Guiding principles in the workplace

That title makes me want to go back to bed.

I’ve been wanting to write about work for a while now but wasn’t really sure how to separate the many issues I want to discuss. I’m still not sure how to but this is the morning I woke up, opened a fresh wordpress page and said “self, time to write about work” so here we go. Excuse me while I climb up on my soapbox.

That’s better. I’m going to begin with what I told a colleague last Friday as we were riding the bus home last week. This colleague is a bit disenchanted with our job (we have the same position but represent different areas) and for the most part I think she is so because she comes from a political background and truly loves the congressional system, and misses it very much. She also did something which you at home should never ever ever ever do and which I would never ever ever do – she confronted our boss about her unhappiness (well, that can be okay) and said she didn’t understand why everyone liked the job I (meaning me, everythinginbetween) did, when I’ve only been there three months, and she didn’t understand how I could just slip into a job when she is continually challenged at every turn and feels as though she will never “understand” the job or fit in with the culture. She then told me she told this to my boss. Now, I like this colleague a lot – she is smart and talented and truly cares about her work and I am not upset she did this closed-door comparison with our supervisor BUT I generally don’t think it’s good strategy to try yourself. Anyway, what I told her is this. It is not that I am so terribly good at my job – my boss is constantly editing my writing, revising my pitches and reworking my strategies, sometimes even taking over portions of my projects. My boss is meticulous, critical and demanding. And I love her, but that is for another post. So I actually haven’t flawlessly fallen into my job, but I believe two things that generally keep me focused : 1. My job, my only REAL job, is to make my boss look fantastic, with the least amount of work on her part.  In the end, what truly matters is that I use my role to elevate her role while causing her the minimum amount of stress, and 2. when possible, you need to work for a system you believe in. For better or worse I BELIEVE in our health care system. Above both of my desks I have printed out a statement from a physician I worked with back in Detroit, and it says something like “every American has the fundamental right to high-quality health care, and those of us with the privilege of working in the system are obligated to provide it” – something like that, anyway.

On days when both my phones won’t stop ringing, my email shuts down because someone finally sent me a file large enough to crash it, my boss needs something asap and there is a crisis in admitting and I want nothing more than to quit and come home and just NOT WORK – on those days, I am able through whatever force of will I possess to remind myself that my bad day is NOTHING, nothing like the kind of bad day the patients I serve are having. I am not being told I have Crohn’s Disease. I am not receiving chemotherapy. I do not even, as the commercial says, have a “growing” problem (don’t forget, I work in urology sometimes too). I work for a system I believe in, and it buoys me when I falter.

My first guiding principle – that I am around to make my boss look good without having her have to think about me too much – is an easy one to adhere to and I don’t think about it too often.  I know lots of people who challenge their supervisors at every turn – who feel their creativity is threatened when their writing is edited, who come in late to work regularly and constantly leave early, who instead of believing in the system they work for abuse it incredibly, and these are the people regularly bitching about work, and how everything is never right or fair and you know, I don’t want to come off all pollyannaish on this subject but I think these people have forgotten that working is a fair trade situation…you are paid for your time and your talent…it’s not like any of us are volunteering our time here.

I think it’s important, in the workplace, to have some guiding principles to fall back on during stressful and/or difficult moments.  I always try, although I am not always successful, to first bring as much humility and respect to the job I am doing as possible, to second, to the best job I possibly can at any given time, and to third, not let my entire sense of self get so wrapped up in a project that if I am  criticized I feel somehow violated. Work is messy – all these different people with different backgrounds and different motivations and different problems and different insecurities – you will not be unscathed. When someone emails you and cc’s your supervisors about what a terrible job you did (which happened to me last week), or when you are lectured for not checking your email on the weekend and you have to stick up for your right to a Saturday afternoon (which also happened yesterday), you need your belief in the system to sustain you, whether that system is health care or education or politics or whatever.  I should also note that even with a sneaky colleague sending a totally inappropriate email and being forced to establish my personal/work boundaries, during a departmental reorganization I was complemented on the job I was doing and the vice president told me he could see a long and distinguished career in my future, and I think this is not because I am so marvelously talented but because I truly believe in, and am inspired by the possibilities, in the field and that comes through.

I’m working on adapting another guiding principle – one of S.’s – which is Don’t Be Scared of Making Enemies, but I must admit I find that one particularly difficult, so I think I’ll save that for next time, when I write about being a woman in the workforce. I definitely notice a huge difference in the way S. approaches his work and the way I approach mine, and I think it could make for interesting discussion.

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6 Responses to Guiding principles in the workplace

  1. Emily says:

    This is a lovely post. We need to remember there is a PURPOSE to the work, not just grunt work.

  2. kimhaasdesign says:

    Thoughtful and thought provoking as usual. Makes me want to ponder my own guiding principles in my life as a mom, wife, writer, artist, human being etc…

  3. Make Tea Not War says:

    Interesting- one of my guiding principles is that work is for the benefit of employer AND employee. That means that while I accept I sometimes have to jump through random and arbitrary hoops because that is what my employer apparently wants and they pay me- at a certain point I also have a right to say no or at least to negotiate alternatives if I feel that what they are asking is hindering my career goals, or my health or my ability to do my job.

    Also like you work is bearable for me when I can see what I’m doing as being a positive and worthwhile contribution to the world somehow. I hate it when I feel like I’m wasting my time on activities which don’t contribute anything meaningful to the world.

  4. Emily Barton says:

    Oh, and I couldn’t agree more. I get so tired of people who complain all the time about work when they’ve really got a very good deal. Of course, I’m very aware that right now I’m in the midst of doing something I think is extremely worthwhile. I know it’s a lot harder when that isn’t the case. Then again, sometimes the reason that isn’t the case is because someone is chasing the almighty dollar instead of working a job that will definitely support him or her (maybe without the 4000 sq. ft. home, and the extravagant vacations, but still make for comfortable living, especially compared to the majority of people in the world).

  5. Courtney says:

    Emily, exactly right! Although I’m thinking I should have put in a lot more disclaimers before I started writing…
    Kim, aw, I miss you! We should move 4th street writing group to meeting in cleveland…
    Ms. Make Tea – that’s true – IT is a relationship, isn’t it? I mean, I chose this job in order to gain a skill set and so while I consider it my “job” to make my boss look good, I would quit if it wasn’t benefitting my longer term goals. Also, I probably should have noted that I am fortunate to have a college education and a master’s degree, and so I am talking about a certain “kind” of work…
    Emily – we are working for the same kind of life I think. I will never have the big house or the amazing vacations but I am fine with that because I am generally so happy in my day to day life…I can’t imagine the financial toll people are willing to take on only in order to feel like they don’t have enough…

  6. Cam says:

    Hi Courtney. I somehow missed this post when it was posted. Wow — lots of good points to think about. It’s been one of those weeks where I sure feel like it would be nice if my staff had the same goals as you — to make their boss (me) look good. While I realize that sounds egotistical, I don’t mean it that way. One of my goals is to make my boss look good and that can’t happen if my direct reports don’t do that too. I have an issue I’m facing with an employee who doesn’t feel that her work should be directed or criticized by me and often does her things her way without considering the big picture — or even that a bigger picture may exist! Tough to get someone to look at the work of the whole unit as being reflective of all of us. Maybe that is what I really mean — that they shouldn’t make me look good, but should endeavor to make the entire department look good.

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