Never be Sean Bean, and Other Lessons from Game of Thrones

Depending on your workplace, you might find yourself empathizing with characters from the Game of Thrones. Toxic, fear-based workplaces can make it seem like every word and deed needs to be a well crafted power play. They can make it seem like there is no place for mutually beneficial collaboration; and don't even think about showing vulnerability. Even workplaces that are relatively functional can have a few characters you would swear were crafted by George R. R. Martin himself.

In honor of the start of Season 6 of Game of Thrones, I'm going to point out some lessons that can be taken from Game of Thrones to help us be more savvy in the workplace.

Spoilers: If you aren't up-to-date on the HBO series and plan on watching it, you may not want to read further. If something I write here doesn't line up with the show, it's from the books.

Lesson #1: Never Be Sean Bean

Nothing against the actor, but his characters die... a lot.

His character, Ned Stark, in Game of Thrones is no different. I love Ned Stark. He is my favorite character. He's honorable and just with family, friend, and foe. He takes his responsibilities as Warden of the North and then Hand of the King for all Westeros seriously. He is also a loyal father and husband. So, when he gets caught up in the game of thrones while in the capitol of Westeros, he is in a difficult spot. He needs to fight against powerful, corrupt, deadly political forces for the sake of the realm, but he also has to protect the daughters who go with him to the capitol.

Unfortunately for Ned, the treachery and toxicity of the court is more widespread than he could have imagined. Every seemingly honorable person he tries to enlist to help him has their own agenda. Many are more than happy to sell his secrets to the highest bidder. Even after being warned of the danger he and his daughters are in, he stays and fights the corruption in Westeros until it's too late to escape. They've stayed too long and Ned loses his head, literally, to the power-crazed young new king. Talk about the worst "Bring your Daughter to Work Day" ever. 

Workplace Lesson: Ask yourself if this is really the hill you want to die on.

All of the traits that make me love Ned Stark also make him stay too long. Like Ned, those of us who love our careers or love the mission of our company can be our own worst enemy when the workplace becomes broken, toxic or outright corrupt. We stay and we fight to restore its former glory, or the glory that we perceived from the outside. This is a good thing up until the point that the cost to ourselves outweighs the positive impact we can realistically have on our workplace.

None of us face beheading (hopefully). For us, the negative consequences tend to be more subtle. This makes it difficult for us to determine how much we should endure for the impact we can possibly make. Here are a few consequences to think about:

Damage to Professional Reputation

One possible outcome is that your power-hungry, egotistical new workplace "rock star" or boss finds a way to make their least favorite co-worker take the blame for their failure. If you've been the one speaking out about the flaws in their plans, that could be you. Hopefully, if you are aware of the problems to begin with, you can at least make an informed decision about whether your efforts are having an impact. You can then do pre-emptive damage control if you are seeing evidence of improvement, or find another place to work. 

In more extreme cases, the tarnished reputation of the company can tarnish your reputation by association. If you start seeing reputable negative press in your trade media or local media, it's time think really hard about that cost-to-impact ratio.

Damage to Psychological and/or Physical Health

Long hours and chronic stress have serious impacts on psychological and physical health, such as decreases in cardiovascular health, ineffective emotion management, and even Depression and Anxiety. Ask yourself: is the impact you are having in trying to save your workplace worth trading years off your life or significantly reducing your quality of life? If not, it's time to start looking for a new workplace that will fully utilize your talents and energy.

Collateral Damage

Are there people who rely on you who could be hurt by your mission? By the end of Season 5, the consequences of Ned's death include the death of his wife and at least one of their children (I personally think we haven't seen the end of Jon Snow). His living children are separated from each other and in danger.

Again, it is unlikely that the people we care about are in mortal danger as a result of our workplace drama. The harm they may realistically experience is more subtle. The stress, exhaustion, emotional instability, anxiety and depression we experience in our workplace don't magically go away when we walk in the door at home. It can result in us being irritable, emotionally unavailable and/or too tired to do anything with the people we love. Over time this can damage our relationships with the people who are most important to us. 

From one workplace warrior to another, I commend your bravery and loyalty in trying to fix what's broken before cutting and running. But don't be Sean Bean. It's not worth damaging the rest of your professional life, the quality of your actual life, and the people you care about. Time to update that resume`.


Stay tuned for my next post: We're All Just a Little Bit Sansa