Once upon a time there was a government employee who was a little bit handicapped.  She walked with a cane because her knees and ankles would periodically give out.  And sometimes her asthma got so bad she could barely walk anywhere.  But for the most part she handled it well except for those days when she sat cramped and hunched over a computer for 12-14 hours (without overtime pay) to do the work that was assigned as well as the collaboration that was pure joy.  During this time a new organization was formed that brought new changes.  They seemed to honor the work that she was doing since they kept giving her more to do.   Yet they would tell her not to work so much overtime as they gave her another assignment and then the responsibilities of an additional job that was currently vacant and out for a hiring action.  On top of this came the issue of the parking pass.  Parking was at a premium near the buildings where they worked.  And there were very few handicapped spaces as there were many senior supervisors who needed to park close.   So she would generally arrive very early and park in the covered garage, walk slowly up a single flight of stairs and take a covered walkway to the building.  This was the closest path to her desk.  And while the stairs were sometimes painful, the walk was not too bad as long as she left after just 8 hours of work.    The supervisor talked to the building manager who said that if she would bring in a special letter signed by the doctor (who had already signed a DMV form for a handicapped sticker), then they could issue a special permit parking pass for the handicap slots in the front of the building.  Now this area was uncovered and a longer route to get to her desk.  But she got the multi-page documents needed to create the form letter that doctor would sign and promised to get it signed when she next saw the doctor. And she continued to park in the garage since the parking pass didn’t seem very important except possibly when she went to an off-campus meeting and couldn’t find a parking place when returning.  Yet every time the boss and the boss’s boss saw her, they asked about the parking pass “because they cared about her health”.   Yet every time she saw the doctor, she was more concerned about her health which seemed to be getting worse.  Then came a series of incidents in the spring where messages kept getting more mixed and negative. She was continually told she was “brilliant but ….”. Our employee became so confused and  hurt that stress started to weigh heavily on her health and limiting her ability to sleep or think.  And then she started receiving new guidance that marginalized her ability to do her work –  guidance like having to ask permission to go to a meeting or send out anything unless it had been approved by a supervisor.   This meant that she could not collaborate very effectively or plan any actions. This hurt most of all because she treasured those moments where insights were shared on many topics.  Yet when she asked for permission via email no one responded so many opportunities were being missed or ignored because the supervisors didn’t think they were important.  And asking in person became difficult because there were only 3 people she could ask and they were not readily available.  And they did not always share the results of their decisions. Throughout this period,  the parking pass became a symbol of the mixed messages she was receiving. The supervisors kept bringing it up and talking about how much they cared about her health.   They never realized that they were putting out a mixed message that getting the parking pass was more important than the employee.   Another mixed message had happened a year before when she asked for a rotational assignment and was told that they couldn’t afford to let her go because they might lose her billet in the change-over in the personnel system.   So today when asked about the parking pass and told that they cared about her health, she realized that she would need to get the pass even if she never used it.   For they saw the parking pass as a failure even though it didn’t matter one bit to her when compared to being treated as a child and ignored until they needed her expertise that came from many collaborative partnerships formed over the years.  Collaborative partnerships that were now being diminished.

So how should employees how handle mixed messages?   How should bosses and managers ensure that they aren’t guilty of mixed message leadership?  Love to hear your thoughts.

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