Work Without Dysfunction
- Steve Williamson, VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
- Monday, February 12, 2024
I've worked for some terrible bosses and had some horrendous co-workers. We all probably have at some point in our careers, and probably will again in the future. But there are some wholesome lessons hidden underneath all that workplace dysfunction.
During a job interview with a tech company, a man in a shiny suit stuck his head in the room, placed two bottles of beer on the table, smiled and left.
"Who was that?" I asked.
"The CEO," the interviewer said. "So," he went on, "What's your favorite beer?"
Reading the room, I pointed at the bottle of Henry Weinhards Private Reserve in front of me and said, "This one right here."
This wasn't an isolated incident. "What's your favorite beer?" was a standard interview question at that company, and it wasn't just small talk. They meant it. We had a company-paid running tab at three bars within walking distance of the office and the only employee we ever hired that didn't drink had a medical exemption (he was allergic to alcohol).
Working at that tech company felt like living in a college dorm. It was fun but highly dysfunctional.
I did learn a lot about managing people and projects, though, and my technical skills increased dramatically during my tenure.
I also learned a few valuable lessons about how to interview job candidates, both what to do and what not to do.
During a previous job I learned another valuable lesson in gravity. As some people put it, "$hit rolls downhill."
I was promoted to lead my peers on the IT and application support team. The pay increase and title change was nice, but I soon realized it was also a way (intentional or not) for my boss to offload ("delegate") the management of a rather difficult employee from their desk onto mine.
This individual was our most experienced tier-1 tech support person, yet they seemed to get nothing done. Tasks consistently fell through the cracks and communication was severely lacking.
Prior to me becoming their supervisor, our department head had only used threats and disciplinary action to address the problem. They also micromanaged so much they were failing to meet their own deadlines.
The definition of insanity is repeating the same action yet expecting a different result.
I knew I had to take a different approach. I asked the employee how they would address the issue if they were the supervisor. In a frank yet surprisingly constructive conversation, we came up with a plan for how they would manage and complete their tasks and communicate status in an effective manner.
We implemented a small amount of tech but the biggest change was giving the employee a sense of ownership over their responsibilities. Instead of tasks that other people gave to them, those tech support requests became "theirs" with their name on it, for both good and bad.
Within a month, the turn-around was dramatic. Tech support tasks were often addressed within minutes of receipt and most were resolved in an hour or less.
The reason our department head was resorting to micromanagement was because her boss was micromanaging her. The reason our department head was using all stick and no carrot with her team was because her boss was using threats of stick and withholding all promise of carrot with her.
The dysfunction in that department was rolling downhill straight from the top.
In that process, I learned that everyone has their own motivation or reasons for the way they act. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it's hidden. Sometimes the individual has no idea why they behave the way they do in the workplace. Seeking the source of unwanted behavior in a respectful yet honest way can be a useful approach.
Above all, I learned that if the current way of doing things isn't working, try to do things in a different way. (Oh, and if there's trouble in the waters down below, look upstream for the source of the issue.)
After completing the Core Values Index™ psychometric assessment and learning how to recognize the different personality types of bosses and co-workers, I began to understand why certain conflicts arose between people throughout my career.
For my whole life I've seen the world through my own particular lens. We all see the world through our own lens. It colors the way we see things and shapes our priorities and preferred way of acting. It also shapes how we prefer others to act.
This skewed preference is natural and normal but it can be disruptive, too. If we insist everyone else in the world act the way we act and share our priorities, we will be consistently disappointed.
Thinking back to circumstances where I failed to get along with co-workers or supervisors, other than a few situations where the source of the problem was further up the hill, I can attribute some or all of the problem to a difference in personality.
Note that I'm not saying I was right and the other person was wrong (or vice versa). I'm saying we were coming at the situation with different priorities and seeing it through different lenses.
This knowledge has been a profound revelation to me. Although I can't go back in time and change the way I behaved, I can look at how my ignorance of the different personality types kept me from recognizing the value of the other person's perspective.
In once instance, there was an immediate personality conflict between myself and one of the executives at a small company I worked at from the moment we met. He didn't like me and I didn't like him. Period.
If I'd had the knowledge of how the CVI works at that time, I'd have recognized that his psychometric profile was completely opposite of my own. His way of looking at things was foreign to me, and our priorities never aligned.
Having this knowledge, I could have shifted the way I communicated with that executive and provided information in the way he preferred to consume it.
Effective communication isn't about how you like to express information, it's about how the other person needs to receive it.
This seems like an obvious point, but what the CVI would have done is give me the insight to understand not just that my approach wasn't working, but to know what the best approach would have been without some potentially career-limiting trial and error.
If I could go back in time, I'd be able to honor that individual's particular personality type rather than getting frustrated that he just couldn't see things the way I did.
The biggest social mistake is expecting others to see the world through your own personal lens.
Thinking back on my career, it can be easy to remember the frustrations and dysfunctions. But there were many moments of growth that didn't require emotional trauma to manifest.
One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received came from my boss, Doug, at my first professional job. I was just 19 and I was the junior programmer in a team of six for a large paper company.
Doug and I were working on a project together and I was asking him career advice. Specifically, I wanted to know what programming language I should learn next.
Doug said, "My advice would be to place more value in the context of where and why you're programming more than the technical side of it. Understanding the industry and operations of where you are writing software is more valuable than learning the syntax in isolation."
He continued, "If you're programming for a bank, learn everything you can about banking. If you're writing software for a tool manufacturer, learning everything you can about that. Fully understanding the context and reason for your software will make you a far more valuable programmer."
Over my career, I've been paid to write code in 25 programming languages across a wide range of industries. In that time, Doug's advice has proven to be 100% correct. It has never been about the syntax and always about the context.
The same can be said for how to work with others. If you understand the context of the other person's perspective and ensure your communication is tailored to them and their priorities, the usual dysfunction of the working world will be nothing but a hopefully amusing footnote.
If your communication is tailored to your audience, your message will always be heard loud and clear.
Core Values Index™ and CVI™ are trademarks of Taylor Protocols, Inc.
Go to eRep.com/core-values-index/ to learn more about the CVI or to take the Core Values Index assessment.
Innovator/Banker - VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
Steve has a career in project management, software development and technical team leadership spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (ruckerworks.com), and when he isn't writing, he enjoys cycling, old-school table-top role-playing games, and buzzing around the virtual skies in his home-built flight simulator.
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