Surviving the increased workload epidemic

While at work some time ago you lost your raison d’être. You feel beaten down, uninspired … splintered and scattered and torn. Your job is no longer the job you were hired for, it’s an amalgamation of three other jobs, none of which you have professional experience in.

“Where did everyone go,” you wonder, looking around the once densely populated office space at several desks now used for temporary storage of file boxes and empty binders. “Thats right – one position was eliminated and you now handle it, another was offered an early retirement package to quickly reduce the headcount, and the last person left for a new job where she was offered a higher level position. “No chance of growing here,” she told you on her way to the exit interview, “get out as soon as you can!”

This pattern appears throughout the mid-sized company, each department dwindling as the CEO talks about the need to cut costs and scale-down budgets at town hall meetings. “Why did this happen?” you want to ask when the CEO opens to room for questions, but you don’t out of fear of retaliation. No one asks any questions. The CEO concludes the meeting after a minute of uncomfortable silence. On the way out you whisper to your friend from demand planning, “why am I doing all this work alone? Doesn’t he see what he’s doing?”

Finding dollars to save here and there, it looks great when summed up on a spreadsheet. Why pay multiple salaries when one person can carry all of the weight? Eliminate a few seemingly unnecessary responsibilities, like most of the internal communication role and half of the web team responsible for social media and e-commerce. “Those web things practically run themselves,” proclaimed the EVP of Operations. He doesn’t appear to be carrying additional weight when he leaves early each afternoon the weather is nice to play nine holes.

It’s really happening.

Go back to the opening paragraph, those descriptive words following that fancy French phrase that means reason for existence. This is an existential crisis for any employee enduring a company experiencing downsizing and reorganization. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, feeling tied down, unable to escape because the job market is ultra-competitive with others in your same circumstance also looking for a way out. Meanwhile, the workload is so overbearing your nights and weekends are rarely your own time.

When you question your multiplying position, consider: has your salary multiplied to compensate for the extra workload and additional responsibilities? Maybe a 1.75% merit increase for good behavior, not enough to cancel out the spike in next year’s healthcare cost. Has your title changed and position elevated to reflect the new work earning you a place at the decision-making table giving credence to the vast business knowledge you had to acquire to handle these jobs? Are you respected any more than you were when first hired?

From the employee’s perspective, this is an impossible situation to perpetuate any longer than you must. I’ve been through this, as well as several other good people I’ve known, some bearing the weight while others escaping at first chance. It kills morale; the corporate culture becomes heavily pessimistic and resentful. When staff is under-performing and feeling negative, and turn-over is high, where do you think the company is headed?

The right way to handle this.

I’m now addressing those with the decision-making power: don’t set this downward spiral in motion. Fight it at every step in your senior leadership and steering committee meetings. The answer to declining sales is rarely found by eliminating internal resources, it is found by examining the marketplace and reassessing your products.

Are you truly producing what people want? Or are your products a shallow reflection of what the marketplace demands? What new innovations are you introducing? Cutting supply chain and manufacturing costs by removing features your customers have grown to appreciate and expect won’t solve anything either. If anything, it will turn your customers off breaking their loyalty. Instead of producing a pale imitation of Apple’s latest iPhone, create a new cutting edge device that will blow it away.

I know it’s not as a simple as that. Money needs to be invested on research and technological development for starters, it’s a huge process. I get it. But it’s worthwhile in the end when your new product outsells the competition in a landslide if you’re willing to make the investment.

The answer lies in proactive creativity and innovation.

The answer is not in eliminating your staff and resources, and overburdening those who remain. A proactive creative approach to solving the business problems at-hand will permeate the business culture. Offering the staff the ability to participate in improving the business appeals to their intrinsic needs to be a part of something bigger, to do good. An employee body working together is far stronger than a few at the top making the decisions and putting the burden on those below.

Some advice for everyone stuck in an overburdened situation:

  1. Find it in yourself to remain optimistic. You can’t affect positive change feeling angry and resentful, even if you are in the right.
  2. Look for every opportunity no matter how small to contribute toward a better solution. Make recommendations to leaders who will listen.
  3. Influence your peers with optimism, encourage them to work with you toward improving the environment.

This is a complex matter that requires action on several fronts to resolve. You can only do your best within the confines of your role. Therefore, start with yourself, improve what you can around you, and encourage it to spread. If you find yourself leaving for a new opportunity, don’t lose the positive focus.

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The boss scare factor

Skull and crossbonesBack on the creativity versus fear topic. It’s Halloween time, of course. Not that I have to write a scary Halloween-themed blog. That would be out of character for me to follow a seasonal impetus.

Scare Factory

Consider your workplace. Do you feel confident in your ability to speak honestly with your boss or coworkers? Are you forced to walk barefoot on a wide plank wood floor covered in eggshells without making a sound? Because, if your boss should hear the slightest crunch you will be sentenced to hard time in his sweatshop dungeon churning out handmade plastic jewelry to sell to vending machine distributors.

An open coal-fired furnace occupies half the room, providing both intense heat and the only light source. No indoor plumbing so you’re forced to use a five gallon pail. You have no choice but to endure your boss’s martini-soaked screams and rants whenever he feels the need to release a little stress, which is all the time, because he has to stick around after work hours to babysit you. At 3:00AM you’re finally permitted to surface for fresh air, covered in soot and hot glue gun burns, able to go home to bed only to return five hours later.

Yes, this really happened because you had the mind to speak up and share an honest thought. And crush an eggshell.

Unjustifiable Fear

Welcome to the wonderful world of irrational fear. It comes in all shapes and forms, hindering our abilities to do what’s right and doing things well. It controls us for as much as we allow it. It can destroy our careers if not kept in check. Letting your imagination run amuck with all that could go wrong for the simplest task – see overwrought example above – can be taxing on your well-being and mental condition. I know many of us deal with varying levels of anxiety, which tends to fuel these irrational responses, I get that. But you need to know that fear cannot rule you.

I’m getting off my pedestal now.

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. I am a novice student of these disciplines when it comes to my professional life. I know from plenty of years of experience that fear is both pervasive and detrimental in the workplace and I have ideas rooted in my experience and observations on how to address it.

In reality, what’s the worst that can happen when you approach a senior level executive with a suggestion? Your fears will tell you everything can go wrong, anything from immediate termination to indentured servitude. Rational thinking should tell you the executive will thank you, maybe ask to learn more, set up a meeting to discuss. Or a simple no thanks. You’re not working for a Sith Lord, just another human being who’s accomplished a few more things to achieve that job level. Always remember they are humans too.

That thought reminded me of the many times I’ve witnessed employees in various workplaces revere the senior management as untouchable gods. I’ve never wrapped my head around that. We don’t live in a feudalistic society, so why does this innate sense of fear-based reverence exist in our culture? Perhaps it was passed down in families with harsh rules on children speaking only when spoken to followed by punishment if breeched. Whatever the cause, it’s up to each individual to take control, to annihilate those irrational fears. The critical first step is to be assertive, not pompous, assertive. There is a difference.

If I cannot communicate openly with a senior manager about a project I’m working on, or share thoughts from my expertise on how something can be improved, I’m not doing my job well. There are nuances within this statement of course, but it’s a clean generalization. Consider adopting a similar mentality in what you do, one that allows you to feel comfortable and speak freely without fear of retaliation. Push fear aside, reserve it for real problems like active war zones, category five hurricanes, and zombie infestations.

More to come on this topic. Your suggestions and comments are welcome.

Leverage this: try effective communication

The use of jargon, or corporate speak, has had a genocidal effect on good-natured simple words. These words didn’t ask to be violated when someone seeking impromptu authority uses them incorrectly to speak over another’s head. The tragic popularization of converting nouns into verbs, for instance – leverage, impact, blue-sky – does not make you a better speaker or writer. Nor do figurative phrases whose meanings are lost on the average person, like boil the ocean, pissing on fire hydrants, and circle back.

If you speak in jargon, you are not communicating effectively.

Though you may think jargon makes you sound more professional or smarter, it does the opposite. Consider phrases like the team exhibited robust performance this month and my idea has been blue-sky’d by marketing, which are both esoteric and void of humanity. Here are a few reasons jargon is ineffective:

  • The recipient may not understand the meaning of the slang words;
  • The audience may feel you are talking down to them, especially when they work outside of your circle;
  • There is an emotional disconnect from jargon, authentic passion cannot be expressed through it;
  • Jargon by design eliminates personal accountability.

It’s bad enough when jargon and buzzwords appear in emails or presentations, but when I hear them in personal conversations I cringe. Not the good kind of cringe induced by a comic riffing on a taboo subject, for which I have a high appreciation. I wish I was using hyperbole right now, but I have had the sad fortune of witnessing all of the examples mentioned in this blog spoken in some type of face-to-face conversation at work this year. I keep a mental note each time I encounter these terms and my disgust for them.

I dare you to talk that way to Grandma.

You might use the following sentence when speaking to a colleague at work:

I’m not trying to boil the ocean here, but we do need to leverage the latest ad campaign assets to incentivize the consumer during BF/CM to create another lift. 

Consider speaking this way to anyone else in your life – your parents, your kids, your grandmother, your friends while watching a football game at the bar – and count the seconds it takes to hear what did you just say?, repeat that in English, or some kind of mockery and laughter at your expense. With this in mind, ask yourself what value comes from using jargon at work. I bet this is not easy to answer. Meanwhile, common speak is clear and specific:

I know it’s difficult, but we need to rework the latest ad campaign to continue driving sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The student intern gets it. The admin gets it. The old-school senior vice president who chose not to retire fifteen years ago gets it. The creative professional from a non-corporate background gets it. And it wasn’t complicated to say. Is this making sense now?

Unnecessary, if not misleading.

The English language contains an abundance of great words to fit most any occasion and meaning. I know it’s not perfect, there are voids by not having words for certain objects (is there a common word for the interior section of the arm opposite the elbow?), complexities (such as the homonyms there, their, they’re), and words with multiple meanings (such as lie, post, and stake).

The language exists for us to use and enjoy. Explore dictionaries and thesauruses for strong alternatives to jargon. You have full creative license. If you’re unsure your audience will comprehend the word you found while in context, find something more suitable. It’s not difficult. Even the most successful novelists keep reference books at their desks for precisely this reason. The key in finding good words is simplicity. Million dollar words, those rarely seen outside specialized texts used in the medical community or academia, rarely suit the need as they come across in the same vein as jargon. So avoid them unless it’s appropriate for your audience.

Help make the world a better place. Communicate effectively, don’t use jargon.

Where do I begin (in writing for business)

A common question for anyone with a concept that merits exploration and writing about: Where do I begin? This was the first thought that came to mind as I prepared to write this blog. The blur of ideas swirling through my brain right were each vying to surface, holding each other down to drown rather than allow any the opportunity to escape unscathed. My ideas were composed of hardened exteriors with spines and claws capable of taking anyone’s fingers off, yet malleable amorphous bodies lay beneath the surfaces waiting to express themselves.

I’m sure everyone experiences this difficulty when they set out to write something, some may call it writer’s block or procrastination, for others it’s seen as a matter of organizing thoughts. Whatever your perspective, they are all essentially different terms for the same thing.

So where do I begin to apply this blog to effective writing that is applicable to any reader who may stumble across this  article? Good thing I kept asking myself this, it’s like I’m working through another cycle of missing motivation – see my previous blog entry on motivation to learn more. And now I’ll step outside of my head.

Grab attention

In business writing, the example I’ll use throughout this exercise, it is important to begin with a succinct message that immediately grabs attention. No different than journalism or fiction, really, though the intended audience of any corporate communication is expecting another doldrum memorandum or speech. You can’t let dull happen. Ever. Let’s use a speech here, don’t ever start a speech with “I’m so glad to be here, my name is _______ and I’m really happy to meet you. My accomplishments include….” Everyone’s heard that intro before, it’s expected and exhausting, the audience is already staring at the light fixtures or shutting their eyes to take a nap. Instead, begin with, “Here’s your solution…..” or “Tomorrow we will begin….”

As tempting as it is, you may want to avoid at all costs beginning a speech with the words “I killed your baby today, she deserved it.” Attention grabbing – absolutely. A few will find the humor, unfortunately, most will not. But think of a similar and relevant statement that will command the attention of even the most apathetic employee. Then carry that heightened moment forward with further supporting details.

In medias res

Then there is beginning in medias res. Unless you are a writer or have been enrolled in a writing program, you are less likely to encounter this term. Thing is, you’ve seen it used in movies, TV dramas, and books of all kinds. SImply explained, it’s beginning the story in the midst of action from the middle of the narrative, an abrupt flash forward if you will, that immediately draws the audience to an upcoming conflict that early part of the story is building up to. I find it a fun literary device as I don’t always like to tell stories in chronological order. Think about how this can apply to preparing a presentation or speech. Open with a teaser that immediately engages the audience, then transition to the beginning of the story you are about to tell. Just don’t lose the momentum that opener initiated.

Begin with the end

There are other aspects to where to begin, such as sorting out your thoughts, like my opening paragraph to this blog entry. Sometimes, those swirling thoughts are so overwhelming and cumbersome that the best place to begin is with the end. What is your intended result? Who are you talking to and why? If you are persuading an audience that a new process will benefit the company by reducing expenses thereby improve their bonuses, start there and follow with supporting information like how this came to be and why it will work, then close with a reiteration of your initial point. SImple, right?

Where this blog entry started and has headed I couldn’t fathom before I began. This idea was one of those soft-bodied cores beneath a spiny exoskeleton when it was first spawned, difficult to approach until I found exactly the right point to access its warm and bountiful interior. I hope that you have come away with something useful in your own writing endeavors, even if some strange visual metaphors to remember this by.

Business of Fear

Hook at Tower of TerrorWhether in the business world or in writing fiction, fear of the unknown is pervasive. Fear can be applied to the context of a story – as in “don’t enter that room, the killer is hiding in there!” – or it can be the fear or taking risk, as I recently wrote about in the blog post, “Going There.” Today, I have decided to switch away from the subject of writing; rather, my focus is on business driven by fear.

Fear is counter-productive in business; it prevents an organization from finding new solutions. It hinders advancement, and it creates a culture of skepticism and cynicism when it becomes widespread. In my career of corporate communication, I have often encountered this debilitating emotion and its power to halt productivity and impede creativity. For example, in the case of bringing social media into a business, a common response has been, “if we cannot control it, we cannot be a part of it.” Never mind the fact that the discussion of the business by its customers and haters will occur with or without the company’s involvement. The epitome of having no control is when the company’s voice is absent from the conversation.

I have witnessed fear of changing a business model to compete with a larger competitor sink a small business. “It’s not who we are,” I would hear, or, “Our regulars will keep shopping here.” That proved not to be the case. A small risk can go a long way, exemplified by those few small businesses that survived the onslaught of the big box store chains when they moved into my old town. As for the business I was acquainted with, it died a slow and painful death as it resisted trying new techniques in the name of fear. It missed an opportunity to remain competitive by defining a niche as the other surviving shops did.

It’s an unfortunate reality – so many great opportunities in collaboration and innovation are missed by businesses that abide by the fear of the unknown. Optimism, research, and strategic planning will combat this, however. It takes dedication and perseverance to not back down from what you believe is the right path forward. It takes leadership. Fear can be beat, and it requires hard work. In the grand scheme, the fearless will not only thrive, they will win.

When you have an idea to improve something – your business, you creative endeavor, or your life – don’t let fear be a deciding factor. Do it!