The First Rule of Hijacking
Who knew hijacking was the key to surviving a toxic workplace.
There was a time that I was so desperately miserable at work that I sought out the sanctuary of a therapist office. It wasn’t my first time seeking an expert on mental health, but it was the first time I went because of my job. It had become unbearably stressful.
Since I was broke, I took advantage of the Human Resources freebie therapist program. I had no idea who the therapist was, their credentials, or really anything about them. I just knew I got five free visits before I had to start paying.
The therapist was an older man in a cardigan sweater with a quiet, friendly demeanor. He led me into his office, offered me some water, and then asked me why I came to see him. Our conversation went something like this:
“I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I am miserable at work,” I told him. “My boss is unhappy with everything I do, yet keeps piling more and more work on me. I can’t keep up. I’m losing sleep, I’m working a million hours, and I don’t even have time to look for a different job because I can’t afford to lose this one.”
He listened as I went on describing the injustices, the reprimands, and the level of terror I was learning to live with every day. I described driving to work very slowly, dreading the moment I would have to leave the safe space of my car. I shared that the very notification that I had a new email could send me into a panic attack. After about 20 minutes of monologue, I finally stopped speaking and asked him, “What should I do?”
He looked directly at me and asked, “Do you know the first rule of hijacking?”
I had just poured out my heart to this mental health professional, and he had the nerve to asking me about hijacking? I was too exhausted to come up with anything original or witty to say back, so I just said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Think about it,” he said. “The first thing a successful hijacker must do is GET ON THE PLANE.”
“Oh, uh-huh,” I replied, still utterly confused by the analogy.
“Clearly, you have a difficult manager, so your job now becomes understanding how to get on board that manager’s vision. You have to find your way onto that plane they are piloting. Only then can you help to bring positive change, or in other terms, quietly hijack the journey they are on,” he said.
I felt completely frustrated. I was already killing myself trying to please this person and meet all of the unrealistic deadlines. How the hell was I supposed to get on board and hijack their agenda?
“I’m not sure I can do that,” I told him.
“Sure you can,” he said. “Your approach right now is defense. You need to get on offense, and start to do a better job of anticipating their trigger points. Go out of your way to do something unexpected that they will appreciate, even if it is small. Thank them for giving you guidance when they tell you how they want things done, even if you disagree. You need to convince them that you are on their team, or in this case a passenger on the plane.”
“So, I’m a passenger not a hijacker? Or is the idea that I’m supposed to fake my way through this period?” I think he could tell I was annoyed.
“Look, you are not going to get your boss fired,” he said. “That is not possible in this case. Bad bosses are everywhere, and my job is to help you find a coping mechanism. If you want to go after your boss, you need a lawyer, not a therapist. I sympathize with your situation, but unless you are willing to quit your job tomorrow, you have got to find a way to get through this until you either come to peace with it or find a new job. So my advice to you is get on that plane and see where it takes you. Be the best passenger, flight attendant, co-pilot — whatever you need to be to gain a bit of trust. Trust is central to the problems with your boss, so when you hijack that plane, you need to find a new way to get on board.”
We talked for about 10 more minutes, and I left. I hated to admit that he was right. There was some part of me that wanted to go to the therapist to hear that I was absolutely right, and he would call a higher authority and my boss would be stopped. But the reality was there was little I could do except adjust. All I could control were my own actions and reactions to every situation my boss threw at me.
I returned to work, determined to try to hijack the plane. It wasn’t perfect, but a few weeks later there was a moment. Knowing that my boss had a presentation coming up with the board of directors, I voluntarily researched and sent my boss an exhaustive summary of the past 10 years worth of annual presentations. Three days after I sent the information, I received a brief email from my boss. It simply said, “Thank you for the presentation research. I found it helpful.”
It was a sigh of relief. I had my boarding pass. Destination unknown.