I recently went through a short period at my job where my schedule was juggled and I got stuck working undesirable hours. It was a temporary arrangement and I fought hard to get out of it, but with summer vacations and a coworker on disability, the scheduling holes needed to be filled. It sucked; yet as much as I don’t like having my work life messed with, I came out the other side a better person.
I am a communications electronics technician. We don’t turn the cell towers and the TV and the internet off at 5:00 every afternoon and leave. If you are getting service on your cellphone, or watching the Insomniac Channel, or shopping on Amazon in the middle of the night, that’s not magic. It means real people like me are out there working hard to make it happen. Every moment of every day. We never close.
As I pushed through the first of my series of odd shifts I resented the idea that I was there while everyone else is sleeping in. After a while, I became more tempered and introspective. “There are a lot of other people working crappier hours for a lot less than what you earn,” I thought. “Don’t be a whiney crybaby. You’re not better or more deserving than anyone else.” The work life reality check was well timed.
My employer’s clients demand that we be there for them around the clock. Reading into this a little further, I like to shop and eat out on weekends and holidays, and late at night, much the same as anyone. When I’m wandering through Target at 8:00 on a Sunday night, I am supporting the very thing that I resent being done to me. If it were not for people like me, the Target employees would be at home resting. They are there because that’s what their clients want.
Not too long ago the world did not turn so fast and consumer demands were more modest. Every business was closed on Sunday except the pharmacy and the grocery stores, which were open until 1:00pm to catch the after church crowd. When the supermarket “expanded” its hours to 6:00pm, it was a big deal. Even gas was hard to get on Sunday. Since that halcyon era it’s become an expectation to be able to get anything, any time.
As I rolled home from work late Sunday I drove past the shopping malls and fast food places and movie theaters, all of which had full parking lots. On any other occasion I would probably stop and pick up a few things and not think much about how my shopping habits effect the work life of others. But on that particular night I didn’t want to be complicit in creating a reason for all these places to be open. I know I’m a hypocrite. I freely confess I am a perpetrator of the we-never-close business concept as much as I am a victim of it.
My future work life will probably include more undesirable schedule changes. There is a certain humbling effect in that it gives me more respect for those who work odd shifts as a matter of routine and get paid much less than myself. I’ve gone far in my profession, and in the hierarchy of my workplace I’m near the top. Occasionally pulling the junk shifts no one wants keeps me from getting too full of myself…and that can only result in a better work life when I’m on the clock, and a better, more grateful me the rest of the time.
Have you ever been at a party where one obnoxious loudmouth imposes himself on everyone and monopolizes the whole event, and the next day you can recall almost nothing he said? Meanwhile at the same party, there is also the composed and articulate man or woman who does not prattle constantly and is not heard across the room, yet always seems to have an attentive group around them? Those lucky enough to be in this person’s company will remember the experience in great detail, sometimes years later. That quiet, well-spoken party guest knows interpersonal communications. They know how to QRP.
Everyone, including those who never of heard the term QRP prior to reading this article, would benefit from applying its spirit to their own interpersonal communication. In the highly technical hobby of amateur radio (ham radio), there is a subspecialty known as QRP operating, which is radio geek lingo for worldwide communications with very low transmitter power levels. “Low power” is generally understood to be less than 10 watts (less than a laptop computer). By comparison, most amateur radio sets run at 100 watts. Some can go to over a thousand watts, and commercial radio stations average between 5000-50,000 watts. When properly done, these tiny low level signals can compete with the thousand watt-plus boomers.
The philosophy of QRP radio states that what one lacks in brute force can more than be made up for with careful timing and the adroit use of the limited resources at hand. In a non-radio scenario that could mean waiting for the loud mouth to pause and then dropping a well thought out comment. You won’t get to say as much, but your comments will be noticed without your having to yell. It’s better to speak quietly for a minute and have it remembered than to shout for an hour and have no one care.
Walk through the busy downtown of any large city and you will eventually come across a street preacher. They stand on a corner and in a very loud voice attempt to sell their religion. I’m pretty sure none of these guys have ever scored a single convert among the thousands of passers by. The preachers may have good intentions and bring a lively vibe to the street, but the low yield of new followers exposes their lack of finesse. Meanwhile, the missionary who lives like an ordinary man among his flock, shows them what a good neighbor is, socializes with and befriends them, and relates to them one on one or in small groups will collect a bounty of believers. I know a guy who actually does this. He speaks and acts like a normal person, never dominating or raising his voice. You’ll never see him yelling on a street corner. Everyone around him, even those who don’t subscribe to his faith, respects him and pays attention to his words. He knows interpersonal communications. He knows how to QRP.
I once worked with a guy who was something of a hothead. One day in a moment of poor judgement, he aggressively approached the boss and made a loud scene in front of everyone about something trivial. The boss just stood there and let him carry on and on with his rant. When he finally sputtered out, the boss calmly replied in a completely normal voice, “I refuse to deal with you when you’re mad and out of control. When you decide to calm down, come see me in my office.” She then turned around and walked away. They did ultimately resolve the issue in a way that was satisfactory to both sides. She had a command of interpersonal communication. The boss knew how to QRP.
Both in radio and in life there appropriate moments to be powerful and loud. QRP is not suitable at all times. Unfortunately, a lot of people can’t discern the difference. They do not throttle down their loud mouths even when doing so would improve interpersonal communication. The quiet little voices are signals of wisdom and self control in a world of overbearing noise and disorder.
Every year around this time the internet starts buzzing with business advice for job applicants, presumably in response to the annual release of college graduates who now need to turn their degrees into paychecks. Largely out of the mix is wisdom on how to thrive and get along after you are in the workforce.
I think I’ve learned a thing or two in all my years happily plugging away at the same company. I’ve had more bosses than I can remember; some of them were pretty classy, some of them were tasteless jerks. I managed to have a good working relationship with all of them even if I may not have liked them personally (or vice-versa) or agreed with their management decisions. I’ve reduced my success down to a few simple workplace behaviors that you won’t find suggested anywhere in the glut of internet wisdom.
Don’t make the boss’ phone ring. In the over twenty years I’ve been on the job, my boss has received a random call from someone saying I’m awesome on maybe two or three occasions. But if I screw up there is a nearly 100% chance somebody will squawk loudly about it. The average supervisor takes dozens of calls every day from people with problems. You do not want to be the reason for any of them. When someone calls your boss to talk about you, it’s almost never to give compliment.
Always give a response. If your boss or a coworker walked up to you in person and asked you a question, you would not silently turn around and walk away, then come back and answer the question a day later. Treat emails/texts/voice mails as a personal interaction. In a era where there are fewer face to face conversations in the workplace, it’s sometimes not clear when or if a message was received. Immediately acknowledge receipt of electronic communications, then commit to keeping all involved parties updated until the issue is concluded. Do not make the boss, or anyone, have to guess what’s going on to the point that they make your phone ring.
When someone calls your boss to talk about you, it’s almost never to give compliment.
Be a Yes Man/Woman. The best thing about this behavior is that it can be incorporated into any of the others. It’s about always finding a way to say yes to all requests. To be clear, I’m not talking about being a doormat or a “management suck up.” Being a Yes person means your default should be to find a way to make things happen, not to squirm out of it. Send everyone away better than they arrived, even if the Yes you give them isn’t exactly the one they wanted: “I’m sorry, I don’t have the information you need but I forwarded your request to another department that I’m sure can help you.” A compromised Yes is always better than a no.
Hand out bonuses. Doing the minimum required is fine and will keep you out of trouble, but no one ever got a promotion or raise by doing the minimum. Bonuses do not need to be big, huge deals. It can be as simple as completing an assignment before being asked or taking extra steps that were not part of the original assignment: “I ordered the toner cartridges you wanted and noticed that we were low on paper too, so I included it with the request.” Bonuses are pleasant surprises and show others that you care and have attention to detail. When done properly, they are a big payoff for little effort.
Do not take advantage of others’ ignorance. I work as an electronics technician on communications equipment. The job requires specialized high level skills and few people outside my field fully understand what I do. It would be easy to get out of difficult tasks by making up technical reasons why they can’t be done, and most people would not initially know I’m hustling them. I don’t use my knowledge as leverage to avoid undesirable assignments because it’s dishonest and wrong. All lies, including small ones, ultimately return to their origins. Taking advantage of others on any level has no lasting benefit and in extreme cases can end careers. Never, ever do it.
It’s easy to overlook that getting the job is only a small part of a much bigger picture. Giving one’s best effort long enough to get through the hiring process is not hard compared to developing attitudes and behaviors that will need to be strong for an entire working career. There is nothing deep or complicated about the Golden Rule of treating others as you would want to be treated yourself.
I consider myself to be among the lucky few who has a cool job that is engaging and interesting. A large majority of the time I like what I do, with occasional screw this! moments sprinkled in to remind me that it may be cool but it’s hardly paradise. I think I must have won some cosmic occupational lottery because for my whole life I’ve always seemed to land in nifty jobs as if by accident. Even through high school and college I managed to earn a buck without getting involved with the drudgery of fast food or retail.
Now I’m in that strange zone where I’m certainly not a kid but also not nearly old enough to seriously consider retiring. I’m left wondering what’s next. Or if there even is a “next.” I would not mind doing something else, but since I’m content where I am I see no point in changing just for the sake of change. I’ve asked the self-analyzing question: If I looked into a crystal ball and saw myself retiring from the job I’m doing now, would the vision be depressing or comforting? Am I ok with this for the rest of my career?
The short answer is yes, I’m ok with it. I still wonder though, is there anything better out there? Is this as good as it gets? I’ve decided not to beat the hell out of myself trying to resolve a question of circular logic. In theory, there is always something better, somewhere. It’s more worthwhile to focus on what’s right and positive about the job I already have.
It’s important to explain that being happy with where I am and being complacent and unmotivated to move forward are not the same thing. There was a period in my distant past where I was in a job that was respectable but well beneath my potential. I stayed there way too long, bullshitting myself that it was good enough. I managed to get out of that trap relatively unharmed and took a lesson with me: Be grateful for what you have but don’t ever assume it’s the end of the line.
Being surrounded by family and friends who are in jobs that are soulless and devoid of any feeling of a higher purpose, on top of paying barely enough to make it worth showing up every day, gives contrast to my own life and blunts the effects of my screw this! days. The workplace headaches I deal with are mild by comparison, and at least at the end of it all I receive a decent paycheck for my hassles. There may be something better, somewhere, but there is also something worse. Being far from the bottom is more important than being close to the top.
I used to have a coworker who was technically competent but by a very large margin had absolutely the worst attitude of anyone I’ve ever worked with. He could not go five minutes without prattling about how unfairly he was treated, had a lame excuse for everything, constantly argued with the boss, thought the whole company was plotting against him, blah, blah, blah. I spent a year trying to be his buddy: Reaching out, having man-to-man talks, pushing him towards a better path. It was a complete waste of my effort. He was officially fired for absenteeism, but the real deal was that management and pretty much everyone else, including me, was far beyond fed up with the pouting crybaby. Your approach to your job has more influence over your career path than everything else combined. Skills can be learned but attitude can only come from within.
No one should allow their career success to be defined solely by how many promotions and raises they can collect before they retire. It’s more meaningful and less stressful to show up every morning believing that every day is a good day, but some days will not be as good as others. I am, on the whole, a happy employee. I flatly refuse to let myself become the guy who bitches about everything. When I reach a point where I don’t feel I can go any further in the job I have, the time to move on will become self-evident.
About 8:00 this morning a crew of five guys with two trucks and a wood chipper showed up at the building I work in and began cutting down several dead trees that had rotted to the point that they had become serious safety hazards. After a few near-misses with falling branches and over two years of nagging management to do something, I felt like I finally won a small but long-fought victory. My employer’s primary concern is the bottom line and since the only occupants of the building are myself and the 10,000 or so square feet of electronic communications equipment that I maintain, my repeated complaints were not taken seriously until the trees became a legal liability.
I want to think my situation was a one-off, a slip through the crack, a bureaucratic oversight…whatever you want to call it. I’ve been in the workforce long enough to know that not only was is it not a mistake, it’s not even unique to my industry. Consciously blowing off small stuff until it becomes big stuff is common practice at pretty much every big company.
I have a close friend who owns a successful small business. It’s not a franchise, it’s not an established operation that he took over, and he did not get started via some millionaire investor gushing over him with fat checks. He is an average everyday person of modest means who built the business from an empty storefront by himself with his own money. Nothing gets past this guy. He is there every single day and knows what happens within those walls down to the tiniest detail. If the building needs repair, or supplies are running low, or a customer has a complaint about their experience, he makes things happen. No problem goes unresolved for very long.
The difference between my friends’ situation and mine is the length of the chain between the executives and the average workers. My employer is an international behemoth with hundreds of departments and layers of management. They are far removed from me and my problems…problems they largely created. In a way I sort of understand where they are coming from. When you are near the top of a huge worldwide corporation, you can’t get personally involved with every dead tree or missing box of supplies. That stuff is usually delegated to empowered underlings, which would be fine if the underlings actually had the authority to take action.
“Empowerment” is a nauseating buzzword that should have been retired with the fax machine, yet this zombie just…won’t…die. What irritates me so much is that the word comes standard with a heavy dose of condescension and insincerity. The person using it always sounds like the love child of a campaigning politician and a greasy-haired TV evangelist. If everyone is empowered, then why can’t anyone get anything done unless someone else signs off on it? Why does someone who is “empowered” have to beg for two years to get a tree cut down? Most of the time my boss agrees with me and would let me have my way if people above her would allow it. Telling subordinates that they are independent thinkers and can autonomously solve their own problems is one of the biggest lines of crap ever spoken by any manager.
One of the reasons my friend’s business is so successful is because the buck really does stop with him. He is the top of the pyramid. Every screw-up is solely his burden and there aren’t any credible ways he can claim he didn’t know. The smaller the pyramid is, the fewer paths there are for management to insulate themselves from what happens below them. In a big corporation, high level managers can to a degree play the ignorance card and blame disasters on subordinates or let their legal team deal with it. In that regard, executives at large companies don’t want to know too much detail about daily operations. Maintaining an element of plausible deniability has its advantages even if it does cost money and create big hassles for others.
A favorite joke in my organization is that if the place were competently managed, half of us would not be needed there. It’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” reality checks. Every cursed moment I have to take out of my day to fuss with a clumsy computer system, or hunt for tools & supplies that should have already been given to me, or deal with a dangerously rotten tree, is time I’m not dedicating to what I was hired for and genuinely enjoy doing: keeping the big-buck electronic communications equipment on line. At the same time, I know that as an hourly rate employee, all those cursed moments ultimately end up on my paycheck and extend out the deadline for legitimate tasks, thus perpetuating the need to keep me around.
Sloppy management helps create jobs where they might not otherwise exist, but there is a tipping point at which the cost of incompetence threatens the effectiveness of the entire organization. As much as we may not want to admit it, low level workers like me benefit from goofy business methods, with the caveat that the scheme works only if the stockholders don’t notice. It becomes a daily conflict where we resent the aggravation of working within a system of insanity while secretly hoping it never goes away.
To use another clichéd buzzword, the “takeaway” is that we best get used to it. There is not going to be any great enlightenment that causes management to admit the little people were right the whole time. There is not going to be any executives’ humble repentance followed by the sweeping changes we’ve all dreamed of. A sad reality of the modern workplace is that most big corporations make money by accident. The only thing I hate more than the hapless corporate decisions I have to put up with is admitting that without them, it’s very possible a lot fewer of us would be working there.
One of the hardest parts of running any business is knowing the sweet spot between leaving a good thing alone and changing to keep up with the times. No company can succeed by completely ignoring one or the other. The danger is that tradition vs. change is a business minefield. History is loaded with both good and bad examples of how this concept was handled. Most of them are bad. A few are remarkable in that they were even proposed at all. That is the position the Ford Motor Company places itself in with the 2015 F-150 pickup truck.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of this grand experiment, one must first understand the importance of the F-150 to Ford. In a word, it’s everything. It’s been not only the best selling truck for over four decades, but also the best selling vehicle of any class for almost as long. You heard that right: The best selling car in the United States, is a truck.
What Ford is planning is a complete changeover for the F-150 to use a lot of aluminum, rivets and high tech glue to hold parts together, and a fleet of brand new engine designs. The end goal is to improve fuel economy while keeping the “Built Ford Tough” image. There is a huge risk that so many changes so quickly will result in a lot of reliability problems and rejection by customers. High gas milage is nice, but trucks must above all be able to work hard, haul heavy things, push snow, and pull trailers. Their owners tend to beat the hell out of them. Light and dainty is for hybrids.
About 40% of the entire North American truck market is claimed by this one single model. There is an old joke in automotive circles that Ford is a truck company that occasionally cranks out a few cars just for kicks. In continuous production since 1948, the Ford F-series pedigree transcends generations. By any measure it’s an American legend. Why mess with a legend?
The problem with legends is that they tend to get complacent. This happens a lot not just with products but also with entertainers, athletes, and people who are very successful in business and feel their place is secure. That is, until someone comes along and one-ups them. They might have become jaded, tired, or lazy. They may have quit trying. The exact reason doesn’t matter. The end result is always the same: They became irrelevant. Irrelevance is what kills a legend. No matter good you are, no matter how great your ideas or depth of your knowledge, none if it matters if no one cares. Hanging one’s hat on past successes and making no effort to build on them will almost assure irrelevance.
Ford was not motivated solely by a daring spirit when they made such a huge leap with their legendary flagship vehicle. New fuel milage standards are coming by 2020, and eventually all trucks will have to go on a diet. What makes Ford’s move so gutsy is they could have come up with a new, limited market truck to test the changes on first, or they could have waited for another manufacturer to do it and copied them. Instead, Ford took the one product that has largest, most loyal following and made all the changes at once. There is a life lesson buried in the next chapter of the Ford F-150 story.
My first full time job was as a call center service rep at the phone company. It paid well, had good benefits, and a stable schedule. My coworkers were pleasant; the boss was reasonable. It was not a mindless task. We had to know billing and order procedures in two separate and complex computer systems and were expected to do what was needed to shepherd every issue through to the end while acting professionally towards difficult and sometimes abusive customers. It required both technical and people skills. I got good at it; I was soon helping train new representatives and was often consulted to solve difficult problems. It felt good to be respected and valuable.
Things began incrementally changing. Management took away our autonomy and authority to resolve customer issues; we had to follow an exactly prescribed procedure and there was not much tolerance for drifting off the plan even when the plan was not the best path to resolution for the customer. We went from being a true service-focused group to an inbound sales force that dealt with customer service issues as an afterthought. A lot of the people I started with in the company moved on to other positions. One day it hit me: I had gone from respected team member to cube farm drone. By then I had been doing the same job for seven and half years. I looked around and wondered how dumb could I be not to have seen the place going downhill right in front of me? Why did I put up with it for so long?
Unlike the automotive industry, there is no team of engineers and marketing spin doctors making sure I am the trendy thing everyone wants. I have to be my own legendary product. Had I adopted an “F-150 attitude” I would not have just sat there in my cube bullshitting myself into thinking my past successes were enough to insulate me from the changes that made my job untenable. I should have been positioning myself as the one every else is trying to keep up with. Instead, I went in panic mode, scrambling to escape from an unfulfilling job that was only going to get worse. The whole situation was totally avoidable and totally my fault.
I eventually found my way to another, better job in the company. This time I was not going to let myself become irrelevant. Less than two years into it I was actively looking to move on. I ended up with something far better than what I expected, and it came at a perfect time: Not long after I left, my old workgroup was also transformed from a cheerful crew of thoughtful problem solvers to scatterbrained checklist followers. They were ultimately absorbed back into the very call center I was running from in the first place. The mess had come full circle, but this time I was paying attention and dodged a huge bullet.
Of course you can play it safe, keep doing what you’re doing with no changes, nervously hoping your sanity stays intact and the boss still wants you five or ten or more years from now. Or you can wait for someone else to take the big leap, wait to see how it goes and then make your move. Or you can be the one who goes first. The connection between the Ford F-150 and how we should be managing our careers is as huge and imposing as the truck itself. Take a hint from the Ford Motor Company: No one will care who did it second.