We look to Matt Dean, author of The Soft Stuff, to enlighten us on how important it is for people to develop in work as otherwise it leads to disengagement and unhappy, unproductive employees.
When reflecting on their own career, most people don’t see something that resembles a measured progression from one point to another. The careers that most people talk about are messier; their levels of engagement, development, progress. and affiliation fluctuates. I’ve spent many years getting leaders to focus on and learn from particular moments in their career. starting with a moment in their working lie when they were not developing at all; in fact, they may have even been experiencing negative development (going backwards).
I’d encourage you to do this now. Put the book down and focus on real time in your career; a moment when you were not developing. Think about the characters who were there, the things that you were doing and how you were being treated. Often, people are struck by how easy it is to remember these moments in their careers, or how many of them there are.
In 2006, I worked with a close friend of mine and his senior leadership team. We had a great session and afterwards he provided me with clear feedback: What really struck me, what I’m taking away is very simple. All of the people in there were very successful, real high fliers. But… it was the pace with which they were all able to talk about a difficult time in their career. That’s the thing that made the difference, isn’t it!
I ask participants initially to focus on what actually happened to them; they explore how they were being treated. I’ve taken a random sample of comments made by participants in a set of sessions in continental Europe in 2015 and set them out below. It’s a small sample and nothing like a scientific study, but I’ve ordered them in terms of how frequently over the years, I would judge each idea has been referred to.
For example, lack of challenge is, without a doubt, number one in terms of the frequency with which it’s raised as part of the negative treatment people have suffered. I probably could have filled an entire book with the various notes I’ve kept, but I doubt that it would have been any more insightful than the list below.
I knew before I chose the sample that the list would be exactly as it is: a simple and quite unremarkable litany of work-a-day experiences. Boss misconduct is at number three, but there appears to be just one egregious or Machiavellian example of intentional wrongdoing. This supports my premise that most bullies are accidental; they just haven’t focused on the impact of what they do.
The poor treatment of experienced by the people I work with normally stems from thoughtlessness, or from leaders falling into patterns of thinking about an individual. A great example of this came recently from a woman who said: It was like my boss had a me-shaped hole’; he needed someone to do exactly what I did. And strangely, I fitted that role perfectly!
Unremarkable as the list may be, I defy anyone who leads people to read it and not feel uncomfortable about how their people may be feeling. It contains at least one reference to a lack of meaning and purpose (point six).
- Lack of challenge: being taken for granted, doing something absolutely within my comfort zone, facing no challenge. The job becomes routine, the tasks become repetitive. Been there, done that or could do it with my eyes closed.
- Lack of support or relationships with key people: lack of direction and guidance, lack of presence, lack of personal connection (all pertaining specifically to the boss(es)). There was no investment in my career progress; No one took the time with me; I thought she didn’t care about me, that it was all about the numbers; He wasn’t interested at all in my products; He didn’t actually understand or make an effort to understand my role; The manager just didn’t have the skills to develop me.
- Boss misconduct: a wide litany of poor communication and worse, obviously described solely from the perspective of the teller. He hid things from me; He told me he had no confidence in me; There was no communication and then he was just rude; He falsely evaluated me; He undermined me in front of others; She said ‘I told you to do this’ when she hadn’t; He was questioning my expert knowledge; A mean manager discriminating expressly against my group.
- Micromanagement/controlling: different people explain micro-management in different ways. He had an obsession with detail, with formatting. Constantly questioning where is this, what is that?; We were being controlled; It was very hierarchical – we weren’t allowed to speak!
- Lack of clarity: the person lacking clarity about what they should be focused on. No clear idea of what was required or what I was supposed to be doing; The goalposts kept moving.
- The role had been overpromised: the day-to-day reality of the job does not live up to the description sold to them at the interview. I wasn’t given the promised access; There just weren’t the opportunities I have been promised.
- Not what I wanted: the person is not engaged in work that they want to do. They were forcing me to do stuff that wasn’t me; I was made to do things I didn’t want to do; I didn’t buy into the vision.
- Struggling with politics: office politics are experienced negatively in many settings. I felt I was being excluded by the new owner; I had to focus on positioning myself every day; Someone else was taking credit for what I was producing.
- Underemployed: there is actually little worse than the phone not ringing! This can follow unexpected change/restructure or particular areas or functions may become neglected. The phone just didn’t ring.
- Lack of opportunity for development: there is little or no opportunity to do things differently. We always do it this way; You can’t do that, this is the cash cow, nothing can put that at risk; I was told to follow orders.
Having focused on what was happening, it’s important to find out how people felt at th moment. I reproduce the list of emotions experienced by people in those same European sessions. It’s probably a powerful list; again I’ve started with the emotions I judge to be the ones that people mention most frequently:
frustrated, bored, angry (angry at my manager), exluded, neglected, ignored, isolated, sad, questioning myself (questioning all the past good things), low self-esteem, lacking confidence, disappointed (disapointment – I want to grow), used, looking elsewhere/moving on, demotivated, disengaged, incompetent, a failure, worthless, unhappy and insecure, irritated, annoyed, wanting to do better, lost, no purpose, no hope, no interest, unfufilled, going through the motions, disillusioned, dissatisfied, discouraged, fear, nervous anxiety, not respected, not trusted, not valued, not appreciated, ‘at a roadblock’, misused, abused, tortured, shut out, guilty, exhausted, very tired, trapped, paranoid, unrecognised, impatient, ‘like an assistant’.
Remember this is a list of how successful leaders in an organisation have felt at a moment in their career when they were not developing. While I can see its power, I’m unsurprised by the content.
So what can you do as a leader to avoid this?
Instinctively we know that happy people work harder, yet many of us work in climates of fear. Prompted by 2016 – Brexit, Trump and the author’s second cancer – this book about what can happen in workplaces when populism takes hold and lies abound. The solution offered is for each one of us to challenge our normal and take responsibility for creating kinder, fairer and more productive workplaces. If we’re going to succeed, each of us needs a clear purpose, to choose integrity as our default and to ground ourselves in now.
For 15 years, in workplaces all over the world, people have asked Matt, “Why’s that my job? Why should I take the risk?” More fundamentally, where does the spark, the resolve actually to do something come from? How or why do we start to live our purpose? Matt uses his cancer experiences to shine a light on the challenges of all of us face to motivate ourselves. He writes, often very personal, about his difficulties changing himself and he challenges you to unleash the power of you.
Find out more about The Soft Stuff
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