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.

The Antithesis of Creativity

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Immersed in a whirlpool of ideas, some good, some worth dropping off a cliff to the jagged rocks below, still others leading to publication or other successes, creativity abounds in all of us. It’s how we use that energy, how we channel it into our passions that defines us as artists or strategists or inventors or a number of other creative-based professions. When we are fearless, we are at our best.

It’s that moment when we let apprehension stand in our way; when we let self-doubt consume our inspirations; when we allow aversion to risk-taking to override our passions. That moment when the reaper positions his queen with that bony hand to proclaim checkmate. Fear is the consummate eternal when we grant it the opportunity.

Fear comes in many valid forms: an explosion at a chemical factory, an out-of-control eighteen-wheeler on a busy highway, an angry dictatorial boss, the wrong end of a gun. All physical, all legitimate. Even a zombie invasion should one occur. It’s the fear in our heads that restrains us, prevents us from taking ownership of our ideas, of executing an idea as the lingering possibility of retribution or disappointment hangs six inches in front of our noses. That is the antithesis of creativity, which has claimed so many unwritten stories and unperformed songs. And it lives in our collective subconscious, both culturally and individually.

Those lucky fortunate few who have made a killing following their creativity passions, those people we are fans of and consume everything they produce. We love them, we want to emulate them and collect everything they’ve ever touched. We hang on their every last words. We wonder: How did they do it? Right place at the right time? Perhaps. More than likely, they took control of fear. They did not listen to the naysayers – themselves the products of internalized fear – they channeled that energy into their passions, they took risks knowing that at any moment we may reject them. Through every mountain and canyon, they persevered.

Bottom line: we are products of ourselves, we are our own creators. We define what we put out there, assuming we take the first step allowing our viscera to be exposed. The sad reality is, most of us are willing to give in without a fight. Don’t do that.

Push forward. Follow your passion. Create.