Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Good Grudge

Job hunters are under a lot of stress. In the first place, few people are looking for a job as a luxury, and almost as few feel that they have most of the control in getting the job they want. For all the books, seminars and classes in pursuing your ideal career, I’d venture to say that while most people like their jobs for the most part, fewer than one in forty would say they are in the job of their dreams, and that they accomplished their job through a disciplined job search. Luck plays a role, for bad as well as good fortune. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to me that people whose job search is slow or less than satisfying may display indications of their discontent. It’s only human to reflect the stress of the endeavor, exasperation of the bull-headed bureaucracy, and anger at a system which seems to reward appearance over substance, and style over real ability. Oddly enough, many hiring managers also suffer the same stress, of trying to find truly qualified candidates in an ocean of poseurs. But it’s more difficult for the individual than the business.

The people trying to help job seekers, pretty much unanimously, emphasize the need for an upbeat, positive attitude. Generally, they are right. It is important not to be negative about your past work experience when speaking to recruiters and at interviews, it is essential to be positive about your skills and what you can do for your company if they offer you the position. But at the same time, a lot of things get attacked as “negative” when they are actually important, in more than one way. For one thing, the people offering advice are sometimes wrong. One discussion board I joined had an administrator telling everyone that they needed to join groups, then make sure to use their groups as a network to find leads towards jobs. Having been part of a number of groups apart from professional societies, I can promise that such behavior is a very poor idea, and would likely kill your credibility and poison your network. That’s because special interest groups exist for the specific purpose of the group, and members don’t like or respect people who join just so they can advance their own interests, especially when those interests have nothing to do with the group’s purpose. For example, I spent a number of years as a high school official in three sports, and each sport had a local chapter with weekly meetings to go over events, rule changes and interpretations, game films, and anything else related to the sport. A member of any of these chapters is expected to come to the meetings to learn about how to be a better sports official. While it’s fine to discuss informal and personal items, even then those topics tend to be related to sports; loving the sport is why these guys become officials in the first place. So some first-year member who starts trying to find out if the chapter members can help him find job leads, is not going to be considered legitimate; the topic is just plain wrong. And many groups I have belonged to have demonstrated a similar attitude. So the administrator of that job-seeker group was absolutely wrong, and was actually hurting members with her advice. So while positive attitudes and finding inventive ways to expand your professional network are good things, it is also important to rein in wild, untested theories and assumptions. It’s also necessary to deal with your grudges.

With very few exceptions, everyone in a job search situation has some bad feelings lurking around. While I agree that you should focus on your skills, experience, and positive attitude when applying and interviewing for a job, it is also important to deal with the things which cause you anger, resentment, or other negative emotions. After all, in most cases the person who lost the job did not deserve to lose his job, and even those employees who could blame themselves for their job loss often have good qualities to their work which they may feel should have been considered. Also, the way in which the company lets employees go is often a cause for unhappiness, and then there is the difficulty of the job search itself. Put it all together, and you have a condition where the stress and frustration needs an outlet, ideally in a way where it helps the individual move forward in their work search. Rather than tell people to suppress or hide their grudges, assistance groups should help people find ways to turn their grudge to good purpose.

As I mentioned earlier, I agree that when making an application or in an interview, the focus must be on how your skills help the company and how your attitude is positive and team-centered. But you need to deal with the weight and fire of your negative side, and find ways to use that to your advantage. For instance, I once had a boss, pretty high up in his company, who was afraid that his managers would discover they were underpaid and quit on him. His solution was to attack, harass and demean those managers at every opportunity, really rip them up so they would be in constant fear of being fired for some trivial (or even nonexistent) mistake, and never realize their rights, even though any one of us would have been fired on the spot if we had treated our staffs the way we were ourselves being treated. At first, I and the other managers just took the abuse, but years later I reflected on the behavior and used it to remind myself of the importance of actively listening to my people, to make sure my behavior was as ethical and courteous as I believed it to be. This not only helped my relations with my staff in my next three jobs, it also helped me get promoted when my consideration earned me credibility as someone who did what he preached.

Finding positive uses for negative experiences is one way to deal with your grudges. Another important use, however, is to talk about them in a confidential setting. Let’s be clear, I am not saying you should ever give potential employers indications that you might be a malcontent at their company or that you can’t let go of bad experiences, but it’s important to recognize valid events, and frankly just as every company sooner or later suffers from a bad or dishonest employee, so too most of us have had the misfortune to work for a company which was unethical and dishonest. Imagine someone who quit working at Enron in 2000, before it came out how corrupt its officers were. Imagine someone who left WorldCom, or someone who was an auditor for Arthur Andersen, who quit because of how those companies did business. Looking back, not only would it make no sense to praise a former employer whose business practices are now documented in ethics textbooks as egregious examples of criminal behavior, it would also make perfect sense for these individuals to feel that they had been badly used for staying true to higher ethical standards.

When you have to find a new job, you also look at the horizon in every direction, and that includes things you did not like about past jobs, things you hope to avoid the next time around. In a best-case situation, you can apply those lessons at your new job, avoiding the damage done in the prior experience. Recognizing that high-level bosses tended to berate and ignore the floor staff at one job helped me focus on selling bosses on opening informal feedback channels at another, beyond the usual ‘open door’ claim that is made so often. The experience of support for a project evaporating because the superior forgot about it, reminded me to include update reports on pending projects to superiors, including reference to their prior written support, to keep the idea fresh and familiar. Almost any bad experience can be useful in building tools to prevent it from happening later on. So even a grudge can be a good thing, if you use it to positive effect.

Finally, it needs to be said that humans are not machines. The facts of a situation can be handled rationally, but the effects carry emotional weight. There needs to be a way to deal with mistreatment and injustice suffered in a job, even if it’s just that you were sometimes under-recognized or happen to be one of the employees in your group laid off in a company reorganization. I notice that the help groups always point out that there is no “stigma” in being let go these days, which is a help on one level, but being laid off always has impact, and while you may intellectually understand that there was no personal insult meant, being laid off when you have been doing good work and were relatively happy at your job will always carry the emotional weight that you were selected to be let go, a sense that the work you did was not recognized the way you hoped it should be, that your skills and experience were not valued enough to be kept on board. If you’re like me, at some point you may even wonder why your value to the company was lower than the old furniture in the reception – there are chairs that have almost no value anymore, yet they are kept forever, yet in any downturn there are many good employees let go. Understanding the economics of the variable cost of human capital does not satisfy the sense of injustice which comes from being considered not only not indispensable, but as disposable assets of little consequence. We all like to believe that we matter, and being let go is an assault on that sense. It is only reasonable, therefore, that while the sense should be managed in a productive way, there is a valid need to address that grudge. The grudge is authentic, even if the help groups say it must be suppressed. I would argue that it is far healthier to recognize that the grudge is real, that it exists for valid reasons, and that it can and should be applied to good purpose in personal reflection and planning for the future. The short version may be as simple as 'don’t get fooled again’, but in a less cynical sense it also carries the value of hard-earned experience, unique lessons that can be applied to real world situations, and which may have specific value to your new company and team.

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