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Five Observations For Surviving The Modern Workplace

Rambo and survivalThis post might serve as some indication as to the type of week I’ve had. One where the veil has been pulled aside to further clarify some observations that I’ve noticed in my long and winding career journey.

1. Our organization is not our family.
This very notion that my organization is a family has always made me cringe. Unless we’re related by blood or marriage or some other legal compact, there’s not one shred of truth to this. Further, it feels cultish, like I’ve joined up with the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, goes so far as to say that its one of the worst lies a company can tell its employees. It’s misguided at best and deceptive at its worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article, he elaborated:

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: ‘We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.’

2. Our organization is not responsible for our happiness.
On the face of it, this feels stupidly obvious. But how many times have we felt pissed off, frustrated, and ultimately unhappy only then to blame our organization for it. Take a moment and reflect on your recent experience. Go ahead…I’ll wait. Hey, I did it just this week. It’s all too easy to feel we’re owed happiness at work by the very organization that feels it’s owed our loyalty in return for a signed paycheck.

However, who gets to determine our happiness? We do, of course.

3. Our boss is not our friend. And conversely, our employee is not our friend.
This isn’t to suggest that the boss-employee dynamic shouldn’t be friendly. But do not mistake that dynamic for a true friendship. The boss still holds the upper hand in the power structure. Don’t believe me? The next time you have the chance to do what you want versus what your boss wants, go your own way. Where your friend may be irritated, your boss is likely going to see it as a direct challenge to their authority. Do it too many times and you’re going to find yourself taken behind the woodshed for a professional whipping.

And god forbid that you work for a friend or hire a friend. The times when this works out for everyone is vastly outnumbered by the times when it ends in tragedy.

4. Our job does not define our identity.
I am an entrepreneur. I am a dentist. I am a diner waitress. I am an assistant to the traveling secretary of the New York Yankees. Or for me, I am a digital nonprofit fundraiser.

Yes, these can all be true statements…and untrue if we believe our job is our sole defining role. The times when I’ve identified myself as primarily a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a fundraiser are the times when I have been a shitty husband, father, and friend. These are also the times when I forget that I am a writer, a hiker, an amateur naturalist, a Steelers fan, and several other things that I enjoy in my life.

5. Our work is not our life.
There’s a thin line between being invested in our work (which is good) and being over-invested (which can lead to the type of obsessive behavior that robs us of strong relationships and our well-being). Over-investing in work can also lead to a type of vicious anxiety where the work isn’t just part of our life…it can feel like it’s life or death.

One mistake can cancel out several superb accomplishments. Then, fear of committing another mistake can prompt job insecurity and a paralyzing fear that just one more mistake can lead to a pink slip. And then we’re marked by the stigma of the Scarlet Letter F – for Fired AKA Failure-at-Life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. But wait.

If you’re still with me so far, hang on. I’m about to take this whole line of thinking for a U-turn because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe this is my cynical persona taking me for a ride.

Instead, if I listen to the quiet voice of inner wisdom that whispers in the space where my ego screams, it reminds me that all is One and Life is interconnected. And our Work is a testament to our love not just for our self but a gift to this fractured world.

As someone who has experienced career success as well as career hell, here’s where I openly admit that I struggle with two concepts: realism and idealism. The real provides a protective fence for my ego. By avowing that my organization is not my family, it allows me to keep the group at arm’s length so I can’t be hurt. By acknowledging that my employee is not my friend, I can more easily make the decision to cut him loose with a parting comment that it’s “just business.” Maybe this protective fence is what keeps me from fully living life, fully sharing my talents with others, fully being human (and therefore vulnerable) with each person I encounter in my daily journey.

Perhaps these five “cynical” concepts I’ve described above have the opportunity to be turned around and transformed into something more spiritually rewarding, and therefore more radical in society and our modern workplace. What if organizations can be more human spaces where respect wins over condescension, courage over fear, service over power, and vulnerability over arrogance?

I wonder what our organizations would look like?

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The War On Play

Why is there a war being fought against play?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.

I hear it when I talk to friends about the near-constant stresses of their work. The fear of taking time off only to see the mountain of work upon their return. The endless cycle of meetings where conversation tends to focus on the tactical, on the execution, on the pressure to get shit done NOW. If I would ask, “But did you get to actually play today?” they would look at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. And for good reason…we’ve pretty much separated the ideas of work and play in our current economy.

I truly believe we can and must reconnect work and play if our organizations are going to succeed.

Yes, it’s an uphill battle and the latest employee engagement statistics don’t offer much reason for optimism. And we’re not exactly helping our kids see the connection, either. I witness this every day when my children bring piles of homework from school. Just this past weekend, my daughter probably had four or five hours of personal time. The other remaining hours were devoted to projects, studying, and various other work. She, and so many other children, are suffering a deficit of play.

It’s almost as if our educational system is saying, “Get used to it kids. We’re preparing you for the real world where work is first. Life is just that thing that fills in the odd spaces.”

Why do we believe this is okay? Why have we decided that we need far less time to play, create, and wonder? Why do we regard learning as this intensely serious undertaking instead of the playful possibility it can be? Is this a reason we see so many more instances of depression and anxiety among adults and teens today?

Maybe it’s because as much as we like to believe we value creativity, we really don’t know how to handle it…in our businesses and in our schools.

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Faith And The Bankrupt Leader

As a leader, do you expect faith from those who follow you? Do you reward that faith by continuously fulfilling the promise of things you say you’ll do? Or do you constantly expect your people to believe in you without doing the hard work of following through on commitments? Think hard about this because it’s your integrity and effectiveness that’s on the line.

It always amazes me when I see individuals in positions of leadership assume that their position affords them a never-ending surplus of good will and trust from their people. They get caught in the trap of thinking that their position bestows on them an ordained authority. It’s the same authority that drives the mentality of “I’m the boss, now respect me and do as you’re told.” In this form, the rights of leadership are not earned but always taken. All of which is really just another form of arrogance that creeps into the workplace.

I’ve always liked Covey’s metaphor of the bank account. New leaders coming into a team, department, division, and company are given a starting balance. It’s then up to the leader to manage their bank account of trust, faith, and follower commitment effectively. Yet, too many leaders quickly put themselves into the negative side of the balance sheet (for which – if we were truly talking about their ability to manage P&L in such a way – they’d be tossed into the street).

If you’re unsure of where you stand with the folks you lead, carefully observe the looks on their faces. Do they appear ready to follow or do they doubt you? Listen carefully to your own words. Do you find you have to say “Trust me” or “Be open-minded” when talking about initiatives? If you find commitment from others around you waning or already at the bottom, don’t be arrogant and believe that the problem is “out there” with them. Take a good long look inside and see that you’re a bankrupt leader. Remember, when you lead with no followers, you’re merely walking somewhere alone.

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Build A Learning Culture With Learning Circles

Most organizations are chronically deficient at learning and it’s easy to see why. Learning takes time, patience, and healthy dose of curiosity – all qualities that are in short supply at probably 95% of all companies and non-profit institutions. When there is learning, it’s cloaked with best intentions in workshops and other professional development events. Don’t get me wrong…these ought to be a part of one’s plan to build a learning organization, but they are simply not enough. Without building the capacity to learn into an organization’s DNA, these events will barely penetrate the surface of how your people approach their work. What to do if you’re a manager or charged with leading your organization’s learning operations?

One action is to start a learning circle. Google learning circle and you’ll get a slew of resources. However, drill down a little further and you’ll find there are relatively few that address learning circles within an organization…particularly a for-profit company. Don’t let that stop you, though. If you recognize the importance of developing a learning culture in your workplace, here’s a framework to experiment with:

Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!
Well, that’s only partly true. There should be no hard rules to the circle. It should be free to evolve as the needs of the group evolve. However, don’t take the “no rules” mantra as an invitation to anarchy. A successful circle needs a basic structure that provides a purpose for the group to exist.

Pack a Problem and a Yippee!
Each person in the circle must be prepared to bring two items to each meeting. The first is a problem. Even better than a problem is a mistake, but this takes some comfort with the group so don’t expect this at the outset. The second item is a Yippee!, which is an example of something that went well. It’s important that learning be a balanced process where both good and bad are reviewed and then celebrated.

Play 20 Questions.
Most people will want to instantly solve problems often without bothering to dig deeper into the actual issues behind the problems. Don’t let the natural tendency to problem-solve get in the way of the actual learning. Instead, put a question threshold into place. Insist that no less than 20 questions get asked before a statement can be made. This will spark curiosity and instill an investigative mindset that – done consistently – will begin to form a habit.

Spread the Learning Love.
Encourage the group to constantly share their learning outside the circle. Give them the tools and resources to create a wiki and a blog. By further emphasizing the importance of knowledge sharing to the whole organization, the circle will be more likely to build the discipline for recording what it knows (which can be so easily forgotten) and disseminating it to a broader audience of colleagues.

Cloning for Success.
While there may be a temptation to immediately initiate several circles throughout your organization, I’d encourage you to start small. Start with one group of four to five individuals and allow it to evolve for a few months. Then when the time is right, charge each pilot group member with starting another learning group with new individuals. This replicating strategy ensures that subsequent groups have a firm understanding of the circle’s purpose and get a jumpstart on the process.

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Take A Break Or Break Down

I’m feeling kinda rowdy today.

At issue is the fact that most American corporations, consulting and law firms, and even non-profit organizations practice a modern type of indentured servitude. And most of us American employees just settle for it thinking this is the only way to make a better living.

Are you taking a vacation this summer or at another point this year? If you’re roughly one out of three American employees, you’re making a decision to forfeit your vacation time. That’s according to a survey conducted by Expedia.com. I used to work with a woman who was allowed to rack up 225 hours of vacation time (for those of you scoring at home, that’s nearly a month). When she transferred into the department I managed, I was strongly encouraged by my own director to get her to take leave. Thinking it would be easy to get her to take two or three weeks in the slow summer months, it was more like pulling teeth. She was a support specialist and felt she was needed too much to be away even for a couple of days. She was concerned that something would fall apart and she wouldn’t be there to handle it. She felt responsible for the working group. Sound familiar? She was also so burnt out of her job that she was constantly on edge, always a whisker away from a good cry.

What she failed to realize is that her “dedication” was slowly killing her or at least robbing her of joy in life. And you could also make some arguments that there was more going on here than just wanting to be a great support staff. Make no mistake…workaholism is just as addictive, damaging, and soul-consuming as some of the other “-olisms” like alcoholism.

Here’s a challenge to you if you’re a manager or an exec…tell your people to get lost at some point this summer. If the summer is a particularly busy time of year for your organization, then make it known that each person is going to need to take some time off when it slows down. If they don’t know how to take a vacation, block their access to email and voicemail. Call it “tough love” because it’s an act of love to help another person reconnect with their full life.

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What’s Your Ministry?

I’m doing some reorganizing in my home office and I found a stack of Fast Company magazines. I started looking through them and and discovered that I read only the first half of the May issue. Toward the end of the issue is an article called God and Mammon at Harvard and discusses how the Divinity School is producing some top level business leaders.

What struck me was the story of Tom Chappell, CEO of Tom’s of Maine, and his soulful path:

[Chappell] had come to the divinity school at age 43, after an aggressive growth period in his company that had left him emotionally and spiritually drained. The business was thriving, but he was finding more emptiness than fulfillment in success, he says. Many entrepreneurs would argue that when you reach that point, it’s time to flip the business, buy a sailboat, and travel the world. But Chappell was haunted by a comment from his pastor’s wife: “What makes you think Tom’s of Maine isn’t your ministry?” she asked.

We can read ministry in any number of ways (personally, I don’t think the ministry has to be religious), but I think Chappell was being challenged to reconsider and transform himself and his purpose. I thought about that line a lot today. Some interesting and perplexing issues surfaced at work today that might have caused me to feel discontented and disillusioned with my job role. And yet, I was equally haunted by the notion that my work in my current organization is my own ministry. I believe that my work is to encourage a joy-full attitude, cultivate a positive organizational culture, inspire new leadership qualities in my colleagues, and strengthen the organization so that it can achieve its core mission.

Do you have a ministry?

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Just Wondering

Is there a more powerful word in the English dictionary than WONDER? I just returned from a long hike through the trails that surround my neighborhood and I found myself walking with a sense of wonder. Wonder is like super-charged curiosity. It’s deeper and more poetic in what it unleashes. 

Just start a sentence with "I wonder about…" and see where it takes you. I started looking at the clouds and finding all different types of formations. Interestingly enough, many of the clouds were looking like insects: a praying mantis, a couple of bees, maybe a large beetle with pointy jaws. Rather than thinking, "That’s weird," I had far more fun asking, "I wonder why?"

The act of wondering isn’t just something you can do while meandering through a forest path or sitting on a beach; it has a beneficial purpose in our work. However, there needs to be a conducive climate for wondering to fully occur. If your workplace is buzzing with speed and franticness, then there’s little fertile ground to start. Wondering is an organizational skill that can be developed when we’re given the chance to slow down and see the bigger patterns. If you’re saying, "But Chris, I can’t slow down, there’s just too much to do and too little time," begin to wonder about the quality of your output. Are you just going from task-to-task? Are you accomplishing what’s really important to you and your work?

If you are in a go-go-go workplace that prides itself on high levels of action, it may take some courage to introduce reflective wondering. To an untrained eye, you might look lazy, uncommitted, and unproductive (three killer words that can be leveled at employees). On the contrary, you might notice that after allowing reflection and wondering into your daily routine, your productivity will actually rise. Have fun!

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Some Ideas Reconsidered

On a few occasions I’ve written a few things that I’ve been prodded to reconsider lately. Call it a part of my ego-reduction therapy.

Previous idea: Organizations need us more than we need organizations.

New idea: The healthy relationship between individual and organization is interconnected.

Somewhere in the past I’ve written and openly advocated that organizations need us far more than we need them. As a “free agent,” “solo-preneur,” or whatever I might be, this was perhaps a way for me to distance myself from the organization. It was my declaration that I control my destiny and that I am free of the bindings of the corporate world. I alone was the broker of my own unique talent.

Yet, today I’ve been forced to confront this idea and consider something different: the relationship between individual and organization is far more interconnected. We actually might be good for each other. The organization can provide certain things to an individual that they would struggle to get on their own. For instance, the opportunity to work with exciting, creative people; accelerated learning through innovative projects; cool fringe benefits like paid sabbaticals, access to corporate resources, etc. And this all works if the organization remembers one thing: it can pay its employees, but it cannot buy them.

Previous idea: The idea of balance in life is an illusion and therefore unrealistic as a metaphor.

New idea: The idea of balance in life is an illusion and it IS realistic as a metaphor.

I’m a big fan of a guy named Charlie Badenhop who has a coaching practice called Seishindo. He has a newsletter and today’s issue is called Are You Feeling In Control? (absolutely perfect question for me today) He starts with a bittersweet story about a biker whose motorcycle topples over oddly when he stops at a traffic light. Charlie writes:

I smile at the guy, and playfully ask him if he has had a tough night, and a bit too much to drink. “No, no, nothing at all to drink.” he says. “My girlfriend just broke up with me, and I am broken hearted. We divided everything up as equally as we could. I kept the bike and all the rest of what I am carrying. She kept her belongings and the sidecar for the bike, which she always rode around in with me. I guess it’s going to take a while to get used to no longer needing to balance her weight.

He later goes on to write:

Life is a balancing act, and as long as we are alive, the need to maintain, lose, and once again regain our balance, goes on constantly. We don’t so much maintain our balance as a constant. Much more so we need to lose and regain our balance over and over again.

There is something about that notion of returning to balance. It’s unrealistic to believe we can find balance as a constant, but something deeply uplifting to the idea that we can always right ourselves when life and career knock us off kilter.

Previous idea: Work is intensely personal.

New idea: Work is personal AND it’s not personal.

Bren at Slacker Manager recently wrote about how work wasn’t personal for him. He went on to write:

It’s business and it’s removed from who I am. I work and I have standards and ethics toward which I strive. Also, because of values congruency, I define my own work. But my work doesn’t define me.

For a long time, I held fast to my conviction that work had to be personal. I had seen too many folks languish in dead-end jobs who did not make their work personally fulfilling. And I argued this point with Bren.

Now, I get what he was talking about. I think he puts a nice, healthy “and” into how he approaches his work. If you allow your work to get too personal, it does tend to define who you are. What happens if you lose your job or your boss takes you to task for speaking out against an idea that’s bad for your customers?

You can put your passion into your work and you can maintain your core identity and values. Bren, it took a while, but now I see your point.

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The Office Cinderella

This is not a fairy tale. Unfortunately, it happens far more than we would care to believe.

The first time I heard the story, it was told to me by my younger sister. She worked for a small non-profit and did pretty much anything her bosses asked her to do (she had two of them). She answered phones, stuffed envelopes, helped with administration duties, and so on. She saw it as a way to get into meeting planning, which is what she wanted to do most of all. All the other stuff was just a part of getting her to where she wanted to go.

However, her bosses sensed her eagerness to do whatever they asked and took full advantage. They asked her to frequently work late into the night and on weekends, they asked her to redo other employees’s "substandard" work, they asked her to cover for employees who didn’t show up for work. She realized that it wasn’t fair, but perhaps if she did just a little more, they would give her more meeting planning assignments.

When an ideal assignment opened, she felt sure that she would get it. Except, she didn’t; it went to someone with far less experience. She asked her bosses why she didn’t get the assignment since they knew how important it was to her. They replied that she was far too valuable in other areas of the office. Crushed and dejected, she vowed to leave the job and find a better opportunity. She scheduled a meeting with her bosses, ready to hand in her resignation. Only they begged and pleaded that they needed her. They promised to give her more meeting planning experience if she would stay.

Satisfied with their insistence, she agreed to continue working with the non-profit. And so, the cycle of doing whatever the bosses needed began again. Except…now my sister’s enthusiasm was diminishing and her disgruntlement was growing. Interpreting it all as disloyalty, the bosses became more critical of her work, more harsh in how they communicated with her. It culminated with a performance review session where the bosses told her that she would never be a good meeting planner. Angrily, my sister replied that they should just fire her if they were so unhappy with her work. In a surprising twist, they said they still needed her too much and wanted her to stay.

Eventually, after nearly three years, she realized that her health and mental well-being were more important and left the non-profit.

I thought her experience was reserved only for young professionals who were trying to establish their careers. Why did she choose to stay in a job that involves so much toxicity? There were other organizations out there where she could go. Confused, I decided to stop sympathizing and began empathizing; and then I started to understand.

It is so easy to downplay our own strengths and capabilities, particularly when we have help from our managers. Because they occupy a place of organizational power and authority, we tend to give them the ability to judge us as professionals. This is institutionalized through the performance review process. So, when we’re told that our performance is "below expectations" or only "meets expectations," it might come as a blow to our own sense of professional self-worth.

What I noticed in my sister’s case is that her bosses did a very good job of undermining her confidence just enough to where she believed that no one else would want her. She was better off staying. I’m not sure that was the conscious process behind her bosses’s motives, but there was enough behavior to suggest a pattern. I would almost call it a form of emotional blackmail.

However, as I tell this story to others, I notice I get a lot of head nodding. I discover that it is not just a problem for younger professionals, but occurs even to those at mid-career. And then I read Kathy Sierra’s post this morning detailing her experience. Take a peek and see if you don’t find yourself getting pissed off by her management’s processes and attitudes. But, before you go and blame the organization for their own behavior, consider this perspective from Hugh Macleod at gapingvoid:

Why does management abuse you? Because they can. Somewhere down the line you bought into their value system – you took their money, you welcomed the status the position afforded you, etc.

In other words, allow yourself to be paid, but never allow yourself to be bought.

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