Following the Rules but Failing to Thrive

Aug 14, 2023 | All Blogs, Reframing Series, Relationships, Structure

Welcome to the second post in our blog series, Reframing Structure. In these four articles, we make structures visible so we can see their oppressive and nurturing components, explore how we try to use structures to eliminate discomfort, and describe ways we’re trying to lean into structures that build relationships.

This is a conversation we’ve had with many clients, Black women in particular:

I’m following all the rules. I’m doing everything I’m asked, and more. I’m working harder than anyone else in my firm, and I’m furious that others get the opportunities, the promotions, the recognition. It’s like I don’t even know what the standard of success is anymore. I’m hitting a crisis point of burnout but I don’t know any other way. 

We’ve been conditioned to believe that we live and work in a system of meritocracy, but the truth is that merit is not the metric for reward. That system is based on where you live, where you were born, who you know, what you look like, what your body is able to do. 

So we work hard within the structure we believe will reward doing the right thing and doing it well. And when it doesn’t work, it sends us reeling, making us question everything we thought we knew. What else might not be real? What else might not be what I thought was true? 

Here’s another common experience, this one particular to law firms:

The rule is that working a set number of hours earns you an annual bonus. At first glance, this seems like a fair and equal structure; but in reality, attorneys remain so focused on their billable hours that they can’t imagine leveraging their value, building up clients, and increasing their base salary so that the bonus doesn’t make or break them.

Attorneys caught in the system will discover that the rules don’t always apply. Firms will make bonus exceptions for those in whom they want to invest. There is no meritocracy. The structure isn’t designed to reward those who work within. So people feel trapped. They feel hopeless. They feel gaslighted.

But the disorientation is really caused by how we’ve been over-identifying with a belief (meritocracy), which has clouded our ability to see how inhibiting and damaging the billable hour structure can be. 

We can’t change the structure, but we can break out.

Getting beyond a structure comes with emotional work. Having derived our value from performing within the structure for so long, stepping outside it can feel risky, even dangerous.

But imagine the audacity of saying, I bring experience, perspective, and insight that no one else can. Knowing your value, you lean into your difference and start building relationships–which are the source of opportunities. Those opportunities will eclipse the billable hour structure. 

Making invisible structures visible allows us to finally make informed choices about our time and our value. We can choose to step away or work within. Either way, we’re finally free.

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