Where Money Fits

NOTE: A lot of my writing energy these days is going into finishing Dancing The Tightrope. The book is coming together in its own time. This week, I’m sharing another excerpt from the book.

After one of my sessions in a multi-day leadership program, one of the men in the room pulled me aside and asked me about a dilemma he was facing. Everything in his body language said he was facing a crisis of his conscience. As James story unfolded, it became clear that he had been living with the awareness for some time that he had been accepting otherwise unacceptable behavior. He had been making trade-offs to please his bosses that he knew in his heart were wrong. He had been compromising his personal values and it was eating him alive from the inside out.  Furthermore, he knew the right thing to do. He had known it for a long time. Maybe even years. So, I asked him the obvious question: “Why haven’t you done it (the right thing) yet?” 

His body slumped and he let out a sigh. He cast his eyes downward. He said, almost shamefully, “But they pay me so much money.” 

In that moment, I knew he had forgotten his worth. He had forgotten who he really was. His fear was palpable. All he could see was what he had to lose.

Here was a guy who had made it. James was the first in his family to go to college. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would be a Senior Vice President in a prestigious Fortune 500 company and yet he was here, attending the most senior leader’s roundtable. People in the room cared what he thought. He had a seat at the table! 

He and his wife had a beautiful home in the suburbs. His kids were attending one of the “it” schools in his community. They took the kind of vacations that showed the world they had made it. They had the right cars - you know the ones, right? Along with his glorious salary, he had a long list of payments and obligations to feed the insatiable beast of his lifestyle. He had appearances to keep up.

Along with his seat at the table, he had started to understand the unseen yet very real deal that he and his co-workers had made. The culture went something like this in his company: “We want you to tell us what you think - as long as it agrees with us. We want alignment. That means staying between the lines, you get that, right? The only bad news we want to hear is about your kid losing the soccer match this weekend. Your job is to make your numbers. If you help us keep making money, you will keep making money. We will help you feed the insatiable beast.”

I have to pause here and say this does not make this or any other company bad. In order to get a bunch of people to work together in far larger groups than we have done over the centuries, it’s necessary to do all kinds of artificial things, like getting people aligned. Money is such a compelling motivator. Of course they are going to use it. The point of this story is to remind you that it’s not all about the money. Now back to the story.

When he said, “But they pay me so much money,” his internal fear said so much more. The Fear said “If I do the right thing, they will hate me. I will be ostracized and shunned. They will find someone to tell them what they want to hear. They might decide I’m not worth having around if I cause too much trouble. I cannot imagine anyone else paying me this kind of money. If I lose this job, I can’t keep up with all my payments and obligations. I will lose the house. I will lose the cars. I will have to put my kids in public school. I will lose my status. I might even be homeless.

He said none of this out loud - but I’ve heard this sequence of doomsday thoughts a thousand times. I’ve BEEN in this sequence myself. I’ve made these compromises. I’ve had to feed the insatiable beast. I have felt the shackles of keeping my money and my status. 

He didn’t love me when my answer to “But they pay me so much money,” was “What does that say about what you will do for money?” It was a sincere question. I wanted him to see, hear and feel the consequences of his mindset. I wanted it to hurt a little bit. 

He looked down and then back at me. I saw the pain in his eyes. All I had done was voice the same question he had been asking himself for years. “What am I doing for money?” “What does it make me when I compromise who I am to get a paycheck?” “How have I let them gain so much power over me?” 

And most importantly, “How do I get out of this dilemma?”

When we make money our god, money will happily make us it’s slave. 

I only saw this after someone was willing to hold a mirror up for me, much like I was doing for James.

His fear was based on assumptions. Some may have been true - and some may have been false. He had not stress-tested any of his assumptions. It had not even occurred to him that he was making assumptions. We closed our conversation with several options for ways he could test his assumptions without having to quit his job or continue to work against his moral compass.

[End of excerpt]

For my blog post readers: Where are you finding that money – or something else – is throwing you out of balance? What assumptions are you making that you have not stress-tested? How can you find out if what you believe to be true is actually true?