Not Your Job. Or Is It?

Workplace-HellI realize that unemployment in this country is a serious problem, but talk to people who have jobs and most will tell you they don’t like them very much.

Reason #1 is that the purpose of the job isn’t your satisfaction: you’re working for someone, or some company, whose goal is to maximize profit (or attract funding, if it’s a nonprofit), not to make you happy. You’re inherently a cog in the machine, and most bosses treat their employees that way.

That’s not to say that all bosses are bad or mean people. Many may be great to their families and friends, committed to righteous causes, and maybe even decent to work for. But lots of bosses are under lots of pressure themselves to perform: to demonstrate their value to their boss, in some measurable way, whether by increasing profits or producing some other specific outcomes that will capture their manager’s attention, and keep them employed with the hopes of eventually reaching a higher rung on the ladder. And you, as a cog in the machine that they’re required to manage, are not on top of their list of priorities.

Again, they may be very well-meaning. But human beings pretty universally put their own needs first. Some are better or worse at considering the needs of others, but chances are your boss isn’t losing sleep over whether you’re feeling fulfilled in your work, employing your greatest talents or learning anything new. That’s for you to lose sleep over.

If you do, and you actually want to feel fulfilled at work (reportedly only 13% of people in the world actually feel engaged in their work) you have two choices: either 1) quit and work for yourself, so you get to be your own boss (and take on the boss’s responsibilities as well); or 2) find ways to create meaning for yourself while working for someone else. Above all, don’t expect someone else to do it for you.

In a recent NYT column, Management Consultant and Executive Coach Tony Schwartz laid out six ways managers can make their workplaces better, including such basic things as respecting the people who work for them, measuring employees’ worth for what they create and not their hours clocked, and encouraging them to get off 24-7 e-mail. All of that sounds really good, but I’d bet your boss didn’t read that column. Probably he was too busy answering to his boss; or, he was enjoying his own free time and not worrying too much about you. After all, he generally doesn’t have to. Yes, his employees might be happier and more productive if he did, but managers, like politicians, don’t generally think that far ahead. They tend to be more focused on getting done what they have to so they can get out of the office and go vent (or ignore) their own frustrations.

While management consultants may have great advice on how to create a better workplace, in my experience, few employers actually take them up on it. It falls to employees to make the better work environment for themselves. While you can’t control everything, there are probably many more things you can control and take charge of than you realize.

So, I’m going to take the liberty of twisting Tony Schwartz’s tips to put the power back in our own hands. Here are my top six ways:

1. Respect yourself, and your own work. Instead of looking to the boss to tell you you’re doing a good job, consider your own goals at work. What are you trying to accomplish? What matters to you about this job? What will be different if you do a better job, and how would you even define that? Then, set an intention to fulfill your own goals, for your own purposes. And feel proud of yourself when you do.

2. Measure yourself by how well you do what’s important in your work, and not by how many hours you put into it or show up at the office. Many employees worry about “face time” or otherwise looking like they’re working hard, maybe by sending a lot of useless e-mails. For those who work on occasion from home, we worry we’re not taken as seriously or efficiently because we’re not seen sitting at our office computer. My advice: forget about all that. Instead, keep in mind your own goals for the job, the outcomes you want to accomplish, and measure yourself by how well you achieve those, or how much you focused your efforts on achieving those, if the outcomes aren’t within your control. Forget what you look to others, since chances are they’re not paying as much attention to you as you think. But in case they are, be sure to let the higher-ups know when you do accomplish something you’re proud of. They might not know about it otherwise.

3. Get off e-mail. Stop reacting immediately to every e-mail you receive, or you’ll never get anything else done. Unless that’s the primary function of your job, take time to disengage from the constant e-mail chatter so you can concentrate on the work you want to accomplish and the goals you’ve set for yourself. E-mail is a huge distraction and a time-suck. And while sometimes it’s necessary, few people really have to respond as quickly as we do, in most instances. Maybe keep an eye out for e-mails from your boss, is she’s a stickler for quick responses, but otherwise, take time to turn it all off and focus. You’ll find you’re able to accomplish a lot more of what matters. Then you can send an e-mail letting everyone know that.

4. Build downtime into your life. The more demanding, stressful or boring your job is, the more important it is for you to take time off from it. Make sure you have daily things you do that aren’t work-related and really take you away from the job. They could be exercise, meditation, yoga, gardening, walking, painting or dancing – whatever it is, have other things you do in your life that you find fulfilling and relaxing and take you away. That’s key to not feeling burned out by work, whether you like your job or hate it.

5. Define your work in ways that matter to you. Why did you take this job in the first place? Other than the pay, was there anything about it that interested or appealed to you? Are those things still possible? If not, have new aspects of the work opened up where you feel you can make some difference? In other words, what’s important to you about your job, and how can you stay connected to that? Ultimately, that’s what should define how you feel about your work, more than how somebody else judges your performance, and whether or not anyone else ever tells you your work is appreciated.

6. Remember what you can do for others. Ultimately, workplaces are collections of people who come together with at least some shared purposes, even if it’s just to earn a living. And in those people are lots of possibilities, both to learn from and be enriched by them, and to give them something of yourself. We all have basically the same needs for appreciation, respect and security, and each of us has some role to play in helping others get those needs met. So when you go to work each day, consider what you can do for someone else to make them feel more appreciated and respected – whether it’s the receptionist, your office mate or your boss. That will both make you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile each day, and can help prevent conflicts (particularly with your boss) in the future.

Each of these points merits a lot more attention and consideration, and I’ll go into more depth on them in future posts. But this summary list is my first step toward exploring how we can all stop waiting for the managers in our lives to change things from the top. Chances are, it’s not going to happen. Start taking the matter of your work – and your life – into your own hands.

A Labor Day Launch

For most people, Labor Day is the last day of summer vacation, a time to enjoy the final barbecue or picnic or party of the season before heading back to work or sending the kids back to school.

But it’s also a good time to think about work – what it means to us, and the huge role it plays in our lives and society. There are, of course, huge problems with work in this country, most obviously how unequally people are paid for it, both historically and now, and the ongoing failure of our public policies to deal with that.

In this new blog, I’m focusing on the more personal dimension of work: what makes it satisfying, aside from the paycheck, which we all tend to think is too small. In my own career, I’ve gone from being a lawyer to a journalist and then some mix of the two, all in a quest for some sort of meaning and fulfillment. Both aspects of my career have provided me some of that, more or less at different times.

Still, more recently, I’ve wanted something else:  to contribute more directly to the people around me. As a human rights lawyer, I advocate for a more humane and less bellicose U.S. national security policy, and try to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center or restrain the United States’ remote-controlled drone killings of suspected terrorists. But the benefits of that work feel very distant and intangible. Who am I helping, really, and how? What are the actual consequences of lobbying Congress and the White House, or of writing op-eds and blogs to try to sway public opinion? It’s all pretty unclear.

So over the last year, I’ve embarked on a new adventure: coaching. The idea isn’t completely divorced from my experience: it actually came out of being a National Security and Human Rights fellow with the Rockwood Leadership Institute, which runs trainings and fellowships for “leaders” in the nonprofit advocacy world. (I put “leaders” in quotes only because the underlying idea is that we’re all leaders in one way or another, not only within our organizations but also in our own lives. Job titles don’t necessarily capture that.) As part of the fellowship, I was assigned a coach, who I worked with over the course of several months. I found that experience, along with the fellowship retreats, to be really eye-opening. Most importantly, it helped me realize that we have more choice over our own experiences of work than we tend to acknowledge. It’s far easier to blame someone else – a boss, senior manager or colleague, usually – for our frustrations and dissatisfaction, than to look at our own actions and how we’re contributing to a bad situation.

That’s not to say that a boss, manager or colleague isn’t annoying or even doing something to actively obstruct us or make our lives more difficult. It’s just that focusing our attention on that is usually counterproductive: it just makes us angrier. Through my own coaching experience, and now intensive coach training, I’ve come to realize I do much better if I focus on what I can do to change and direct my own experience.

Since starting a coach training and certification course last Spring, I’ve been really delving into this question: how can each of us change, and improve, our own work – and life — experiences? How can we make choices that direct our own lives toward how we truly want to live them? And how can we gain sufficient clarity to become truly aware of our current experiences, our desires for the future, and the steps we need to take to move in that direction?

I’m still working as a human rights advocate as I explore this new realm. But I’m also relating to that work differently – more aware and accepting of what I can and can’t control, both about the work itself and its consequences. I know what I can and want to contribute, but I’m also more willing to do that work and let go of the outcomes. It’s a perspective that I think can reduce the stress levels – and burnout rates — of many advocates. It’s an area I plan to explore further.

This new blog is my way of working through some of what I’m learning as I develop a coaching practice and continue my human rights work. While the two might seem incompatible, they’re not, really: it’s all about human dignity. In my view, we all have a right to work and to live in a way that’s meaningful to us. That will mean something different to everybody, but I hope the insights I’m learning and will share here, and with my coaching clients, prove useful, even in some small way, toward helping people realize that real potential – and their own human right.