for you).

Like in dance, coaching time spent studying the other person’s moves is unproductive. The truth is, if you don’t increase your awareness of what you are contributing to a rocky dance, then advocacy on your behalf isn’t going to have a sustainable impact.

Removal of a challenging supervisor, coworker, or subordinate isn’t going to resolve the issue of your dance steps, because the next time a similar person shows up and represents the same challenges, there you will be with all your same moves – many that caused you trouble in the past and will cause you trouble again.


In the case of the coach who wants to go to the owner of the company – I get it. I’ve wanted to as well. But…

What I’ve learned is that when I work with the person standing in front of me – the coachee feeling stuck in their imaginary glass box – to identify what behaviors they bring to the challenging relationship, and then help them to identify ways to experiment and practice behavioral changes, there tends to be a positive shift in the relationship that was so challenging.

One of my coachees started our first session by telling me she was planning on leaving as soon as she could get her resumé together and find a new job. That was six months ago.

In our most recent session, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard her talk about leaving in at least 3 months. That, in fact, I’d observed a great deal of new energy in her about her work. She smiled a gigantic smile and said, “Yes. Me too!”


If you’re considering leaving your job because of a work relationship that is consistently challenging to you, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions:

  • What about this relationship, as it is right now, actually serves me?

  • What behaviors do I contribute to sustaining this bad relationship?

  • Which of those behaviors can I shift or let go of?

Remember, at the end of the day, the only person you can manage is yourself. And when you make a change like moving to a new position, you only take yourself with you.

To learn more about these concepts and the mantras of challenging dialogue, go to and learn more about the Skills Training and Leadership Certification workshops we’re offering this summer.

- Beth