This series is the brain-child of Stephanie, and was sparked when she was reading the “Dear Heloise” column regarding weddings: if a one-time event like a wedding has a whole advice column, why shouldn’t the daily grind that is running a business have one?
“Ask Steph” is the article series where business owners can go to get answers for their real-life questions from an award-winning entrepreneur, business developer, and business coach, without the $2,000 consultation fee!
“Long-time follower here! I don’t own a business, but I work with a small business owner who is causing a lot of confusion among our team.I LOVE working for her, but she's driving us all crazy right now! She talks about how she wants to work herself out of a job and is trying to make us take over more and more, but then she'll turn around and rope herself back into decisions and conversations and override what we're trying to do in areas she specifically said she didn't want to be involved in! I’ve tried to encourage her to talk with you but she doesn’t feel she needs help with growing and managing the business right now. Now we’re at the third time where she’s given us projects, then taken them back over just days or weeks later because she doesn’t like the way we’re doing it. When we try and put stuff back on her from the get-go, she gets mad. What do we do?!” -- Employee Driven Crazy
(Note: Names have been obscured & genders may have been changed throughout to protect identities)
Hey, first off I want to say thank you for reaching out for help! And I think, in the future, your boss will thank you too.
While at first glance this might look like an employee-not-doing-good-work issue, there are a few cues that indicate this is a little more layered and your boss might be dealing with a case of Business Owner Identity Crisis (BOIC).
First of all, you’re reaching out for help completely unsolicited! That’s a big indicator that you’re a pretty great employee. Second, the business owner gives a project, then takes it back over, repeatedly. Third, I’ve deal with this many times before!
Business Owner Identity Crisis: The Why
This issue is far more prevalent and normal than most people might imagine. So first I want to encourage you to be understanding with your boss and try to let go of any frustration: she is dealing with a normal business growth challenge.
BOIC happens because of change in the business, and is completely normal.
When business owners start out, it is often just the owner.
At the start, we run everything and do everything: we end up building an identity of being the whole business. As the business grows, our active role in the business shrinks from everything to some things, and we experience a moment of feeling unneeded and, while we thought we wanted that, realizing that it’s not a great feeling! The identity (of being the whole business) that we had when we started disappears, and we feel lost. So we tend to self-sabotage our business growth by pulling activities back onto our plates, when they really need to be laid on our team, because we feel like we are losing ourselves.
At an even more basic level, our brains respond to change with fear and an instinctive refusal to allow change. On a survival-level, our instincts say that change in our surroundings or regular activities is a sign of imminent danger. Because if the bookshelf in our apartment has fallen over, it’s a good sign that someone has invaded our home or some other life-threatening situation has/is happening.
Both of these reasons lead to many business owners acting irrationally without really realizing that we are doing so. I know because I’ve done it on occasion, and I’ve seen extreme cases of it.
One extreme case that I saw involved a business owner literally sabotaging machinery.
I once knew a business owner who was trying to pull himself out of the day-to-day factory work, and move into a more CEO-type role that wasn’t in the warehouse. However, every night he would go into the warehouse and change the settings on the machines. When the crew came in to work the next morning, everything would be different from the way they had set it up the night before and they would have to call him in to change the machines to the settings they could work with.
It wasn’t necessarily that he wanted to sabotage the machinery in his business, but that he was intimidated by the role he was trying to get himself to step into: it was easier to constantly get pulled back into the warehouse for an emergency than it was to step forward into the change.
The good news here is that business owners can recognize it and move out of it. The guy who was sabotaging his machinery one day told me that he was worried about what life would look like when he was no longer needed in the warehouse. But he recognized it and we were able to move past it.
So it is possible to move past the identity crisis, and these identity crises are totally normal!
Business Owner Identity Crisis: What To Do
Unfortunately, there is only so much that you can do as an employee until she recognizes that she’s dealing with an identity crisis.
Recognizing the identity crisis will take some work on her part, and then resolving it will take even more work. Often these can’t be resolved in isolation, and your boss will probably need to begin working with someone to work through the identity crisis. But ultimately the identity crisis has to be resolved by the business owner. Employees (even those as wonderful as you are for reaching out to find a way to help!) can only do so much.
That said! There are a few things you can do to help:
The next time you are assigned a new project, ask a lot of questions.
Get clarity on exactly what she wants done, why she wants you to do it instead of her, what kinds of leeway is permissibly in terms of quality, how often she wants to be updated, when the exact deadline is, etc.
Part of the purpose of asking a ton of questions is to make sure that you both have clarity on the project, but you will also probably trigger her to ask why you’re asking so many questions. She may get frustrated and tell you to “Just do whatever!” If that happens, your job is to recall what happened “last time” to her memory and let her know you’re trying to avoid that happening again.
The very fact that you’re reaching out about the situation tells me that you care a lot about your boss!
So when she gets frustrated or asks you why you’re asking so many questions, use the opportunity to show her that you want to make her life easier and keep her from having to take over again. You’ll remind her that you’re here to help her, and you might help her realize that she is forming a habit and stunting her business growth.
Give Her A Different Job
What I don’t mean here is to be patronizing and ask her to do something just to keep her out of your hair. That would go over very poorly!
What I do mean is to ask her to take care of a small part of the project so that she can feel involved. Part of what she is dealing with is a feeling of lostness and uninvolvement, so giving her a small portion of the project to take care of helps her to still feel involved while also helping her to transition out of the projects she wants to hand off to you.
E. G., when she asks you to take care of X, say “Ok, I can take care of this! Do you mind getting me Y so I can work on Z for you?” Sometimes you can just ask for specific information that she might be the only person who knows or knows best.
In other words, take a small portion of the project and ask her to provide an important but small part of the project to you. This will help keep her busy and feel involved, while not taking the whole project back from you.
Remind Her That She Is Needed And Valued
Right now she is feeling unneeded and unimportant.
You know she is important, you know the business needs her and that her identity is to captain the ship. But her brain is telling her that she no longer has an identity in the business, because her original identity in the business is gone. So whenever you get the chance, remind her of how valuable her overall direction is.
When she takes charge in a way that lets you run with the project she gave you, tell her how much you appreciate her support of your initiative. Tell her how helpful it is to have someone who is overseeing the business as a whole and is focusing on the direction to take the business in, so that you can focus on the day-to-day.
I can guarantee you it will help ease her transition and the growing pains of an identity crisis.
Business Owner Identity Crisis: Do I Have It?
If you’re a business owner reading this and are concerned you’re dealing with an Identity Crisis, run yourself through this self-diagnosis:
Signs of a Business Owner Identity Crisis:
You can never get out
If there is a role that you swear you don’t want to be involved in (such as client work or directing the company), and you’ve trained your employees to handle it but you find yourself constantly being pulled back into or involved in, there are two options: either you might need to train your employees better, or it’s a sign of Identity Crisis. In many cases, it is a sign of Identity Crisis.
Your team is never good enough
This sign works hand-in-hand with the first one. If your team never seems competent enough to handle what you’ve given them (even though you’ve invested a ton of time in training them), it’s a likely sign of an Identity Crisis.
Feeling like you’ve lost purpose and don’t know what to do next can be a sign of several different things (such as a loss of vision or being burnt out, which is a dangerous thing. If you think you’re burnt out, check out my article on how to fix that.), but if you’re feeling this in concert with any of the other signs on this list there’s a good chance it’s part of an Identity Crisis.
You know what to do next, but…
If you know where to move your business next, but constantly feel pulled back to your old job it’s a good sign you’re dealing with an Identity Crisis. I’ve dealt with this symptom personally, and it often comes to me as a voice that guilt trips you into checking back in on your old job (day-to-day projects) to see how things are going (many times, on your day off). Don’t do it! I can tell you from experience, the job that is being done will never feel good enough and checking in too deeply will push you into the spiral that Driven Crazy is dealing with.
If you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms, the chances are high that you’re dealing with an identity crisis. If you think you are, here’s a couple things you can do to fix it:
Resolving Business Owner Identity Crisis:
This is the first step towards resolving BOIC. Take a measure of what you actually do and don’t want to let go, and write it down to make sure it vibes with you. Many times, business owners pretend we want to let go of one section of the business when the reality is that we really love that section of the business. So stop pretending and be honest about what you really want to let go of. If you love something, don’t say you want to let go of it: doing so only creates frustration for you, your employees, and your customers.
If you discover (and you probably will) that there is a section of the business you have a hard time letting go of, ask yourself “why” 5 times in a row. The true reason will be the 5th answer you give. If it is that you love that section of the business, that is fine! But be honest with yourself. If it is that they need more training or you need more training in being a manager, those are issues that can be resolved so you can actually step back.
Last but certainly not least is to work with someone on resolving the issue. If you’ve identified that you have an identity crisis going on, get a coach who works in mindset perspective. They can help you work through different issues so you can step into your new identity and keep you accountable to let go of the activities that aren’t helping your business to grow.
Before I end this, I just want to say…
If you are dealing with BOIC, you are normal!
I talk about all of this because I’ve gone through it multiple times. Every time my business grows to a new level, I have an identity crisis because my old role in the business is gone. But I’ve continually worked with mindset coaches and I’ve been able to resolve the Identity Crisis every time.
So if you’re dealing with it, don’t be afraid! You can overcome it.
And I can guarantee you that working through the BOIC helps you create a happier and more relaxed team, business, and life.
If you’re looking to take your business to the next level and find a room of people who will help you feel normal, encouraged, and empowered, I strongly suggest you check out the Grow Retreat! It is happening in January, and attendees come away every year with stories of being empowered and with the strategies to grow their businesses through the next year.