How To Cope When Your Work Ethic Works Against You
Our academic system rewards knowing the right answer. But something shifts when you enter the workforce. For example, a friend recalled getting a summer job as a mover after his senior year. He worked hard with a natural desire to perform at his peak. The next day, one of the full-time movers pulled him aside and said, “Slow down. Or I’ll slow you down.”
Yikes. He fell back in line and survived the summer with all his limbs intact.
What I appreciate about union labor like this is that at least he had the decency to educate the new guy. For whatever reasons, these warnings often go unsaid in many corporate organizations.
Can we blame them? In some ways, organizations are just as human as individuals. They want to be perceived as good. They want to be successful. And they are sometimes willing to stretch the truth to get there.
Every organization prides itself on hard work, collaboration, and innovation to one degree or another. Just like everybody thinks they have a sense of humor. The truth is a lot murkier.
Consequently, I’ve talked to many new hires who become lost in the fray – clueless as to how to act within a company where they spend most of their waking hours. I hear everything from the pressure of so-called imposter syndrome to the polar opposite: feeling completely underutilized.
As a result, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll, over 71% of millennials are not engaged at work.
This can wreak havoc on any organization whether you’re an innocent co-worker trying to meet the next deadline or the CEO rallying a team for growth. Somewhere we’ve collectively missed the mark.
There will always be a difference between who we are and who we think we are, which we relate to as individuals. Organizations are no different.
In my experience, organizations that tout integrity are often the ones that struggle with it. The mere act of announcing these values should be your first red flag. Just like tall people don’t need to announce to everyone that they’re tall. If they did, you would look at them weird.
As employees, your challenge is to ferret out the truth as you understand it. To be effective you need to understand the baseline, the real baseline.
The person who schedules 20 meetings to make one decision is perceived effective by an organization that values consensus. At the same time, an individual contributor that is independent and experimental is seen as a threat in that same environment. But these same judgments would be flipped under a different organization.
Don’t beat yourself up for not seeing it sooner. It takes time to get to know people and organizations. Every job accepted is a leap of faith – not a life sentence.
At the same time, I wouldn’t be a mentor if I didn’t ask you to reflect on what you’ve observed and consider where you can adapt. One of my friends calls it the “art of adequacy”.
You won’t know how to succeed in an organization if you don’t know how that organization defines success. Overachieving can make you feel better about yourself, but it can also lead to burn out and resentment when it’s not appreciated.
The good news is that the clues are all around you.
- Openly talk about expectations with your boss – they might tell you to shoot for the moon, in which case you should reference your work relative to the rest of the team or similar roles in other departments.
- Ask friendly co-workers how they would approach a problem – friendly is the key word here. There is always the chance of sabotage depending on how toxic the environment is. When in doubt, brainstorm with an outside mentor instead.
- Take note of who and what makes the Powers That Be smile – people generally hire, promote, and award those who are like them.
For the record, I’m not necessarily espousing the virtues of underachievement. Although, I do believe there’s something to learn about not taking achievement so seriously. This is one suggested strategy of acclimating, adjusting, and then achieving.
And being a team player along the way.
When Henry Bates explored the Amazon from 1848 to 1859, he discovered many species who adapted to their surroundings for self-protection. For instance, he found this caterpillar that looks like a snake to ward off predators.
The conclusion is clear. Adapting increases their likelihood for survival. And so it goes in the corporate jungle…