This very-public family breakdown is mirrored in workplace relationships, says leading executive coach Jenny Rossiter.
The problems underlying the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s spectacular rift with the British Monarchy has caused an international sensation. But their problems are ones all families face. And not just our domestic families. They are also the problems which can be found among our work families in commerce and industry.
From my experiences, I have identified six key aspects of the Meghan and Harry story which will resonate with business and organisational leaderships.
1. Family drama and imbalances or power
In any family – personal or otherwise – there are always dramas and behind-the-scenes things are never what they seem. At home or at work we get stressed and upset while our behaviour is not who we are necessarily. But as we try to find our place and make sense of how we can best contribute – as Meghan Markle apparently found to her cost – conflict is everywhere and we all have arguments. What we find difficult is getting blamed and shamed for things that we do or don’t do, and which is all open to perception and interpretation.
Power hierarchies have rules which rely on people to keep quiet and accept an imbalance – with some rules applying to one person and not another. There are layers and projections and all sorts of complications in family dynamics which are mirrored in organisations. This is the effect of being part of a system where you cannot see what is really going on.
Meghan was at the bottom of the pecking order. She came in last, she came from afar, and she didn’t have any bargaining power. She was used to playing in a different game, where she had some say and could influence and persuade to navigate her way around. But, in this game, it wasn’t that easy, and history was not about to change.
2. Signing up for the job – the unspoken roles
When we sign up for a job, we don’t always realise what we are taking on. These unspoken roles are even more important than the official ones. Meghan didn’t understand what was required – the official or unspoken roles. Being part of a system that you don’t understand and being such an outsider that you can’t even share concerns, is isolating and confusing. Whether you’re a mother at home or the boss of a work family, it’s the unofficial roles that can catch us out.
In all family systems, any false moves or not playing out your unspoken role can leave you banished and isolated with shunning voices, which can be seen in the workplace. The sparkling, glamourous job spec can end up a prison of working all hours. Meghan definitely didn’t like being in such a lowly place, but the real issue was not being able to talk about everything else.
3. Need to belong – Exclusion and the rules
An often-desperate need to belong to a group, as was surely the case with Meghan, may combine with our own unconscious bias and lack of awareness of our own true feelings and behaviour. All this perpetuates ongoing feelings of exclusion, dismissal or just a lack of attention from someone which hurts, and Meghan clearly felt this. It’s often the nuanced, not the big, stuff that matters. For example, you can shout back to loud criticism, but being ignored, not listened to, having your opinions under-valued or not recognised, is much harder.
The Royal Family’s rules might be difficult, and absurd even, but they are the rules. And, as with any establishment and system to which you belong, there is no breaking them. These are the belonging rules which can be very subtle and ones that outsiders can never meet. Some might say that Meghan knew what she signed up to, but this is not true. In this case, it’s the historical men’s belonging rules that often matter and have been in place for a long time.
Our need to belong and be valued at work sometimes means that we drive ourselves too hard because we don’t want to give up. When we’re unhappy, it can become the norm and it’s difficult to see a way out. So, if you’re stuck in a work role that’s impossible, or you’re just plain miserable, take a lesson from the frog, and jump before the water gets too hot.
4. Hierarchy and place in families
Our home and work families are exactly the same and pose identical challenges – for example, making sense of the role we have taken, whilst the fundamental parts of it are often kept secret. Even those who are well established in a system and integral to it can also have feelings of being left out. This is another dynamic which takes place at work, where teams – just like a family of origin – fight for the top position, doing all they can to win the affections of the boss (the Mum or Dad). Even though we might be clear on our job title, this rarely equates to a solid sense of belonging in the unspoken orders of hierarchy and place. The rules change all the time, and with it the needs change, and we feel left out and unheard.
Meghan came into the Royal family and didn’t fit in. She was different and from another world altogether. Sadly, when we don’t fit into a family we are silenced, rejected and, in many subtle ways, told that you just don’t belong. Not fitting in, doesn’t mean that you are bad. Meghan couldn’t be herself and was in an untenable situation, much like many people find themselves in in organisations. Micro aggressions, unconscious bias and basic belonging rules, if not adhered to, hurt us. Meghan might have been naïve, but all she did was fall in love with a man and wanted to be part of his life and his family. She was willing to take a risk and jumped in at the deep end. At least she had the courage to jump out again.
We must take heed of these rules of hierarchy and place as they are essential for business success. And two simple rules follow: firstly, you will never win against the boss, so don’t bother fighting and, secondly, the system is bigger than you both, so leave if it no longer serves you and get a different job!
5. Support and understanding are a human right
When your call for help is rejected, as Meghan felt, it’s the system that lets you down and even “gaslights” you, by making you feel that you are going mad. When there is nowhere to go, this can be your worst nightmare. People are trapped in this system, just like Meghan with her “golden handcuffs” – the price being adhering to the belonging rules. The price for money and safety is the pain.
Support and understanding are the most basic and fundamental human needs. Not getting this in our hour of need can have dire consequences as you seek some external help and resources when you are in need and have run out of steam. We are social animals and need a lot of things from others – such as, loving connection and support when you are in difficulty. Resolution is not about shutting up and accepting what’s not good for you. But family or work resolution is sometimes just not possible.
Sadly, I see this lack of support in the workplace all the time as it’s difficult to know where it is safe to go. If you are in a situation where you’re not getting support, or you don’t trust the situation, reach outside of your organisation where you can then speak in confidence.
6. Do we speak up, keep quiet or get out?
Speaking out can be very difficult and much of my job is helping those in the workplace look up, take a step back and make sense of what is happening. This takes time and a lot of listening and sense-making, because when we speak to it and admit it, we start to see things as never before.
I see this in meetings all the time: either the boss speaks first or it’s the one with all the power or the one who is the biggest extrovert. There is definitely an order to this, with it granting power to the person being listened to.
Meghan, who is well versed in speaking and prioritising her position, didn’t even have a voice because the unspoken rules did not allow it.
Many women in particular fear that they may appear not smart or worth listening too. Yet overcompensating for this fear can have the opposite effect if others are driven away by you shouting louder, an immodest attitude or sense that you are desperately trying to prove yourself.
In essence, those not accepted by the group are made to feel that they don’t matter. For a while, they can pretend to be someone they are not. At some point, though, the only option is to leave. Luckily, in walking away, Meghan and Harry had each other and, after what happened to his mother Princess Diana, history was not going to be allowed to repeat itself. They have broken the rules and that comes at a price – but one worth paying to get out.
In the end, there are no easy answers to dealing with the dilemmas and dramas of families, at home and at work. But, as the Royal drama has shown, we must be true to ourselves and, if we are not happy or don’t fit in, we have to walk away. It takes strength to stay, but courage to leave.
At Feel Good Leadership, we work with high performing executive leaders, managers and teams to become more authentic, inclusive and nurture better relationships enabling collaborative and thriving workplaces.
About the Author
Jenny Rossiter is an international executive coach and facilitator with a passion for weaving together the real human experience with practical science-based techniques to build authentic & inclusive leadership, emotional resilience and mental strength. Jenny has spent a lifetime studying human behaviour and more recently leading-edge neuroscience. She takes her clients through a journey of accompanied exploration in order to discover who they are and who they might become, as leaders, as teams and as human beings.
Please contact Jenny at firstname.lastname@example.org