Complexes hold me back

Seven years ago I did my first internship in an internationally-renowned German organization, and the working atmosphere was amazing. Everyone was equal, everyone called the director by name, and the manager entered a room by knocking on the door and apologizing for the interruption. Communication was clear yet strict, while feedback from colleagues was always direct yet polite. To my surprise, I was included in the daily standup meetings, as the team felt comfortable discussing things in my presence. No hierarchy, no formal obligations. I had a mentor who always supported and guided me in German culture. Everything felt almost perfect — I enjoyed the internship, everyone seemed satisfied with my work, and I learned a lot. The experience made for a great start to my career journey that instilled a strong work ethic in me to this day.

After the six month internship concluded, I had to look for other opportunities. The next ones were in local companies. This proved to be fertile soil where I would face many difficulties, experience disappointments, and unfortunately, gain complexes. One such complex is what I call ‘the complex of title’. It was in those years when I realised that I feel uncomfortable communicating with people in positions of seniority. I suddenly lose all of my confidence and ability to hold a conversation. That made for many awkward moments and prevented me from ever presenting my true self.

In the early days of a banking internship, I met a young lady full of charm and style in the corridor of the HR department. I liked her immediately, and tried to get acquainted. I introduced myself in a positive manner and she did the same, but I picked up on non-verbal signals that she was in a hurry so she couldn’t stop to talk more. Back in the office I subsequently found out that this charming lady was the head of the department (she just happened to be on vacation when I started). This was such a disappointment, because to me, that signalled the end of the relationship.

All these years later, I am still trying to get rid of this complex.

At an international engineering company I managed it a little better, thanks to a flat management policy and a non stressful working environment. But in reality, the complex transformed into something else. It can often be difficult to persuade engineering team members that a HR project can be vital and have a positive impact on team performance.

I did learn some lessons about how to negotiate those kinds of conversations and I’d like to share some tips below:

  1. Engineers often believe that everything has a mathematical explanation. They believe in data, and algorithms. As a people ops specialist, my team implements projects which don’t always lend themselves to easily quantifiable measurables. As an example, I’m currently working on a project which aims to increase the efficiency of cross-cultural communication within a global team. There have been many requests to work on this topic, so it is clear that it’s necessary. There are existing issues, difficulties, and misunderstandings but after the completion of the project we will be unable to assess the success of the program. Of course this is one of the disadvantages of the job, but it doesn’t mean that such projects aren’t important. So when I need to persuade engineers to engage with HR projects I tell myself, ‘It isn’t mandatory for everyone to have mathematical knowledge, but it is necessary for everyone to use their potential in the right way, in the right place.’
  2. Find like-minded engineers and seek their advice.
  3. Practice your speech before pitching.
  4. Read as much information as you can about the topic, to try to anticipate any awkward questions which might be asked.
  5. Use humor!

There’s another complex that I believe most Armenians can relate to. Let’s call it a problem of having too much empathy in business. It taps into a feeling of shame while giving corrective feedback to others, whether they be friends, colleagues, or family members.

There are strands to this type of complex: low context and high context. In low context cultures people prefer simple, direct communication. They are forthright, ready to give feedback openly, and will do so without inhibition. Anglo-Saxon countries, Scandinavia, and Germany are examples of low context cultures. High context cultures prefer indirect, layered communication, where messages are subtle and accompanied by non verbal cues. Responses are lengthy, full of background information, and people feel uncomfortable saying no or giving feedback openly. Asia, South America, Persia, and Arabic countries tend to prefer indirect communication styles.

This explains why we, as Armenians, have a national complex about giving feedback.

  1. In a high-context culture, similarity is an important characteristic. This is because the majority of the population in high context cultures typically have the same level of education, as well as a shared ethnicity, religion, and history. This collective experience helps people understand even the most implicit of messages. Armenia is a typical high context culture. We always carefully package negative messages.
  2. Trust comes from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. This connection is a challenge for us, especially in professional relationships. We consider our colleagues friends, so we feel ashamed to say anything negative about their performance. That makes objective performance reviews for colleagues difficult. We often think of the company and our colleagues as family and sometimes forget about the business. Recently I came across a statement by Adam Grant where he stated, “A company is not a family. Parents don’t fire their kids for low performance or furlough in hard times. A better vision for a workplace is a community, where people are bound around shared values, feel valued as human beings and have a voice in decisions that affect them.”

In truth, I’m proud of this national characteristic; of being warm with each other, and of having a high level of empathy, a caring attitude, and expressiveness. But when we let it affect our professional lives, it needs to be reined in.

Here are some tips that have helped me strike the right balance:

  1. Be honest with yourself and with your surroundings.
  2. Set rules for yourself: for example, don’t discuss personal things during working hours.
  3. Always speak up if something needs to be changed.
  4. Use humor to express things where appropriate.

These are just two of my complexes. What complexes would you like to share?

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Lucy Harutyunyan

Lucy Harutyunyan

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