• Career Counseling Quandary: It’s Not the Work, It’s the People (Part 1)

    Work – PART 2, or part 359,000,000. Because this can be the biggie. But let’s rewind before we move too far ahead.

    My blog post several weeks ago discussed steps to take toward career counseling by really taking the time to dive into your strengths and allowing your mind to wander about your perfect career (or lifestyle, cause that’s really what it’s about, am I right?) So, let’s pretend that you’ve done that, and you’re saying things to yourself that sound like this:

    “You know what? I am good at my job, and I think I even like it! I have goals that I work toward, and that feels fulfilling to me. I like FILL IN THE BLANK – reaching those people, bringing in those accounts, drafting that plan, performing those procedures, etc.…”

    You’re feeling pretty confident that the work itself is a decent fit for you – mostly fulfilling, using your strengths, and you can sometimes even find that sweet spot state of flow or “the zone” in which you get lost in what you’re doing. Yes! That feels great! Well done!

    So now what? We turn to look at the next part of one’s career that can be a real game changer and is a common theme in career counseling complaints – PEOPLE. Namely, the people with whom you work most closely. Maybe it’s that you don’t care for the leadership style of your supervisor. Maybe you find yourself often stuck in toxic conversations with burnt out colleagues. Maybe you’re the person who people go to to discuss their frustrations with management even though you’re not technically in a leadership position. Whatever your story is, for many people, the relational issues that occur at work can be inescapable and can shift your feelings about your job, regardless of the work itself. Common career complaints or frustrations that I hear from working women have similar relational themes, one that I will address this week, and one that I will address next week. I share these things with you for two reasons. One – so that you might feel less alone and more validated, and two – so that you might consider ways that you can take action toward change. And no, I am not telling you to quit your job, although that may be where you ultimately land. That’s your choice!

    First, what I often here women share as it relates to an untenable work environment is that women feel that they are often put in the position of needing to “manage up” the people who are technically in a supervisory or managerial position. “Managing up” is a career development concept that centers around working in a way that is mutually beneficial to you and to your boss and involves open communication, mutual support, and a shared understanding that you are working to advance your career while supporting your boss. In concept, this is an excellent approach and can be deeply gratifying for both parties! However, what often plays out in practice can quickly turn into blurred lines that may end up looking more like the following:

    • You having to ask your boss or manager for feedback (rather than it being offered as part of your growth process)
    • You having to set meetings to review expectations (rather than it being initiated by the person overseeing you)
    • You finding yourself in the role of “advocate for the rest of your team,” which ultimately makes you feel like the squeaky wheel. (Ugh, we’ve all been there!)

    Essentially, though you’re not “in charge,” you feel like you’re often in the position of having to “take charge” in order for things at work to feel productive and efficient. Because you are solid at your job and highly competent, you find yourself assuming a managerial role for which… drumroll… you are not compensated or recognized. This can lead to major feelings of resentment toward your colleagues and managers, and even if you enjoy the work itself, the imbalance in the management structure leaves you feeling overworked, underpaid, and frustrated.

    So how do we break this cycle? First things first, a direct conversation with your manager is always step one. Career counseling can walk you through these conversations that, frankly, if you want to move forward in your career, you’ve got to learn how to have! Have you shared that this is a trend that you’ve noticed? Is your manager aware that you’re holding these thoughts? If you’ve had a meeting in which you’ve respectfully addressed these issues, you’re on the right path to being sure that this person is “on notice” that the power dynamics are not ones with which you feel cool or supported. If you hate confrontation, I get it, but doesn’t that person deserve to hear how their management style is working (or not) for you? By giving them an opportunity to see the dynamic through your eyes, you may be giving them insight into relational patterns of which they are unaware. And I can assure you, if these relational patterns are happening at work, they’re surely happening at home. Just think – you may be the person who brings to their attention some dynamics that can improve their marriage and their friendships. Well done!

    The next step in breaking this cycle is perhaps the more difficult one for you high achieving, go-getter types, and it’s really basic: Just. Stop. Unfortunately, your willingness to engage TOO much in the “managing up” behavior may actually be contributing to the problem. Yes, my initiative-taking friend, it is very possible that you are… enabling. If you’ve discussed the issue you’re seeing with your manager, are not seeing change, and yet you find yourself in that same place of DOING it all because “shit wouldn’t get done otherwise,” then I ask you to consider if you’re actually adding to the problem. As long as you are jumping in to save the day, call the meeting, or provide the fix, ownership by others (managers or colleagues) will never be taken. You know this, but damn is it ever hard to step back from it. But as I learned from an astute manager many years ago, sometimes the best learning happens when we remove ourselves and let whatever will happen do just that – happen. They may succeed. They may fail. But they have had an honest shot at whatever outcome may transpire in a way that is pure and uncensored.

    Let me be clear, the last thing I am attempting to assert here is any sort of “blaming the victim” theme. But if we are being truly honest with ourselves about relational dynamics that play out at work, we must own our role WITHIN these dynamics. Even though you are well intentioned in your desire to help your organization, there are ways to engage that create accountability measures both for yourself and for your supervisors. Try stepping back, grabbing a coffee, and letting things play out. You may be surprised at the amount of action that comes from your seeming inaction.

    Next week’s topic is relational pattern number 2: you can’t bring your full self to work. Stay tuned!