Saturday, May 9, 2009

When Work Gets Irrational

I’ve been reading Tony Dungy’s Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance, and it reminded me of something long forgotten.

A long time ago, I went through a particularly hard, emotional week at work (not an uncommon thing in the American workplace but this one stands out in my mind). It wasn’t about layoffs, but about changes in structure and reporting relationships. Because some things didn’t make sense, in fact, none of it made sense, I spent the entire week trying to help people understand the answer to the question, Why? And there was no good answer. I didn’t have one. No one else did either. Including the people who made the changes.

Two people were in my office in tears. Three were outraged. Everyone was upset. Other teams were also in turmoil. Who would be reorganized and reshuffled next? An element previously not present -- fear -- had entered our workplace. Human minds searched for that rational explanation because everyone felt the uncertainty and fear. Why did this happen?

It wasn’t as if the signs weren’t there. They were. There had been a “chill” for many, many weeks, although there was no ostensible, or rational, reason for that, either. Work performance had been soaring, against all the odds. Incredible things were being accomplished. There was broad recognition inside and outside the organization.

And then, the sledgehammer.

This is often where organizations of all types – corporate, non-profit, government, what-have-you – go off track. You look at the all the statements – the mission statement, the vision, the list of corporate values – and then you look at an action that makes no rational sense. All that other stuff suddenly looks flimsy. And it hurts, because all that flimsy stuff speaks to who we are as human beings, what we really want things to be like, and what we desire in our hearts, because God puts it there.

In any workplace, people quickly learn that it’s what you do that matters, not what you say. And even more importantly, it’s how you do it.

I’m reading Uncommon, interestingly enough, for a project at work. Another team in a different part of the company publishes a quarterly magazine, and it includes a “book review interview” on a book selected by the editor that might apply to the workplace. Uncommon certainly fits, but it’s somewhat surprising because it is largely based on Dungy’s Christian faith, and it’s not something you expect in the workplace. (You expect Who Moved My Cheese, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. You don’t expect Uncommon.) My interview is set for Monday afternoon.

Early on, Dungy says this: What you do is not as important as how you do it. This is what character is about, what integrity is about. It’s the "how," not the "what." The “what” will follow the “how.” In today’s workplace, we focus on the “what.” There’s virtually no understanding that the “how” is the critical part.

And he says this: The opposite of courage is not cowardice. The opposite of courage is conformity. (I had to think about that for a long time. He’s absolutely right.)

And then he says this: don’t let the bad things that happen to you – a rotten performance review, office politics, a restructuring, or even being fired – define who you are as a person. What defines you as a person is how you respond to the things – bad and good – that happen to you.

Even people who don’t share Dungy’s – and my – Christian faith will get this. Because God puts it in our hearts.

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