Dark, dangerous hearts

25 comments on Dark, dangerous hearts
4 minutes

In 2018 I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. The Chief Technology Officer who hired me was forced out, and the woman they brought in to replace him created a toxic work culture. After about nine months, she fired me without warning or explanation. It was unjust, and intensely painful.

I still deeply resent what she did and I haven’t forgiven her. I’ve tried. But if I saw her bleeding out by the side of the road, every bit of me would want to walk right past. I don’t like it that my head and heart are still in this place, and I want to let it go. It’s not that she deserves my forgiveness, but that I deserve to be at peace.

I am at peace, mostly. Trouble is, I’m occasionally reminded of what happened. Then it all comes flooding back.

A couple years ago, that company was purchased by a larger company that made a complimentary product. A buyout, or an initial public stock offering, were always the end goal for this company, which was funded by venture capitalists. I had stock options in my company which would have paid handsomely upon that purchase, but I had to forfeit them when I was terminated. It wouldn’t have been so much money that I could retire on the spot, but it would likely have been enough to buy a very nice house. I alternated between anger and sadness for a couple weeks after that.

The founder and CEO of that company presumably did make enough money from that sale that he need never work again. He’s a young guy; I have children older than him. But he’s bright and driven. He made some youthful mistakes as he built his company, but overall he did a decent job. His leadership led to the company’s successful “exit,” as it is called, and by that measure he did a great job.

He dropped off the radar for almost a year after the sale. Recently he’s started posting on LinkedIn about his time away. He took a sabbatical, he wrote, to reflect on building his company and take stock of the leadership lessons he learned. In his first post, he shared this photograph.

This was the last team photo we made before I was fired. I’m in the back row, surrounded by most of the software engineers on my team. The woman who fired me is in there, too. I was in my final weeks there, and I didn’t know it.

I was filled with sadness to see all of these faces again. I really enjoyed working with these people, and had built really good relationships. I was proud of the work I did and of the engineering team I built.

The CEO has been writing LinkedIn posts about his time off, which included a long trip to South America. He’s also sharing his personal growth lessons, which frankly are lessons I learned as well at about his age. But I learned them while working and raising a family. I feel some bitterness and cynicism: Nice for you to jet to exotic lands to gaze at your navel over life lessons you’re supposed to learn at that age anyway. What incredible privilege.

I hate feeling this way. Also, I’m aware of my own privilege. I work in a wildly growing industry flush with enormous amounts of money. I have made a generous salary for several years. And even though I had a few rough years after being fired, two years ago I landed a Director of Engineering role at a company with a lot more potential than the one that fired me. If things go even mediocre for us, I stand to make out a lot better than I would have at that other company.

My termination from that company was unjust and a real loss — but I am doing very well, and I will likely continue to do very well. Reminding myself of this helps. But even if I were not doing well, carrying around this resentment, bitterness, and cynicism is not helpful, productive, or good for me. It eats at me, and it darkens my heart.

Dark hearts are dangerous. I’m convinced that all of the evil in this world is driven by dark hearts. Carrying around unresolved hurts is what drives us to think about things like letting a former boss die rather than help her — or to actually do it — or to do something worse.

That CEO reflected on lessons learned from his successful exit. I’m still reflecting on lessons learned from my unsuccessful exit. Many years ago I learned that it’s important to forgive so we can be at peace. Now I’m learning that it’s also important to forgive so that darkness stays away from our hearts.


Comments

25 responses to “Dark, dangerous hearts”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    This is an incredible interesting entry, but also informative about modern work environments. As a person who has managed large groups of creative service people, In multiple companies and cities, and over long periods of time, and change; I can tell you I feel over the last twenty years that many companies have changed their viewpoint of the average employee to think of them unemotionally as interchangeable cogs. No interest in how being hired and fired at will, and possibly for a short term unknown to the employee, will impact that employees life. Many times, the person making the decision that ends up harming the employee, is removed from direct contact with that employee, and the direct manager, supervisor, or director has to take the pain of executing the separation, without the skills to do it. This leads to the development of the idea that’s “it’s all just business”. Unfortunately, if you live in a tertiary city, with a small market, you might never recover from this…

    I remember an era where when we hired, we were either replacing a person in a key position, or had to prove to our VP that this was going to be a person we needed long term and would help us develop, verses something that ought be handled short term with a temp employee.

    When businesses think of you like this, how do you make long term investments in housing or put down roots in cities? If you get used to this behavior, you don’t.

    Too much to go into here, but my last employment situation in Indianapolis was so full of “business illiterates”, and poor management people, even identifiable in my interview process, that it was no great shock to have been hired, given no budget or power to execute what was needed for me to fix the department, and fired in a total of three years. The company went on to be sold in another 18 months, and ended up firing half the employees. I never moved my household to the area, or “drank their Koolaid”, because I had enough experience to smell a rat.

    And here’s the point, I guess: it’s hard to be mad at people who are so business illiterate and clueless as to not understand what they’re doing. I’ve harbored a seething hate over the years against people that have wronged me terribly in business situations, mostly to feather their own nests, and these were people who understood what they were doing, and did it with malice, but this type of behavior is very rare, even for a business as competitive as mine. Mostly it’s just hapless business illiterates that haven’t the skills to know what they’re doing, and unfortunately, if they’re higher on the power chart than you, you can get caught up in their sad bungling. I haven’t seen what I would consider a genius business manager in a director or VP position, great with people and motivation, great with the books and finance, since the 1990’s.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I find it very easy to be mad at the clueless and business illiterate! I find it even easier to be mad at the deliberately malicious.

      I’m in a Director position and I think I’m good at all of those things you list!

    2. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

      Thanks for revealing that, Andy.

  2. DougD Avatar
    DougD

    I can identify, at one point I was transferred to a different department that was much busier than mine. The manager didn’t want me, undermined me at every opportunity and two years later he called me into his office and fired me. Luckily I was able to hang on to a job, because another manager in a different department took me on and I stayed with the company. I was inwardly gleeful when my former manager was himself fired a few years later, and not particularly sad when he died of cancer 5 years after that.

    As you know, everyone gets their reward eventually. Some get it sooner than others. We need to minimize the little dark spot in our heart, call it out once in a while and make darn sure we don’t do the same thing to people in our lives.

    I think it would also help if you disconnected from your former CEO.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You know, that’s a great idea, to just disconnect from the CEO. No sense in continuing to have this rubbed in. Thanks!

  3. J P Avatar

    I have been fortunate to avoid workplaces with a toxic environment, but did experience one in, of all places, a Christian marriage ministry. It is truly disheartening, and even though higher-ups eventually resolved the situation, my involvement with the organization was never the same.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m shocked by the stories of toxicity I’ve heard over the years that involve Christian ministries.

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    As you might guess, I’ve had a number of supervisors and bosses over the decades. A depressingly large number of them were terribly incompetent at their jobs, but nevertheless got on while those of us who know our brass from our oboe moved on. We get life lessons too, just not always the good ones. Or as I often put it: “I’ve got a lot of experience, not all of it pleasant”.
    C’est la vie.
    The important thing is to not dwell on it and let it eat away at you, otherwise you lose out twice for the same problem.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I stopped dwelling on this particular thing a long time ago, but I got reminded of it by these LinkedIn posts and bam, all of it came rushing back in. Not awesome.

      The major life lesson I learned here is to trust my instincts. I felt she wasn’t trustworthy from the moment I first met her.

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Hi Jim, great article as usual, full of important insights. Sorry you (and so many people) had to experience such painful toxicity. Toxic people carry around so much damage and do their best to inflict it on the people around them.
    I think you’re right that forgiveness is the only way to find peace. But it’s so difficult sometimes. I wish you luck. I’m sure you will find it in your heart to forgive her one day. I don’t think those people usually intend the damage they do, they’re often just passing on what they learned.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sonny. I guess we can’t avoid toxic people unless we become hermits.

  6. -N- Avatar

    I think it is human nature to resent, but how we choose to act upon resentment is key. If your old boss was lying by the roadside, I doubt you would walk by. I think you would help as you are self-aware and thoughtful. You may not like doing it, but you would. ‘Forgive and forget” is not an easy thing – and I always say that I may forgive, but I won’t forget – bad behavior is a pattern and we are fools to think it changes because we forgive.

    Resentment and horrible experiences do mold us and I think we all have them. The problem is that those in power often think they are immune to redress, and sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not. As a kid, I had a 3rd grade teacher I did not like at all. I was her pet and even at that age I could see that being pet made me “popular” – but it also held me to her higher expectations. She also swatted students with a paddle. It was not nice to see. When she broke her leg when I was in 4th grade, I thought she got what she deserved.

    My point is that we all have a dark side, a dark heart. I believe we need to embrace it, acknowledge its reality, realize our dark side may save us, and be smart enough to know it will come to visit us over and over, in new forms and ways, and each revisitation is a chance to grow and learn. Our darkness is endemic. We choose how to use it. Do we buy a gun and go shoot people or do we choose to evolve and hope we make the world a slightly better place?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh, you’re right, I’d certainly help my ex-boss if she were dying by the roadside. I was just using that as a way to say that I had dark thoughts still about her even 4.5 years later.

      My ex-boss was fired from that company six weeks after she fired me. Then about six weeks after that, the CEO reached out to me with a faint apology, but only for how my exit had been handled. At least I got that.

      You’re right, we all have a dark side. I just want it to be contained and not take over!

  7. William Helbing Avatar
    William Helbing

    Great reflections on your unjust exit from the software company. I had a similar experience myself and it took me a long time to forgive but I did and it helped me tremendously.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yep, forgiving is so good for us. I’ll get there eventually on this!

  8. Ted Marcus Avatar

    When I was laid off after 25 years at my former company, my boss’ boss, a narcissist notorious for the many creative ways he bullied subordinates, walked into my office wearing a shit-eating grin and said “come with me.” He whistled merrily as he walked me to a conference room and motioned me to sit down at a table opposite a stone-faced HR flunkie. He chuckled as he sat down next to the HR flunkie, licking his chops as he took a blue folder from the top of a pile and plunked it down in front of me.

    Then he picked up his Official Script, licked his chops again, and began to read. He was clearly relishing every word, taking additional pleasure from showing me how much he was enjoying it. He would occasionally pause, look me in the eye, and chuckle, apparently reveling in the shock and devastation he was inflicting. When he finished reading, he chuckled gleefully before exhaling a satisfied “ahhhhh.”

    I still feel traumatized after over a decade. But not because of the layoff itself. Under the zero-sum Shareholder Value Capitalism that is the de facto State Religion of the United States, layoffs are an honorable and essential ritual of “unlocking shareholder value.” It really is “just business,” as the executives who are rewarded for their obeisance to Wall Street are so far removed from the workers they devastate that they see those workers as mere numbers on a spreadsheet, expenses they’re duty-bound to reduce. They sleep well, and even celebrate the reward they can expect to reap from that reduction.

    It’s left to people far down the hierarchy to execute the “unlocking,” and to deal with the devastation it inflicts on the affected human beings. For most of those supervisors and managers it’s a painful exercise that can be as painful as it is for the people they terminate. But for this sick individual it was merely a final opportunity to take pleasure in bullying subordinates and kicking them when they’re down.

    I will admit that he ultimately did me a favor by removing me from a toxic work environment and corporate culture that encouraged narcissists and bullies like him. But it’s still difficult to forgive him. Situations like that make me wish there actually were an afterlife and a divine Gatekeeper who metes out justice. Alas, I can’t believe in that.

    However, I do believe we all have an afterlife of sorts. It’s the memories of people who interact with us. His victims’ memories will thus consign him to a Hell that he took such pleasure in constructing for himself. Even without identifying him, sharing that memory possibly helps me heal from the trauma by diluting it– and also by delivering an extra shipment of sulfur to his ultimate residence.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Your story took my breath away it’s so stunningly awful. You want men like that to (a) be far away from your life and (b) suffer horribly somehow. But it sounds like you’ve figured out how to get past this.

  9. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    There’s that saying: You can forgive, but you can’t forget.

    Unfortunately, the failure to forget means that, when you’re reminded of some past wrongdoing you were harmed by, any forgiveness can take a beating.

    I’ve a number of things in my life which I’ve put behind me and don’t dwell upon, but I can’t say I’ve forgiven the people who did me harm, even if I can understand why they might have done the things they did. It can be a hard thing to come by.

    What you said about deserving to be at peace is a valuable thing to consider though, and I’ll bear that in mind next time I receive an unwanted reminder of a past harm.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Your insight here is keen. I have forgiven, in the sense that I’ve absorbed this debt and do not expect it to be made right. But I still have hard feelings. I have no intention of forgetting what happened; I want to have nothing to do with that toxic person ever again. I wonder if the trick here is to just recognize that I’m likely to have hard feelings for a long time when I’m reminded of what happened, but I don’t have to behave badly as a result. I can keep my composure.

  10. Jane Herr Avatar
    Jane Herr

    Jim I am saying a little prayer for you that you can let go of the hate that it seems you are still holding for this woman. Something that I heard long ago and you probably have too: “Hate is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” I know you cannot just drop those dark feelings at once but my prayer is that you let them go little by little.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh yes. Letting go of being wronged is a journey for sure. I am frustrated that I’m still on it.

  11. ronian42 Avatar
    ronian42

    I can’t really comprehend how you feel Jim as something like this has never happened to me. However, if I have negative feelings about the way I’ve been treated by someone, meditating on Proverbs 14:30, and Romans 12:17-21, helps me. I hope they help you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you so much!

  12. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    A wiser man than me once said something along the lines that forgiveness seems very straightforward and right, until you have something you need to forgive. Sometimes the hurt takes a long time to fade. One thing that seems to have helped me is to say to myself that despite the hurt and the unwanted change in circumstances the best thing I can do is draw a line behind me and leave it there, so that whatever it is does not define me (it does not) and that I will not allow it to ruin the rest of my life, which is still an open book. Blessings :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think you nailed it: sometimes the hurt takes a long time to fade.

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