I’m being pulled into many different directions at work lately. One part of me is exhausted from the sheer amount of input. The other part is the kid that got to go crazy running around a friend’s birthday party where they thought it would be a good idea to give the kids cake and caffeinated soda. I’m tired, but it was fun.

With each of these directions, I notice common threads. In one instance, I was asked to look at potential issues with changing a current process. In another instance I’m asked a question involving the current process, but I can see a different issue forming. Then I’m asked about a completely unrelated problem and see, that well, they are all getting similar strings pulled.

Now, when you start to see connected issues like these, you have several choices. I just happen to have a few stories to illustrate those choices.

Step Up

When I was promoted to General Manager of a watch store years ago, it was because the previous manager just gave up. She stopped showing up on time, never dressed appropriately for the job, and just plain gave up. At some point, she just stopped coming into work altogether. I filled in as much as I could because I wanted the hours.

After a couple months the extra time paid off and the higher-ups promoted me. The local employees weren’t too happy. However, one was fired due to sexual harassment issues and the other was never going to fit into the role.

My point is that I saw the writing on the wall for the manager and thought there might be an opportunity. Just because a situation is wrapped in ugly packaging doesn’t make the gift lousy. The previous manager hated her job, but she failed to see it for the opportunity it was. She never made the position her own. I did and made a good chunk of money and friends to show for it.

Stepping Out

I wasn’t at Microsoft for very long, but it really set me in the right space. I spent more than 2 months training for a one month job. The contract was pretty short, but there was an option for full-hire.

I remember one of my final conversations there. One of the hire ups was talking about making changes to the department. They had 30 people on the American team. For most, this was their first job out of college. That was their downfall.

Many of them felt deserving. Several came across as arrogant and entitled. They had no idea what real work was like. I mean, many of them didn’t work 8 hours in a day, but were paid for it. So, when the end of the fiscal quarter came, they stalled on my contract. I “worked” into july even though there was almost nothing for me to do. I had already started looking for full-time work when I got the call.

My boss’ boss called me and asked some questions about my “thoughts on the current system”. I didn’t hold back complaining about “legacy and tribal knowledge issues”. A few days later I quit and had another job lined up.

I found out later that after I left, they let everyone go except for a couple of people. A former supervisor emailed me to let me know the regret he felt for me quitting. It seems they wanted to hire me, but didn’t meet the contract deadline for my expectations (I mean, a guy has gotta eat).

Stepping Aside

Here’s one where I failed to see the opportunity for what it was, a chance to learn how to follow. I worked as a camp cook the summer out of high school. The camp was only accessible by boat and I lived in a cabin space with the other 2 cooks. One, who turned out to be a seriously bad person (story for another time), was fairly incompetent and needed constant help. The other was a small woman less than half my size. We also had the head cook, a woman with a laundry list of health issues.

When the head cook made the tough decision to take a lesser role she also made the decision to elevate an underling to lead. At the time, I thought I was the perfect fit. I was physically in better shape than either of my compatriots and worked more hours. They decided to go with the very small mousy woman.

What I failed to realize at the time was the double-opporunity they were trying to give both of us. For her, it was an opportunity to gain a voice, to be recognized, and a chance to learn leadership skills. For me, it was a chance to listen, to collaborate on tasks, and to follow someone else’s direction. Friction quickly set in and I didn’t allow her say her piece contradicting every order I could.

That lasted all of a week before I got a stern talking to by several supervisors. I tried my best to work through those issues, but the damage to those relationships had already been done. The supervisors were quite short with me. Even when it came to issues with the third cook. I threatened to quit if nothing was done about him with some seriously sketchy instances, but nothing was done.

A week after I quit, they fired the 3rd cook for being that “really bad guy” that I had mentioned. While I claimed for years that he was the reason I quit, the truth was that I felt overlooked and unheard.

Conclusion

Not everyone can foresee problems coming. Heck, very few can draw lines with the problems that they have, but you should try to listen the best you can anyway. Listen to people’s tone. Listen to their questions. Take stock of what they have to say. Also, ask some questions yourself. Clarify when you can.

One of the hardest parts to navigating a difficult rhetorical situation is not knowing what each person is coming into the conversation with. Just try your best to be open and empathetic. That’s the best I can say for reading the “writing on the wall”.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found something to add to your everyday rhetoric repertoire. If you get a chance, take some stock of your job. As others for a review. I have one an official one every 6 months with my supervisor, but we have tons of informals ones as well.

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