Parallel Universes

by Shaun Kieran

When I read business articles, I often get the feeling that the work world I see isn‘t quite what those folks are thinking of when they write about the workplace.

The problems they focus on always somehow seem the same – either non-strategic thinking or poor communication, or both. As I read, in my minds eye I see focused people with careers they’re pursuing and mortgages they’re paying, and it’s just that, according to the article, somehow things aren‘t quite coming together. So there‘s all this potential lying there waiting to be unleashed – if only management would get it right.

Enter – stage left – the right person, or the right management idea, or both.

I suppose I might be exaggerating a tad, and maybe it‘s nothing more than the feeling that they’re writing about a parallel universe where virtually everyone’s a professional, or at least has work skills, and knows the basics of adult functioning like shaking hands, returning phone calls, making minimal eye contact, wearing clean clothes, and using deodorant.

At some of the workplaces I’ve been called to consult, nothing could be taken for granted. I remember sitting in a conference room with a freshly promoted young supervisor having a very animated discussion about basic things like the need to give regular feedback, respond early to identified problems, while also addressing her anxiety about doing performance reviews.

We could look out onto a floor full of cubicles, and as we talked, a small squad converged around a particular one. My new supervisor shook her head and said, “We found rotting food in her file drawers, and unopened mail from months ago. “

I’m not suggesting that happens every day, but there are many, many workplaces where the human condition runs rampant in all its multi-faceted richness. “The Office” and “Dilbert” cartoons capture a slice of it, but a lot of what I see isn’t that funny. Pecking order stuff, raw aggression, dysfunction, and pure venality occur with sad regularity across the fruited plain.

Paradoxically, for some people work actually is “home” – a sanctuary, a model of sanity and reliability contrasting with the train wreck back at their own residence.

This can’t simply be dismissed as the other world of low-enders, where most wouldn‘t be caught dead.

Many of us have been there, are there now, or have siblings, cousins, and even children who are in that world.

Helping line managers do their tough jobs has only partly – if ever – been about “thinking outside the box.“

In fact, It‘s mostly about keeping your own concentration, and behaving like the person you aspire to be, despite what‘s happening in front of you, all the while learning, improving, and planning your “strategic” exit when the time is right.

It may sound a bit schmaltzy, but it really has been an honor and a privelege to occasionally be able to help some of those folks.

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