When I read business books, I often get the feeling that the work world I see isn‘t quite what those folks are thinking of when they write about what goes on in the workplace.
The problems they focus on always somehow seem to boil down to different examples of essentially the same problems – poor leadership, “non-strategic” thinking, lack of innovation, not listening to customers, etc. As I read, in my mind’s eye I always see focused, ambitious people with big careers and big mortgages, and it’s just that, according to the author, somehow things aren‘t quite coming together. So there‘s all this potential lying there waiting to be unleashed – if only management would get it right.
Enter – stage left – the right person, or the right management idea, or both.
I suppose I’m exaggerating a tad, and maybe it‘s nothing more than the feeling that they’re writing about a parallel universe where virtually everyone’s a professional, or at least has work skills, and takes for granted adult functioning like shaking hands, returning phone calls, making minimal eye contact, wearing clean clothes, and using deodorant.
At some of the workplaces I’ve been called to consult with, nothing could be taken for granted. I remember sitting in a conference room with a freshly promoted young supervisor having a good discussion about basic managing do’s and don’ts – things like the need to give regular feedback, to get right on top of identified problems, addressing any anxiety about doing performance reviews, etc.
We could look out onto a floor full of cubicles, and, as we talked, a small squad converged around a particular one. My new supervisor shook her head and said sadly, “We found rotting food in her file drawers, and unopened mail from months ago.“
I’m not suggesting that happens every day, but there are many, many workplaces where that kind comes through the door – and falls to a supervisor to handle. “The Office” and “Dilbert” cartoons capture a slice of it, but much of what I see isn’t all that funny: pecking order politics, raw aggression, dysfunction, and pure venality can and do occur with sad regularity in workplaces near you.
Paradoxically, for some people work is the place they’d rather be, actually is “home” – a sanctuary, a model of sanity and reliability that contrasts dramatically with the “train wreck” back at their own real home.
This shouldn’t simply be dismissed as the other world of dysfunctional people, where most wouldn‘t be caught dead.
Many of us have been there, are there now, or have siblings, cousins, and even children who are in that world.
Helping line managers do their tough jobs has only partly – if ever – been about “thinking outside the box.“
Truth is, it‘s mostly about keeping your concentration, staying focused, and acting like the person you’re trying to be – no matter what mess is happening in front of you. Those folks take what comes, learn, improve, and make their exit when the time is right for them.
It may sound a bit corny, but those are the folks it really has been an honor to be able to help.