“How can I do my job if management does not do theirs?”

Question: Dear Mr. Sklover: I am writing from Sweden, but my question is of a general nature. 

How can I as an employee act and communicate strategically when my boss and management lead poorly =  not connecting to company vision, not setting clear goals, wasting employees’ time on poorly planned meetings, not asking for and giving professional advice, etc. 

If you find this question to be within the scope of your concern, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this. 

Best regards,
Johan Andersson
Gothenberg, Sweden

Answer: Dear Johan: Wow, do I ever view this to be within the scope of my concern, and a great question, as well! I am confident that it is a question many employees ask of themselves on a daily or more frequent basis. This is the kind of subject I do not address often, but I do enjoy sharing my thoughts on subjects like this one. Here are my thoughts:   

1. A competent, caring and communicative manager at work is a rare blessing, not necessarily the norm, and never to be expected. That statement may well upset my blog visitors who are, themselves, managers. I truly hope I do not upset them, but it is something I believe. I do not believe it is cynical or pessimistic to have that view, but rather realistic and, in fact, helpful as a preliminary presumption. Simply put, in some companies and organizations, people permit themselves to become dispirited and then let that dispiritedness affect their performance in a negative fashion, and senior management does nothing to reverse it.   

I am a manager, and will confess that it has happened to me at times, too, both when I was an employee and now as a manager. Yes, not doing one’s job well – without competence, caring or communication – can be an employer trait, and an employee trait, as well. Surely, I wish it was not so. I very much wish that all employers would always be productive and professional, and all employees, as well, but it has not been my experience. 

Can employees and employers be motivated to be more competent, caring and communicative, and thus more productive, on a more regular basis? Yes, absolutely; in fact that is a primary purpose of my work in my law practice and on SkloverWorkingWisdom.com. (Our mission statement reflects that: “Repairing the World One Empowered and Productive Employee at a Time.”) But, alas, I do not start off my day expecting to hear of entirely productive work relations from my clients. I try to act that way myself, to motivate it in others, and praise it when I observe it, whether by employees or managers. But I do not expect it.    

Frequent blog visitors will recall that I have used this “formula” several times previously: “Happiness = Reality Minus Expectations.” Setting expectations of others a bit on the lower side does in fact help one cope at certain times, although care must be taken not to permit that to lower your expectations of yourself.

2. No matter the degree of management dysfunction around you, you can and should try to conduct yourself in the highest fashion, in all respects, at all times,  to be the best “model” you can be, for both your colleagues and for your managers. Although “far easier said than done,” this is unquestionably the very best way to instill higher aspirations in others: to aspire yourself, on a daily basis, and thus act as a model of sorts. 

I firmly believe that dignity breeds dignity, compassion encourages compassion, aspiration motivates aspiration, and enthusiasm can be as contagious as the common cold. Whether at work, at home, or elsewhere, others see us and to some degree say to themselves, “If he or she acts that way, I guess I can act that way, too.” Yes, I do believe that care about one’s work, setting standards for one’s conduct, and communicating to the extent of one’s abilities, can actually be “contagious.” But I am aware, too, that their opposites – that is, less productive ways at work – can be “contagious” as well.   

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3. Conducting yourself at work in the most productive manner you are capable of – what you call “acting and communicating strategically” – is surely a difficult challenge in the midst of management dysfunction, but maintaining your best personal standards surely is your best coping strategy. There is just no question that having managers who do not connect to the company vision, who do not set clear goals, who waste employees’ time, who do not offer professional feedback, make your job so, so, so much more difficult and, at times, seemingly impossible. 

But that is the challenge you face, and it is perhaps the most important burden before you at work: not letting the “management madness” make you respond with “employee disengagement.” It is just a matter of “swimming upstream” against a strong current of incompetence flowing in the other direction. The best part of swimming upstream, though, is that it makes you a much stronger swimmer. Yes, swimming against the tide is difficult, but a wonderful discipline, too, and the stronger the tide the stronger the swimmer you will become.  

I say and write this often, regarding the workplace: “Like it or not, these days you have two different jobs, both of which you must accept: (i) doing your job, and (ii) keeping your job.” The second is often the harder job of the two. In the context you present, not only must you (i) struggle daily to be productive and do a good job, but (ii) you need to do so despite the many deficiencies and failures of your managers, which make your “regular” job that much more difficult. But, no one promised an easy life, did they?

4. However, when acting in your very best fashion at work, do not be surprised to experience (a) resentment, (b) intimidation, and (c) at times, even sabotage, by others. Human nature is such that people are capable of both very positive and also very negative things. At times, when people act in what I call an “aspirational manner,” that is, bringing forth in themselves the highest of ideals, it upsets others who do not practice that. Also, acting in the highest fashion – entirely positively and professionally – can at times make others feel intimidated. 

On my last job, all I wanted to do was to do the best I could, and make my employers – the law firm partners – happy. So, (a) I worked many hours, (b) I took 10 minute lunches, (c) I returned all client calls within 60 minutes, and (d) I got along with all the staff quite well. The result? Half of the partners, many of whom worked as little as possible, and took “liquid lunches” lasting two hours, didn’t like me, and made my life difficult. 

I was entirely puzzled, so I (a) worked harder, (b) took only 5-minute lunches, (c) returned all client telephone calls within 30 minutes, and (d) got along even better with the staff. One senior partner approached me in the hallway, jabbed his index finger into my chest, looked me right in the face and said, “I know what you are up to . . . you’re trying to steal the clients!” I then understood: my “best efforts” were intimidating to people who did not have the discipline and standards that I did, and I had to either find a different place to work or open my own business. (I did the latter.). 

This same thing, with some variations, has happened to many of my clients who strive only to do their best work, every day. Don’t be surprised if it happens to you.   

5. Patience, perseverance and perspective are what you need to summon, unless and  until you believe there is risk to (a) your emotions, (b) your health, (c) your family relations or (d) your faith. To “survive” at work, in the midst of such management dysfunction, you will need to summon all you can of your ingenuity and inner strength. However, if the time comes that you believe your emotions, your health, your family relations or your faith are under strain, then that will surely be the time to begin searching for a new job, with a new set of managers, in a different division or at a new company, hopefully in a more positive and professional work culture. Just as “You don’t marry everyone you date,” few jobs are forever. 

Alternatively, you will decide to establish your own business, consulting company, or partnership with others who are of a like mind and view. 

While I admire those who dedicate themselves to improving their work culture, there are times that you just must “let it go.” It is great to persevere, but not at the cost of your emotions, your health, your family relations or your faith. At that time, it is your responsibility to yourself to locate and plant yourself in more fertile fields, where you can grow and flourish, and your abilities, attitude and enthusiasm are all respected, appreciated and rewarded, and most of all, returned in kind.   

Johan, I hope this makes sense, and that it is of some help to you. Sorry if I wrote too much. However, what you inquired about is central to so much of my own concerns, values and daily efforts, that I think about it a lot. Imagine, if  you would, what a world we would live in if we all cared about our work, and dedicated ourselves to it. Thanks for writing in; I always enjoy hearing from those at great distance from my home in New  York.    

My Best to You,
Al Sklover 

P.S.: If you would like to speak with me directly about this or other workplace-related subjects, I am available for 30-minute, 60-minute, or 120-minute telephone consultations. (Even 5-minute “Just One Question” calls). Just [click here.] Evenings and weekends can be accommodated.

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