Clint was a 35-year-old sales professional with strong communication skills, and made a lasting impression on the people he met. He had a real talent for landing great job offers wherever he interviewed. His resume featured an impressive parade of Fortune 500 firms as previous employers.

However, this long list hinted at a serious problem.

Clint struggled to remain employed with any company for more than eight months. In fact, he spent the better part of his career changing jobs and industries. A nomadic employment record seemed odd for someone with such obvious skills and a proven history of sales success. So why did all of these blue-chip companies hand Clint a pink slip if he didn’t run for the door first?

The root of the problem

Clint suffered from what I refer to as Don’t Fence Me In syndrome. Buoyed by his ample self-confidence, he believed that the value he brought to each employer allowed him to bypass the companies’ written and unwritten rules. He skipped the company picnic because that would infringe on his personal time. And, despite the standard for business-casual attire, he sometimes showed up at office wearing shorts. He was the company’s self-appointed crusader, crafting detailed memos to the CEO enumerating the flaws in the latest company policy. According to Clint, what difference would it make if he didn’t attend the team’s offsite social gathering? As long as he was exceeding his sales goals, everything else should be irrelevant.

Clint’s managers initially agreed. So they tried to cut him some slack because of his exceptional performance—at least for the first few months. Soon after, his supervisors grew weary of his ‘rules don’t really apply to me’ stance.

Whatever benefits he brought to the company were just not worth the trouble of trying to get him on board with policies or directions handed down from senior management. And before long, Clint was busy sending out resumes once again.

Clint’s call for help

After Clint parted ways with yet another employer, his frustration reached new heights. That was when he approached me, and as we sat down at the conference table for our first meeting, he dove in with one simple question: “Why does this keep happening to me, over and over again?”

During the course of our interaction, Clint narrated a stream of vivid details about power-hungry supervisors, clueless management teams and inane corporate policies. He seemed particularly annoyed with the occasional requests to participate in after-hours events that infringed on his own free time. An analysis of the possible reasons behind his unyielding resistance towards anything that threatened his autonomy was traced to his first job out of college. He revealed that he worked for a man who had a real zest for climbing the corporate ladder. Clint viewed this man as inordinately demanding, as well as condescending. While many people feel taken for granted by their bosses at some point, this sounded like a constant drain on Clint’s professional self-esteem. After 16 gruelling months, he walked out and vowed never again to be controlled or abused by another employer.

Following that experience, Clint began withholding from everything that seemed like a demand from upper management. Wherever he worked, he couldn’t seem to view a manager as a helpful guide and supporter.

Business is a game, with rules

Those who are plagued by Don’t Fence Me In syndrome seem to struggle with the fact that business is a game. When they choose to be employed, they’ve chosen to play the game. So—like it or not—they need to follow the basic rules. Every business has certain “rules of engagement” that define its corporate culture and provide a proven structure to support the next great innovation. But you can’t play Monopoly if someone throws out the board.

Corporate renegades like Clint are typically quick to identify the external factors that have plagued their careers, from lousy supervisors to preposterous corporate strategies. Clint believed that taking a stand against corporate policies and customs demonstrated his leadership and ingenuity, but his managers simply perceived him as difficult and defiant.

Play the game to win

People with Don’t Fence Me In syndrome habitually resist what they perceive to be cruel constraints of authority—unnecessary rules that limit their individuality, their creativity and, most of all, their freedom. These are the people who perform well but hit a major roadblock when it comes to following the standard procedures. Certainly, no one is suggesting that companies would be better off with an army of cookie-cutters, order-following Stepford wives for employees. Creative thinking is critical for companies to gain a competitive edge and differentiate their products and services in unique ways.

People who fall into the Don’t Fence Me In category should begin to think about the structure and norms of a business in a new way. Just because you follow the basic rules doesn’t mean that you are being smothered by authority or shamelessly catering to office politics. Playing the game is a smart, savvy way to get ahead, not a humiliating, white-flag surrender. Making that critical shift in thinking is one of the most important steps you can take to begin changing your reputation.

A change in perception

With Clint’s long history in sales, I wanted to show him the parallel between being a successful salesperson and being a successful employee. I asked Clint to demonstrate the techniques he used to generate new business and make a sale with a prospective client. He displayed an understanding of their needs, gaining credibility, developing trust, and showing a sincere interest in helping them succeed long-term. He clearly understood that a good salesperson is like a chameleon—blending in and creating a sense of sameness that puts others at ease. My response was direct: if you are willing to mirror the values of a client’s business to make the sale, wouldn’t the same principle apply to your own company?

Clint instinctively understood the idea. By respecting the culture, norms and traditions of his employer, he could build credibility and trust in a way that would enhance his career. Shortly after that, he landed a new job and remained employed with that company for several years—the longest tenure of his entire career. He later went on to start his own business, and he was excited about the opportunity to establish the norms and policies that would define his new workplace.

The strongest branches on the tree are the ones that can bend without breaking in the fierce winds. The branches that refuse to bend are the ones that snap off quickly and get tossed to the ground. Being flexible and adapting to cultural norms is not a sign of helplessness, but being strong and business savvy.

Adapted from her book You—According To Them, published by T&C Press

This was first published in the December 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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