Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Life at Work

Today, I had the opportunity to watch the Today Show.  A panel on the news program discussed Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  I've not read this book, and I don't know that I will read the book, but I found the discussion interesting.  I've been thinking a lot about those days when life at work was a major focus of my life.  I've thought about how I miss my profession.  I miss interacting with students.  I miss teaching.  I miss the discipline that my working life caused me to have when I faced deadlines and daily obligations.  I miss the creative side of my professional life.  I miss the relationships developed on the job.  Or do I?

Not every relationship one makes in the workplace is positive.  In fact, many of those relationships drag a person down and make it difficult to perform the job one is hired to do.  Have you ever experienced working in a dysfunctional workplace?  Have you ever worked for an unreasonable boss?  Have you ever suffered from office politics?  I think most of us have.

While going through boxes of files during our recent move, I came across this quote I had saved among my other profession papers.

"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

I originally found this gem, printed in large font on a sheet of 8 X 10 paper, in an old file cabinet that I was cleaning out so I could claim the cabinet as my own soon after I had been hired at a University to write curriculum for a new program that was being developed.  At the time, I could not relate to the quote at all, but finding it interesting, I kept it.

I should have had a clue that I would soon learn how true this quote was when I had beg, borrow, and steal enough equipment to set up my office during the first week on the job, but, at the time,  I was still too enthralled with the idea of working at my dream job to honestly assess my situation.  I soon discovered that petty office politics exist even in the ivory tower.  Or, should I say especially in the ivory tower?  I'm not sure that statement would be true.  I only know that I saw the careers of many talented and gifted professionals hijacked by those with less talent who did not work as hard as those who were forced to leave or who left because they realized that if they stayed, their careers would stagnate, become less than fulfilling, and that they were stuck in a dead end street in their careers because office politics and petty ego wars were alive and well.

In the end, I retired before I was really ready, not because I did not accomplish what I was hired to do, but because the relationships I valued most with the professionals I most respected and admired,were no longer there in the workplace.  The professionals I worked with the closest all had left for greener pastures where they hoped their careers could again get back on track.  Thankfully, I had the luxury to make the decision to retire.  Many others do not have that luxury.

While I was working at the University, a dear colleague  and friend, a professor who got her degree in educational leadership at Harvard, listened sympathetically to my frustration one day at work.  As she spoke, she made a statement that struck me with its wisdom.  I said, "Wait a minute.  Repeat that so I can write down what you just said."  I wrote it down on a sticky note, put it in my top right drawer of my work desk, and referred to it often as I tried to navigate the professional minefield I found myself walking through.  Unfortunately, the quote has been lost.  I can't tell you what it said, but in essence, it was on how to successfully deal with a manager who does not know how to lead.

What does one do when one finds themselves in a work environment where egos are more important that job that needs to be done? How does one survive a workplace that is difficult?   If I had the answer to these questions and others like them, I could write a best seller.  I only know what worked for me.

  1. Believe in yourself.  When I first started teaching, my confidence level in my ability to teach was very low.  I really wondered if I would know how to teach.  It all seemed so mysterious.  How does one make another person learn?  The answer to that question is, "No one can make another person learn."  I just needed to have the confidence to know that I was in charge of my own little sphere of the world, or in my case, the classroom.  I had the background knowledge to do the job I had to do.  I could not be timid.  I had to walk into that classroom believing in myself.  If I didn't believe in me, the students were not going to believe I was the real deal either.
  2. Demand respect.  A teacher must demand respect or leave the profession because one cannot create successful classroom management if respect is not the first order of business.  I think it is the same in every other job or profession.  One will never be successful if one does not demand respect by behaving in a respectful manner.  I am appalled to see how disrespectfully people treat those they work with these days.  It seems civility has gone out the window.  Just because someone is your boss, that does not mean they can treat you with disrespect.
  3. Show respect.  Even if one does not show you as a worker respect.  It is best to be the better person and show respect.  One can disagree with another on the job, but it should be done with respect.  
  4. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself.  As a woman who entered the workforce long before women were given any type of equal footing in the workplace, I have always encountered a lot of discrimination where I worked.  Thankfully, I was not always on the receiving end of this discrimination, but I saw plenty of it and experienced it more that I wish I had.  Sometimes, women treat each other the worst.  One must be assertive when the need arises.  I have at times risked my reputation, and my job, by being assertive.  When I see injustice, I must speak up.  If another person has no trouble "throwing me under the bus" in order to protect or advance themselves, I have no problem being assertive.  Remember, be bold, be assertive, but also show respect for yourself and those with whom you must interact.
  5. Take care of yourself.  I love how we are reminded to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first when on an airplane.  As a mom, a wife, a daughter, a friend, I find it difficult to put myself first. The truth is, I am no good to others if I am filled with stress and anxiety because I am working too hard, or under too much stress, to take care of myself.  Leave the stress of work behind when you get home.  Don't let the boss or the job bother you at home.  Just before I started teaching, my professor and advisor gave me great advice.  "Get to work early and stay late, but don't bring your work home."  I know that many top corporate officials would disagree with me there, but I stand by the philosophy that all of us must be able to leave the job behind when we come home at night.  I've seen too many at the top burn out from not taking time to live life.  It's not all about the job.  
  6. "Don't get down in the blender blades."  I love this quote from my dear friend Linda Button.  She advised that when I found myself in the mix of office politics to keep myself from getting down in blender blades.  One knows what happens to anything that gets down in those blades, the item gets chopped to pieces!  It is always best to not get in the mix in the first place if possible, but if it does happen that you find yourself involved in office drama and politics, exit as soon as possible from the mix.  Sometimes, the best thing to do at work is just to show up and work.  Keep out of the fray that is swirling around you.  
  7. Keep your mouth shut.  Don't gossip.  Don't tell everyone around you about the rough time you are having at work, and don't talk about the ones you work with to others.  Especially, don't talk behind the bosses back!  That seems so simple.  It is not easy though.  I remember a lunch we once had where the old staff took new staff out to get better acquainted.  We drifted toward the topic of some of the things that the boss did to make life difficult.  The newest staff member went straight back to the boss and told her of the conversation.  She is the only one still working there. Enough said on that topic.  
  8. "Get your work done one piece of paper at a time."  My father used to tell a story about a man who worked for him who said he just didn't know how he was going to get all his work done.  My father said, "By doing it one piece of paper at a time."  I remembered that story so many times in my working life.  I handled things one piece of paper at a time when I faced piles of papers to grade.  Beyond that advice, I think that one must be able to prioritize work and know how to focus on the task at hand.   
  9. "Don't get your honey where you get your money."  This is a quote my husband is fond of using.  This too is good advice.  I also applied that advice when it came to making my closest social contacts in the work environment.  Sometimes, people who work together can become enmeshed outside of work.  This enmeshment never works in the work environment.  I have witnessed screaming matches between former best friends, who were professionals, who could not separate their failed relationship when it came to working together.  This is not a pretty sight.  It leads to low office moral for everyone, and no one really wins when intimacy occurs between two people in the workplace.  
  10. Finally, don't become a victim of the pettiness that can and does occur in office politics.  Workplace bullying is a reality.  There is a debate over who first coined the quote about university politics that I attributed to Henry Kissinger.  Some say it first came from Woodrow Wilson when he was President of Princeton University.  I take comfort in knowing that either man had the experience it took to pen such a saying.  Obviously, they had either suffered from or witnessed vicious politics in the workplace.  Unfortunately, the stakes of losing out because of such political battles and attacks are not small.  Careers, paychecks, and lives are derailed when workplace bullying in any form occurs.  I found this wonderful resource on line that deals with workplace bullying.  Called the WBI Workplace Action Plan, I found the action plan the Workplace Bullying Institute has put together reasonable and valuable to anyone who is suffering from this all too common practice in today's workplace.
When one is being bullied at work, none of the advice on what I used in my career applies except for #1, #2, #4, and #5.  Believe in your.  Respect yourself.  Stand-up for yourself by taking the advice of the Workplace Bullying Institute.  Take care of yourself.  One's livelihood should be a force for good; it should never be the thing that contributes to us living an unhealthy life.  Unfortunately, many of us, at one time or another, has had to face these hard decisions in life.  I hope these ideas I written about today are helpful to others.  I know it helped me to just write them down.


DJan said...

I saw Sheryl interviewed on 60 Minutes Sunday and then read a couple of articles about her. She's an interesting person, but I found her advice filled with many more questions than answers. Your advice here is much more straightforward. Since I am no longer in the workplace, I read and remembered. I'm glad I've moved on. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Your advice is very good. Why not write that best seller? !

rosaria williams said...

Right on!
Every profession has its inescapable downsides. You didn't even mention problem students, unreasonable parents, lazy custodians, and lack of basic supplies including textbooks when you are a new teacher and you get the worst classes.

Linda Reeder said...

Teaching in an elementary school doesn't present quite such dramatic office politics, although there are those issues. But teaching young children living in poverty, with varying degrees of English proficiency, and a mix of cultures and family styles is a tremendous challenge. And now, with all the "experts" promoting that we must work with a sense of urgency, which boils down to fear, it is no longer a climate I want to be a part of. I am so grateful that I no longer have to be in the world of work.

Betsy Adams said...

Very interesting blog post today, Sally. The same thing is true when it comes to churchwork. You'd think that Christians working together would be nicer than other workplaces. BUT--that horrible politics was right there in my workplace just as much.

The place where I worked for 12 yrs was my BEST job, but the last job I took was the worst one I had. It's horrible to end a great career with a bad taste in my mouth, but I did. I was SO glad to get away from that poorly run church. Thank Goodness that I met George --and had the opportunity to retire early. Not sure what I would be doing now --if I were still working. Don't think I would be doing ministry at this last church though....

Respect is a problem these days. So many young people have no respect for adults.. Glad I'm not teaching these days.

Thanks for a great post.

Kathleen McCoy said...

Excellent advice, Sally! I wish I had read such good thoughts years ago.

I've worked in a variety of settings, but somehow the two university workplaces where I spent too many years tied for the Most Dysfunctional prize: so much ego, infighting, bullying -- just nasty! My only regret is spending precious days of my life in such toxic settings. And it's so true that the people who survive long-term in these workplaces tend to be the least talented, but most vicious.

I've read a lot about the new Leaning In book, but have not read the book itself yet. My impression is that the young author occupies a rarified perch in her occupation and may not have any idea what the workplace is like for people with more conventional careers.

I'd go with your workplace tips any day, Sally!

Arkansas Patti said...

This should be required reading for all new hires.
"Don't get down in the blender blades." That I just loved and pretty much how I lived my work life.
I was lucky to have only one incompetent boss that had arrived via the "Peter Principal." Luckily, he didn't last long.
Really good post.

Olga said...

I just read a newspaper article about bullying in the workplace. I did work for a bully--twice--although I did not name it at the time.
The first bully boss was not mean to people but was so ruthless and slippery in his ambitions to promote himself I couldn't work with him. Literally. The sound of his voice gave me severe migraines.
By my second bully boss, I had learned to stand up for myself and she did not mess with me after a while. But working with the broken shells of others she left in her wake was a challenge itself. She was wicked mean.
Why does it have to be like that?
Your tips are right on the money.

Cape Cod Kitty said...

Wonderfully sage advice!!!

Keicha Christiansen said...

Great advice! You know all too well the personalities and dysfunction I've suffered through in my 26-year career. The "don't get caught in the blender blades" is the best, I think. Almost always it's best to show up, shut up, and get to work. Or, as we say in my department when others are bitching "I'm just happy to be part of the team." That usually quiets people pretty quickly. I've also found my personal mantra to be very helpful in keeping me focused on what matters in MY life and above the fray. "My job does not define who I am as a person."

thisisme said...

Hi Sally. I must say that this was a really interesting post about politics in the work place. You gave some really helpful advice there, and, yes, perhaps you should write that book!

Mare said...

Sounds exactly right to my frame of mind. And I also related to the beginning where you spoke of missing the aspects of teaching that are rewarding. I, also miss them with the exception of the paperwork. I always disliked that!!

troutbirder said...

Very thoughtful... I was lucky teach in a small town where many of the old ways of respect stayed on...

Jackie said...

Sounds like sound advice to me, Sally. Your writing is powerful...and I think one of the main reasons is that you have experience and most of all wisdom in your corner.
Thank you for sharing...
Very powerful!!

Kay said...

Wow! This is really excellent advice, Sally! Everybody should get a list of your rules when they start a job.

I'm lucky in that my school environment was wonderful. We surrounded ourselves with people who were positive and helped us be productive and happy. There were toxic people we tended to shy away from. We had to make sure we wouldn't be looked on as a clique by doing things for everybody and supporting other grade levels as well. I've heard from teachers who told me how intolerable it could be when they weren't getting support at other schools.

Jeanie said...

Sally, this is a very timely post for me to read and with excellent advice (and quotes!). As one who works in a university environment and anticipating retirement, I can say that while health figures into it, what figures most are all the issues you presented here. I think we all expect change in the workplace and that things are different. But when the change does not bring the better, the relationships you value depart, then it is time to reassess. This may be a post I actually print out so that I may reflect on it even more in my remaining time here.

Thank you. It hits so close to home in so many ways, I can't even begin to comment coherently.

dkzody said...

I miss my coworkers, but otherwise, I am so glad to be gone from the school where I devoted 21 years of my life. I worked very hard and I know there is no way I could continue to work that hard and get the results I required. It takes a huge amount of energy to keep up in the workplace, no matter where it might be. I find such joy now in what I do, knowing that I can move from one thing to another, making new friends, trying new activities, and not being concerned about the politics of the place. Those politics just add another layer of very hard work to the job.