Respect Yourself

I was at a company retreat a while back, one of those two-day events where management spends a lot of people’s time and the organization’s money having people participate in getting-to-know you exercises and breakout groups designed to make employees feel like their opinions about the organization’s work and direction actually matter. Everyone put on a good face and participated, at least half-heartedly, with the underlying understanding that nothing anyone contributed at the event would actually make any difference. After all, it never had before.

Just before the retreat ended, though, each department held a group meeting, at which employees could actually ask questions related to the work they really do.

That’s when sparks flew. One after another employee, from the most junior to the most senior (except the department head, who presided over the meeting), some with anger and some choking back tears, asked why it was so hard to get anything done; why decision-making by higher-ups was so opaque or nonexistent; why backbiting among staff had become the norm; and ultimately, what did the boss plan to do about it?

Not surprisingly, the boss, who has his own boss to answer to so ultimately couldn’t answer most of the questions, let alone solve the problems, had little to say. But what struck me was that under all of the complaints was one core problem: no one felt valued. Whether the complaint was that they didn’t receive timely responses to important questions, that necessary approvals for work to be completed never materialized, or that they were tired of another departments’ employees’ snickering comments, the upshot of it was that no one felt like the work they did was appreciated.

It was stunning to see: the same core problem had infected all rungs of the organization, from the most junior administrative staff to the most senior professionals.

This ties back to what I wrote in an earlier post: bosses aren’t there to make you feel good. Most of the time, they’re not thinking about you at all. They’re just thinking about what you produce and whether it meets their needs. If it does, they may or may not tell you that. If it doesn’t, you’ll hear about it – or it will trickle down to you in some fashion, because that’s what the boss is focusing on. But even if you’re doing great work, or the best you can, given the situation’s limitations, you may never hear about it. Managers are usually too busy focusing on all the things that aren’t working. And most bosses aren’t thinking about whether the people who report to them feel valued or good about their work.

That’s not a good thing, and I’m not making excuses for it. Organizations can and should do better. But ultimately, feeling good about your work is your job. And it’s important, especially if, like most people, you spend most of your waking hours working. If all it’s giving you is a paycheck, that’s a waste of a good chunk of your life.

This applies no matter what your job is. Whether it’s ministering to the poor, cleaning the office or running a company, it’s important to feel like you’re accomplishing something of value. And you can be. Even if no one ever tells you that.

The key is to set goals for yourself — and celebrate when you achieve them.

It’s something I’ve had to learn. When I was a journalist, it was easy enough: at the end of every project was a story that got published, and I had this tangible thing I could feel good about. I made sure I was always working on at least one story that interested me, so I could always feel like I was accomplishing something.

But when I joined an organization, it became much harder. Now that I was part of a larger machine, my work had to get approved by lots of other people before it could be completed. Much of it didn’t involve finished products with my name on them. And even when they did, I often felt like I didn’t get the credit I wanted for all the hard work I’d put into it, or the support I’d hoped for to ensure it made an impact.

It was on a leadership retreat that I learned the importance of setting my own goals and doing everything I could to meet them. I was choosing to meet them not because someone else expected or required me to, but because these were goals I had decided were important. When I met them – and when I set them myself, I usually did – I could feel really good about it. Eventually other people in the organization might have noticed, too, but what was important was that I knew I had a purpose that mattered to me, and I had fulfilled it.

Yes, it’s still annoying when you don’t get the recognition you deserve from higher-ups – and most managers need to do a far better job of letting employees know their work is important and appreciated. But if you value your own work, you don’t need to put nearly so much stock in winning the recognition of others. What’s important is knowing you’re accomplishing something that matters to you.

(And if you’re not, by the way, then that’s a whole other problem – to be addressed in a future post.)

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