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4 Steps To Keep From Walking Into Another Bad Workplace

Eventually it happens to all of us when we enter a new organization. Sometimes it takes a few years. Sometimes a few months. For the least fortunate among us, only a few weeks. I’m talking about the waving of a red flag signaling our first WTF experience in our workplace. It’s usually accompanied by a feeling that might appear like this:

WTF is going on around here?

Really? You have got to be kidding me.

We all deal with irritants in our work. The sometimes gnarly commute. The copier that seems to drink ink like a pirate drinks rum. The volunteer who consistently runs late for their shift. You get the picture. But I’m not talking those daily annoyances. They’re just the cost of getting out of bed each morning and going to work in a nonprofit.

I’m talking about those experiences that stoke your sense that something isn’t right about your workplace. You might say those are also a cost of working in a nonprofit (or really any job) and you would be largely correct. Since an organization is made up of people, they’re just as imperfect and flawed as you and I are. Usually, we can choose to look beyond these flaws because we can accept them as we might accept our own flaws.

However, sometimes these flaws turn into something darker and more troubling. They violate a core value. Or perhaps a couple of core values which starts to feel intolerable. Or finally they violate so many of our core values that the environment becomes toxic and affects our wellbeing. It’s time to start looking for a new place to take our skills, talents, and passion ASAP.

But how can you be certain you won’t simply walk out of one insane asylum into another? I did it twice in one year and it was disastrous to my mental and physical health.

The key is to get curious about your current experience and learn to identify exactly what sucks. How? I’d like to suggest an exercise you can begin right now.

The first step is to identify and get cozy with your core values. Everything hinges on this because if something has deeply upset you, it’s likely because it violated one of your core values. If you’re unsure or simply want to do some reconnecting work with yourself, there are several sources that can help. Here’s a brief listing of resources which have helped me:
http://www.mas.org.uk/quest/ivp2.htm
http://www.inc.com/kevin-daum/define-your-personal-core-values-5-steps.html
https://www.zapposinsights.com/blog/item/3-steps-to-identifying-personal-core-values

Now grab a sheet of paper or crack open Word. (Personally, I like using a cloud app like Microsoft OneNote so I always have access to the document on my phone and iPad.) You’re going to create a map with at least four columns:

  1. Current Challenging Experience
  2. Violated Core Value
  3. Intensity of Feeling
  4. Questions to Help Uncover

Step 1. Current Challenging Experience
So what’s pissing you off enough right now that you’re actually taking time to do this exercise? What’s happening that is making you to want to run off and sell coconuts along a beach in Tahiti or start an angora rabbit ranch in West Virginia?

For illustration, let’s say a someone in leadership is constantly abrasive and condescending to you and your staff. They have no problems throwing around insults in public meetings. Your challenging experience might be: A Board Member is consistently rude to me and my staff.

Step 2. Violated Core Value
You know your core values. Now see if you can connect that value that’s been violated to the experience.

In our example, we might feel that our value of Respect has been violated.

Step 3. Intensity
This is highly subjective, but can help prioritize which experiences are irritants, which ones you can deal with, and which ones are true value violations.

Respect (at least for me) is one of those top three values so this isn’t an irritant or something you feel mildly. The intensity is High.

Step 4. Questions
Now comes the difficult part but it is a significant reason why you’re going through this exercise. Ask yourself: If interviewing for my current position today, what questions could I ask that would give me insight into my challenging experience? What we’re trying to do here is reverse engineer the experience and identify the burning red flags from our current workplace to check if they’re present in this next possible workplace.

Some questions to ask in your next interview might be:

  • What’s the current relationship between the Board and staff?
  • Are there any Board members who I should work with differently?
  • In terms of how the Board governs, would you say it’s more Advisory, Co-operative, or Managing?

Putting It Together
Your map should look something like this:

Challenging Experience Violated Core Value Intensity Questions to Help Learn
A board member is consistently rude to me and my staff Respect High
  • What’s the current relationship between the Board and staff?
  • Are there any Board members who I should work with differently?
  • In terms of how the Board governs, would you say it’s more Advisory, Co-operative, or Managing?

Keep adding rows of experiences as they arise. And keep adding, reviewing, and refining it. Test drive it when talking to peers inside your organization or friends who work somewhere else.

And when you have an interview and get to put this to work, don’t forget to watch for body language when asking questions. While an interviewer might try to hide what they really think through their words, their nonverbal will likely betray their feelings.

Anything I’ve missed here? Thoughts on improvement? I’m always refining my own map so feel free to share in comments or shoot me a personal message. I’d love to hear how this works for you. Good luck!

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My Vacation To The Lake And Learning To Care Intentionally

View of Lake Hartwell in South CarolinaThere I floated on my bright yellow raft, not too far away from the dock. It was the first morning of our summer lake vacation and was starting to warm up into one of those typical late July hot southern days. But instead of feeling the peace of being on the water and the relaxation of being on vacation, I unintentionally brought something else along with me. A big, nasty ball of feelings that I had slowly and gradually crunched up in the pit of my stomach: bewilderment, anger, sadness, and more.

Yep, I made the critical error of bringing my job – and the frustrations of the last few weeks – along with me. I wager that every single person who works inside a nonprofit wrestles with an existential crisis at times. I was wrestling with the question of whether anything I was doing in my work really mattered. So there I floated, eventually coming to a point where the constant refrain in my head was, “…I could so care less.” I had gotten to a point where I was starting to find easy solace in apathy. 

Eventually, the slow ebb and flow of the water did its job and I felt my muscles and mind start to relax. The sounds of the birds and the cold beer in my hand led me toward some much needed inner solitude. I questioned how I had arrived at this place where “Screw it all!” was an acceptable landing spot.

I needed to confront head-on the confusion of experiencing this apathy in work that I deeply enjoyed and was exceptionally good at for an organization in which I believed in its mission. What the hell was going on that would make me accept the possibility of caring less?

Then, I recalled something a trusted mentor told me not long ago. I didn’t actually want to care less. My problem was that I was caught in a pernicious trap of caring too much. How is caring too much a bad thing? For me, caring about the outcome of every single experience, every single event, every single opinion in my workplace was exhausting. Further, it only led to disappointment and cynicism when those outcomes failed to match up with my expectations. It was a sure-fire road to burnout and I was on the express bus. 

Fortunately, I was able to pause. I quieted the thoughts about how I should care less or care more. Instead, I started to reflect on how to be more intentional as to what I truly do care about.

Not everything is worth the battle or engaging in the fire drill. We don’t need to actively participate in everyone’s drama. So many things exist far outside our control. However, what we can control is our thoughts and reactions to the daily dramas. When we get clear about our values and goals, we can make better choices about how we want to matter.

Later that evening, I sat on the deck overlooking the lake and spent time with the person I am at my core. I took some time to recall my values and why I returned to the nonprofit world. I sketched out the big picture goals for my work. Anything I could use to reorient me toward giving my best effort to my organization as well as my career. Shortly afterward, I let go a great sigh of relief and settled into enjoying the next few days of special quality time with my family.

By the end of the vacation, I left the lake with what I call my Roadmap for Intentional Caring.

The temptation to care too much is always there. And the relative “safety” of trying to not care at all is always there, as well. It’s locating the sweet spot in the middle and being able to get back there to intentional caring when we swing toward either end of the spectrum.

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Don’t Blame The Office – Let’s Recreate Our Workplace

To open his opinion piece on CNN called Why the office is the worst place to work, Jason Fried writes,

Companies spend billions on rent, offices, and office equipment so their employees will have a great place to work. However, when you ask people where they go when they really need to get something done, you’ll rarely hear them say it’s the office.

Further, he writes,

I don’t blame people for not wanting to be at the office. I blame the office. The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.

Sorry Jason but you completely wimped out in this article. “The office” is an inanimate object and an easy target for scorn. Why not call out your peers in the executive suite for their apparent lack of interest and commitment in making the workplace better? Why not at least start to address the real reasons for why many offices don’t work right now? Maybe that’s not fair to ask considering that CNN probably asked for a typical fluff piece.

The “office” is just a container for all the human interactions and emotions that take place within it. If the office is seen as nothing more than a place for constant interruptions, for unproductive meetings, and for pointless interactions, is that really the fault of a place…or the fault of those individuals who inhabit it?

Here’s another thought: instead of just dumping on the workplace experience, let’s be more adventurous in how we try to fix it.

1. Let’s stop with the idiotic band-aids. Electing to skip a meeting, spend a day not talking to anyone, and collaborating solely through IM isn’t going to solve anything – short- or long-term. Actually, it just makes a mockery of the real issues that keep business from functioning full throttle.

2. Let’s realize what the workplace actually is. From the C-Level down, there must be a renewal in how we think about the value of employee interactions in business. What we’ve come to know as the “workplace” is an organic community, not a machine that can be engineered, where employees are just simple cogs. But that’s what most execs and managers have been trained to believe through decades of traditional organizational thought.

3. Let’s start dealing with the real problem. Improving the workplace isn’t merely a matter of action, it involves a change in thinking. But if we ignore the problems of poor communications, ineffectual relationships, and meaningless work, they’ll continue to persist. So what do we want to see more of in our workplaces? It’s time to stop putting on the band-aids, folks. Are you with me?

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