Employers: Surrogate Parents

There are two types of people in this world.

How many times have you heard that one?

Well, there are.  Those who reject their jobs, and those who adopt their jobs.

Ernie is a job rejecter.  A job denier.  He shows up a little bit late each day, and leaves a little bit early.  He barely does enough of his duties at his job to get by, and will do even less if he thinks he can get away with it.  The work is a chore for him, every minute of it.  There are no joys to be taken.  Little or no sense of accomplishment when he does something well.  He moans and groans about going back to work after the weekend.  He finds petty excuses to call out, or flat out lies.

Annie is a job adopter.  She shows up early when she can, and stays late sometimes, just to finish up what she was working on.  She perceives her assigned duties as a starting ground, and does more as often as she can.  She takes special interest in understanding the jobs of the people around her.  She makes responsible decisions in her home life to make sure she has enough sleep and solid transport to work.  She builds work relationships because it facilitates the work environment.

I bet you have some defined feelings about these two types.  You may feel that you identify with one or the other.  I bet you know someone at your job that you’d categorize as an Ernie or an Annie.

What I have elected to relate to you today, in this entry of the Octopode’s bloggotron, is that I think both types are wrong.  I think they’re both improper ways of handling this ubiquitous phenomenon we all have to deal with, this….employment thing.  Why?  Because both of them take their job personally.

When Ernie’s supervisor tells him he sent a copy of the TPS Report to the wrong auditing office, Ernie gets mad.  He gets upset that he’s just been told he did something wrong.  If someone notices his lateness, if someone calls attention to his lack of output, it inspires anger.  If he is turned down for a promotion, he is insulted, and this may lead to anger as well.  His apprehension about how he is perceived at work may extend outward too, making him sensitive about other aspects of his presence there.

Annie’s output is higher, and like an overachieving child, she uses her good behavior to look for approval.  Her work is very important to her personally, and she thinks about it even when she isn’t at work.  She finds ways to improve, ways to increase productivity, and ways to improve the systems her workplace has in place.  Her ideas, and her effort to implement them, are the things she works hardest at in her life.  They represent the best of her.  When they are rejected, it hurts her.  She may react with deep sadness, anger, or by telling herself that the one who rejected her work doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The way their feelings are wrapped up in their jobs is the problem.  Their personal validation hinges on what they do in the workplace, and the way it is received.  Ernie wants to do as little as possible, but this is mostly a defense based on the explicit idea that he doesn’t care about his job and how he is perceived there, a lie he tells himself to protect himself from being recognized as a failure or as a fraud.  Annie pushes herself too hard and is far more productive than is called for at her job because she is desperately trying to prove herself, to herself, and to everyone else, particularly those whose opinion of her she values.  This is why when a negative opinion is expressed, she devalues that person in order to save herself from their disapproval.

They’re not opposites, these two.  They’re actually substantially the same:  Both of them need to be validated by their workmates/supervisors.  Both of them are using their jobs as one (likely of many) mechanisms to culture appreciation from others, which they need just to feel OK.  In short, they take their jobs personally.

And it’s not acceptable.

If I could reach into these two employee archetypes, which in my perspective are at least nine of ten employed people out there, I would switch their regard for their jobs from personal to business.  I’d make a third type of person, the type that I try to be.

The businessperson.  That’s what it is, isn’t it?  It’s business.  It’s employment; it’s a company paying a person for their time and effort, working on tasks the company needs done.  But this nonsense is childish bullshit, and no supervisor should have to coddle their staff just to keep morale up.  Since when are our jobs a daycare?  Forever, I’ll bet.  People walk into their jobs with all their issues in tow, and express them there as they do everywhere else.  And the bait is strong—you see a paycheck for what you do there.  A chunk of money is a big deal, its delivery on a regular basis is nothing short of life-sustaining, and it adds quite a lot of weight to what the employee who earned it is doing.

But this is not personal, folks.  It’s a transaction.  It’s buying groceries.  When was the last time the grocery store manager came up to you as you’re pushing your cart to the register, and with a sullen look on his face, said, “Were you okay with the selection of spaghetti sauces?  I tried to get the best ones but I don’t know….I guess I don’t really know what you want but I hope you’re happy with it.  I always try.  Sorry if it’s not OK.”

You shouldn’t have to make that grocery store manager feel better about himself.  And likewise, he shouldn’t have to make his employees feel better about themselves.  Yet he likely does.  And what’s more, he thinks it’s normal.

When you go to your job, there is an expectation placed on you.  You’re being paid to do X.  Not X minus anything, not X plus anything.  If you give more than is required, your supers won’t complain, but if your extra work is not accepted and you become unstable as a result, you’ve just failed to do X properly.  Further, anger over your behavior on the part of your coworkers may interfere with their ability to do their X.  And if you’ve got an office full of Annies and Ernies, that’s an even bigger problem.  Employees who are already validating themselves do not heap insecurities upon their boss.  They just do a good job and go home.

So, how to make it just business?

The goal is to meet what is expected of you, your X, at a level consistent with your own work ethic.  And that concept contains the key:  you are working for you.  You are earning money for yourself.  Focus on what you think is the appropriate response to the work that you are being prompted for, not what it feels like your supervisors will like.  Ask yourself, “What am I really being asked to do?”  Make a list.  That list might include going above-and-beyond, as some employers do look for that.  But this only means that going the extra mile isn’t really extra at all, it’s required.

Many employers are highly experienced at giving employees emotional validation for doing good work.  Be a foil (and likely sweet relief) to that.  Give them what they want, simply and easily.  They’ll quickly learn they can count on you.  And you in turn will receive job security.  But most of all, you’ll be at peace about your job and your performance there.  You’ll feel simple satisfaction, and you won’t worry about it anymore.

But, how to do this if you are naturally an Ernie or an Annie?  That’s hard to say, since one’s own security and self-validation are the things that lead to the negative behaviors they exhibit.  But there is one simple, mechanical thing you can do to help, in addition to making a list of your duties and adhering to it:  you can refrain from making personal connections with coworkers.

Stop making them your friends!  So they’re great people, so what?  So you want them to like you; overcome this feeling.  They are not your friends when you walk in, and hanging that mantle on them invites the kind of personal connection that will enable validation-seeking behavior.  Keep them professional colleagues.  Do not associate outside of work.  Do not trade phone numbers for any reason except work-related.  Do not send personal emails.  Do not confide about your personal life at all, in fact deflect questions about it.  Don’t be a dick about it, just hold your horses.  Find your friends elsewhere.  You and your coworkers are teammates, not friends.

Does this mean you can’t joke around?  Sign the birthday card going from desk to desk?  Of course not.  Participate in the office food event.  Use first names.  Encourage your coworkers in their work-related endeavors.  But draw a defined line.  Deflect personal conversations about others and absolutely about yourself.

One way to facilitate this feeling is to dress at least a little formally at work.  Dressing casual at work is a quick way to invite casual interaction.  Another thing to do is adhere strictly to your own work ethic, which means that you should explicitly define it (write it down).  Being lazy about tasks or producing subpar output is a gateway to perceiving disapproval in your supers, often that isn’t even there.  Another trick that I’ve found helps psych myself out about what I do, is to write down at the end of each day a short list of what I’ve accomplished at work.  Just brief notes that I can understand.  Then when I get a paycheck, look at the check and the list at the same time.  Get a visual of exactly what you’ve been paid to do.  It throws all the superfluous fluff that goes into holding down a job into contrast.

If you can manage to make your work less personal, you can only benefit, no matter your employment future.  In the immediate, what you will find is greater job satisfaction, better overall performance, and a quieting of worries.  In time, you’ll get praise from your supervisors (though you won’t need it), and maybe even opportunities to take your game to the next level.

But the big payoff is that you’ll drive home from your job every day feeling calmer, less stressed.  And the ridiculous games that Ernie and Annie play all day at work, and which infect and detract from their home lives as well, will stand out in high contrast.  You’ll be above that nonsense.  They’ll look up to you in time, jealous on a level they don’t understand.

It’s your job, folks.  It’s business.  Don’t take it so personally.

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