Firefighters, Construction Workers, Architects, and Property Managers

Our people are not disposable — how can we treat them that way?

Karla L. Monterroso
5 min readSep 10, 2021

Early in my career at a fast-growing non-profit startup, I watched a friend struggle in her role. I knew she was brilliant but I could see she was unhappy with the lack of definition and structure within the organization. I, on the other hand, found the uncertainty thrilling. I loved being in a state of constant creation or reinvention, and my friend found it incredibly frustrating. Some years later, she moved into federal government work and THRIVED. In that role, her challenge involved: changing the defined structures, shifting the scope of the work of a field, amplifying little known opportunities, and influencing adherence to or changing of laws. In this work, she had to tweak existing systems/processes/etc, and make them better. That was her JAM.

How my friend and I responded taught me very early on that different folks thrive in different environments.

Successful organizations and leaders often have an acute sense of their team members’ inherent worth and not just their worth to the organization. This is because ensuring that people do not feel disposable to you at work requires having an acute sense of their worth in and outside of their worth to YOU. By helping people find the places/roles that fill them with joy, you can help them find the work they are most suited for, and that might mean work outside of your organization.

As organization leaders, you need to keep an eye on the bench in your team. If you are moving into waters that require more of one role versus another, then you can respectfully forecast for people what is happening. In my most ideal world, I’d love for us to forecast and give folks the options to opt in or out of change with economic security and emotional freedom in place.

Below is a framework I’ve used to help coach myself and other people about their roles and opportunities. It’s how I understand my own content or discontent and the first stop I make for putting context around the content or discontent of others. Understanding these things helps define for folks which skills/tools they want to grow or identify whether their desires are wholly different from what can be fulfilled in the role or at the organization.

This framework affirms that organizations have roles and departments at different stages of their development. The stage of development of the role, department, organization factor heavily into the need for each role.

When considering my own joy in a role I think through the following alignments:

  • Which of the above roles I enjoy the most and whether or not my role has drifted out of the scope of the kind of work I enjoy and want to do the most?
  • Have the needs of the organization or department have drifted out of the scope of the kind of work I enjoy and want to do the most?
  • Does my current life circumstance make the challenge of the role unappealing to me?
  • Have commitments been broken with me or have I broken commitments that make trust very hard to repair?

Ways that I know that I am disengaging or unhappy:

When considering my own joy in an organization, I think through the following questions:

  • Can any reparative work be done to re-engage me with the organization?
  • Has the organization demonstrated an appetite or ability in creating that reparative work?
  • Does my current life circumstance make the challenge of the role unappealing to me?
  • Have commitments been broken with me or have I broken commitments that make trust very hard to repair?

These frameworks can be especially helpful when you are searching for language to help explain pain in a role or organization. We often leave this work to individual team members. But in organizational contexts, the parties with the most positional power give permission for people to explore their careers separate from their organizations. It is also important for folks with the most power to understand the risk incurred for people to share transparently as they explore their best fit. Being punished for that exploration is the largest sign we’ll get of what we are allowed and not allowed to do.

Many organizations are doing important and critical work. Often in organizational constructs, we use language that leads people to believe we have “the best” solution. This limits the freedom people will feel to explore. If we expand the playing field for doing that work in other organizations alongside our team we can have people who are making real choices to stay or leave. Relationships quickly become marred with resentment in many other formulations. This is how we give folks the emotional freedom to leave. Both the economic and emotional freedom folks experience in our systems will influence how much they trust and explore within our systems.

This framework can be helpful in change management but only if the leadership of the organization is investing in their people and potential. That will not always result in retention within the organization, but in transition to peer organizations or other groups in the social justice space. It may also result in a transition away from “the cause”. It is possible to clarify and become more clear on your own personal mission as you do this work. In that, we can become graduate educations for our people as they take the values and ethos we believe in, into other structures. Those transitioning from social change organizations can feel the added weight of feeling they are not just demonstrating disloyalty to the organization but to the cause. We cannot allow our people to believe we are the only “salvation”. We perpetuate the harm of white supremacist systems when we do. Creating the frameworks for these conversations before you have the need for them can support folks in understanding their own needs as you understand what you’ve got.



Karla L. Monterroso

Leadership coach, strategist, racial equity advocate, Covid survivor, long covid, former CEO @Code2040, former @HealthLeadsNatl, @PeerForward, @CollegeTrack.