With the economy in a funk and employment opportunities limited, there are a lot of unhappy people in today’s workplaces. The message of recent workplace surveys seems to be, “As soon as things turn around, I’m getting the hell out of here.”

This attitude is rather sad. It implies that we are paralyzed until this abstract thing called “the economy” changes. Because we have no control over that (and neither do our so-called leaders), it would seem that we have entered a stage of practiced helplessness in our working lives. We believe we can’t make any progress or find more satisfying options until and unless there is a magical turnaround in things beyond our control.

We tend to start our search for alternative work with the question, “What’s out there?” when we should be asking ourselves, “What do I really want to do?” This is always a mistake because it increases the odds that we’ll wind up with something that may be a little better than what we had but is still a drag on the psyche and not what we really want.

You don’t have to let the economy control you or define you. Use this period of stuckness in the economy to decide what you really want and what it’s going to take to get there. Think hard about what kind of work makes you happy and what sort of people you want to work with. Explore the fabulous O*Net Database for career options and the educational requirements attached to those options. Talk to people who have the kinds of jobs you want to have and find out how they secured those jobs. Consider alternatives to standard jobs like freelancing or opening a business if that appeals to you.

It may take years for the economy to turn around, but taking action to move towards achieving your dream will accomplish two things. First, it will make you better prepared to jump on the unexpected opportunities that arise even in a weak economy. More importantly, it will give you the feeling of making progress, of moving forward, of having a purpose beyond holding down a job that just pays the bills. And while you’re moving forward, make sure you pursue more than one option. Given the current speed of the job destruction-creation cycle, you don’t want to put all of your energy into preparing for a specific job that might not exist in a few years.

So, keep an open mind and open your eyes to the possibilities and passions inside you. Don’t get stubborn and affix yourself to a single possibility. Take the time to define what you really want and filter your choices through your true desires. You may have to settle for a while, but if you keep pressing and refuse to give up, you might increase the odds that you will wind up with something that makes you pretty happy.

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(This is an excerpt from Bob Mendonsa’s book, Working Choices, now available on the Kindle.)

Having a job means belonging to an organization, which for many people is as close to being a part of a community as they’re going to get.

There are very few opportunities for people to become involved in their society, because they simply do not have the time. Besides the sheer number of hours people put in on the job, we spend a great deal of time getting ready for work, commuting to the workplace and coming home again at night. Who has time for volunteer work, school plays and civic affairs? People want time to unwind, relax, eat dinner, party, have sex, watch their favorite television shows, exercise, surf the Web. Becoming involved in the neighborhood or in local politics is a low priority task.

This loss of local community may be more acute in heavily urbanized areas due to the time involved in commuting, but there are other influences at work here. The corporate cost-cutting moves that began in the 1980’s requires people to put in more hours, largely because the efficiencies that new technologies promised were often no more than wishful thinking. It now seems odd to watch movies from the early age of computers (like The Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) and realize that people were afraid of losing their jobs to computers. While this sometimes happens today, it is just as plausible to argue that computers and other new technologies have created more work for people because of the inherent problems and possibilities associated with having them. One thing is certain, though: the life of the average person revolves around the workplace—not the church, not the town hall, and not the neighborhood drinking hole. Our work has become our lives.

Therefore, workplaces play an important role in human society by providing some form of community and regular human interaction to the average person who may not get it otherwise. The workplace is where we celebrate birthdays and new babies, where we commiserate about divorces and deaths in the families, where we watch each other develop and mature. Along with marriages, workplaces provide us with those dwindling opportunities for getting pissed off at someone and making up later. We make friends in the workplace and often find that our social circle consists largely of co-workers. Often we meet our mates in the workplace, despite the best efforts of legal and personnel professionals to stamp out romance in organizations.

Oddly enough, though, many workers do not appreciate this unique opportunity provided by the workplace and would much rather work at home. Part of this has to do with the avoidance of commute, of dress codes and of office politics; much of it has to do with the fact that the home sometimes offers a better venue for actually getting one’s work done; some people simply don’t like their co-workers, particularly those who have allowed the dysfunction of the workplace to render them dysfunctional as well. Some people like it because it allows them to remain closer to their children.

If we all become telecommuters, though, we will need to come up with something to replace the loss of community, for the Internet is no substitute for face-to-face contact. And as unpleasant as other people can be, experiencing them as real human beings instead of as meaningless abstractions is the only chance we have to truly understand them.

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The nature of my work has demanded that I read pretty extensively in the genre of business books.

I’m lying. Let me correct my misstatement: The nature of my work has demanded that I skim through hundreds of business books. It’s impossible to actually read a business book, because there’s so little there there.

When I have to read one, I skip to the end of a chapter and pray that the author has included a summary of his or her five main points. That way I don’t have to slog through fake cliche-ridden dialogue or stories of companies that were considered great at the time but wound up either going down in flames or exposed as a truly gruesome place to work. In From Good to Great, Jim Collins celebrated Circuit City, who wound up firing their more senior employees to save money, which alienated their customers and led them to the bankruptcy they so truly deserved.

Serves Collins right for focusing primarily on the financials.

Many business books are full of dumbed-down cliché material repackaged to look cute and fresh, much like the fruit growers who packaged borderline tangerines in a mesh bag and named them Cuties. Books like Who Moved My Cheese? and anything by Ken Blanchard fall into this category. Do the authors believe business people are dumb or what?

There are “scholarly” business books, usually published through the Harvard Business Review or the like, designed to cater to OD consultants and executives. Although written in better English, they too fall short in the substance department. They create jobs for wannabe gurus but little else.

Some business books provide “real-world situations” that people can relate to, then give you boilerplate solutions that won’t change a thing. The 5 Dysfunctions of Team falls into this category. These books are dangerously naive about human beings and generally ignore the fundamental conflicts that exist in any real organization.

As a person who has had some moderate success in actually changing organizations, I can say there are very few books that have helped to shape change. Few are in the genre of business books: Impro by Keith Johnstone, Education for Critical Consciousness by Paolo Freire, The Abilene Paradox by Jerry Harvey and Maverick by Ricardo Semler. For OD, I like Adizes, despite the arrogance. I would also add many of Dickens’ novels to the list because he clearly understood the split-personality reality of making your living inside large organizations.

When you think about all the drama and comedy that occur in the workplace, it’s surprising that the genre has never produced a literary masterpiece. I suppose people are satisfied that The Office and Dilbert have made such efforts unnecessary.

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(This is an excerpt from Bob Mendonsa’s book, Working Choices, now available on the Kindle.)

People avoid the truth because they need to preserve various illusions. Many an employee who cheats the company out of time and occasional office supplies will become quite indignant if their integrity is questioned. Investors don’t want the company into which they’ve just poured in a chunk of their life savings to make any statements that can adversely affect the stock price. Neither employees nor investors are very strong on the ability to accept responsibility for their choices. It’s always someone else’s fault: the boss is an asshole, the company lied to me, they never told me it would be this way.

The primary illusion Americans need to have is that they are “successful,” or more accurately, that family, friends and other important luminaries believe they’re “doing well.” Consequently, a great portion of one’s self-esteem is tied to one’s occupation. Upon meeting someone for the first time, the opening question is invariably, “What do you do?” Occupation is a fundamental part of our identity within society. Hence the reason so many people become depressed when they lose their jobs, even when the loss is through no fault of their own and even though they know that organizational validation is fairly meaningless, given the number of incompetents who populate them. We lose not only our incomes but also our identities.

Since our self-image is so thoroughly tied to our jobs, it also follows that one is not going to be extremely open to hearing any kind of adverse feedback about job performance, even if such feedback is given in the most helpful manner possible. The more insecure the person, the more violent the reaction. Often a person will avoid any attempt at self-reflection by blaming the person guilty of truth-telling.

Although those of you who believe in the media babble about lean and mean companies may still not believe it, let me repeat what I said in the previous chapter: people are very rarely fired for performance in any organization. It isn’t only because the HR people, watching the company’s legal behind, make the manager go through an extensive three or four step process through which enough documentation is created to fill a row of filing cabinets. It is because it is very difficult to tell another human being that they are failing. To tell an American he or she is a failure is akin to shooting them in the heart. You are attacking their very essence, their reason for existence, their entire concept of self-worth. In telling an employee they aren’t cutting it, you are risking legal problems, threats and in some cases, the possibility of violence.

I remember listening to a psychologist on the radio after yet another workplace shooting. He said that a common trait linking perpetrators of workplace violence was their inability to accept responsibility. I would venture that the same could be said for people who file lawsuits, many of which represent the use of a legally sanctioned form of extortion. Both are weapons to use against the enemy who has punctured the mask.

So what motivation is there for a manager to tell an employee the truth? Beyond the slim possibility that the feedback might help the employee become more effective in the future, there isn’t any. Managers do not feel the need to intervene in an employee’s life simply because that employee’s parents didn’t do a very good job of instilling any responsibility in them. It’s much safer for a manager to work around the problem by making up reasons to add headcount, reassigning work to others or just doing the work oneself.

And the truth continues to suffer.

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This may sound like sacrilege, but I rather like attorneys. They’re usually very bright, intelligent conversationalists with excellent command of the English language.

However, when it comes to dispensing legal advice in a wrongful discharge or employment discrimination suit, even the wittiest barrister only has so much to offer. There are only three possible outcomes to a lawsuit, none of which are desirable and all of which involve significant risk: you win and pay a lot of money, you lose and pay a lot of money or you settle and pay a lot of money.

Once the battle has ended, it’s not uncommon for the defendants to gripe about the legal costs. Blaming the attorney for high legal costs is about as effective as blaming your favorite sports team for blowing $10M on a sore-armed quarterback or reliever. You can blame The American legal system with its loopholes, contradictions and obscurities and get the same result. With no one to blame, then what is management to do?

It’s really very simple. Do the right thing and treat the potential plaintiff with dignity and respect.

People don’t file lawsuits because they’ve found a loophole. They file lawsuits because they’re angry, because they’re hurt, because they’ve had their self-worth and dignity stripped away by a manager who handled the situation like a blockhead with no emotional intelligence.

Company policies designed to ensure consistency often make things worse. When someone is hurt and angry, they want to be recognized as an individual, not classified as part of the system. The classic case involves a situation when someone has used up his or her FMLA allotment and the company has a policy of automatic termination. The company defends the action on the basis of consistency. The employee looks at it differently: “I lost my job because I got sick.”

Now, which position do you think will play better in front of a jury?

Some HR people also make things worse by trying to compensate for the nagging doubt that the executives think HR is the refuge for wimps who couldn’t make it in the real business world. They compensate by getting tough, scripting terminations to eliminate any possibility of dialogue and attempting to intimidate the employee through the absolute logic of the company’s position. Obviously, HR people failed to watch Star Trek while growing up and missed the fact that Spock ticked off a lot of his co-workers by applying cold logic at a moment demanding empathy.

It has been said that termination is the psychological equivalent of death and no one wants to feel alone when they die. Adopting a strategic position and creating an atmosphere of formality in a termination discussion almost always guarantees that the employee will respond in kind: through an attorney who will formally communicate his or her strategic position. No matter what the outcome, the company will spend more money and suffer damage to its reputation because it failed to recognize the employee as a living, breathing human being.

The funny thing about many near-termination situations is that often both parties have the same goals but fail to communicate them well. Sometimes the employee wants to leave as much as you want the employee to leave. If you can find a way to make that easier for the employee, you could create a situation that works for both of you.

But you will never do that unless you get off your legal and tough-guy high horses and relate to the employee as one human being to another. The employee is in a pickle; we’ve all been in pickles at one time or another, so surely you can call up a bit of empathy when you start the conversation. Ask the employee, “What’s going on with all this? What’s your take on this situation?” Do all the things you should have learned in Management 101: listen, paraphrase and check for understanding. Share your perception without accusation, as if you are simply offering a different perspective. Dialogue as equals and work towards a solution that meets the needs of both parties. Do all you can to ensure that the employee leaves with dignity intact, self-worth restored and responsibility accepted (if the termination involves an alleged misdeed). This is achievable only if you treat that person with respect.

An honest conversation to end the employment relationship is far more preferable than entering the surreal world of legal action, where truth takes a back seat and the dynamics shift from dialogue to high-stakes poker.

You can lose a lot of money at the poker table.

Photo Credit: © Atee83 | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos


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