“Let’s make sure we communicate this up the chain of command”
“We’re cultivating our next generation of leaders”
“We took a shot and we missed”
“You need to stop sitting on the sideline”
“The project has been derailed”
“We’re playing defense when we should be playing offense”
“We’re like a family”
“Let’s put together a task-force”
“I call foul”
A small fascination of mine is noticing the metaphors that people use in organizations. Listening for metaphors is harder than it sounds. Some of them are so embedded in our daily language that I forget that they’re metaphors. Like ‘time is money’, or “showing the ropes” to a new person.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the words we use for important ideas about work ‘diffuse’ over time, and all the problems this creates. Like a game of telephone, as an idea spreads its initial meaning gets refracted through each receiver, who stamps it with her own experience before passing it on. What starts out as a clear concept gets muddier and muddier over time.
Do you ever feel like you’re having the same conversation over and over again? Maybe it’s with your boss, a colleague, your spouse, a parent, with yourself? I know I do, and it feels like being stuck in a well.
We might use slightly different words, shift our tone or emphasis, but underneath that superficial layer we’re playing out the same interaction again and again.
I began a new role at a new organization a few weeks ago, and I’m once again appreciating the unique and precious experience of being in a liminal space.
The concept of liminality comes from anthropology, and refers to a finite period in which we stand with one foot in a new literal or metaphorical place and identity, and one foot out in our old place and identity. We are still an outsider, but are in the process of deliberately becoming an insider. This is a special, fluid, and confusing time, one in which our understanding is incomplete, and our new role is still solidifying. In a liminal period, we still lack much of the context that insiders have, which means our understanding of the new is incomplete. But this lack of shared history with other insiders (and often the assumptions that shared history creates) can sometimes help us briefly see with greater clarity than the insiders.
Burnout. Like a particularly unforgettable destination, those of us who’ve paid a visit nod knowingly to one another. No matter how long ago it was, we recall the familiar landmarks of our journey with easy clarity. And we never want to go back.
And yet, earlier this year I found myself retracing my steps along the route to burnout. The déjà vu gave way to a gnawing anger at myself. I was older, even a little wiser! How could I let this happen again?
I was in San Francisco for work last weekend. It was great. San Francisco is the perfect city for people that hate being hot, hate being cold, and that love being angry all the time. That’s because of its microclimates. Due to hilly terrain and oceanic currents, weather conditions can vary dramatically between different pockets within the city.
Among the many workplace phrases that I would like to make illegal is “getting buy-in”. It’s almost always paired “WIIFM”, which stands for “what’s in it for me?”, and is short-hand for the way we imagine a totally average employee who is also a diabolically shrewd and calculating villain assessing our carefully crafted change initiative or program implementation.
Everyone wants to improve their brand. Hardly anyone wants to improve themselves.
I get it. I love to exercise, but will be the first to admit that buying workout clothes is more fun than actually getting myself to the gym. Writing about having difficult conversations is infinitely more enjoyable than actually having them. Talking about your great company culture is much simpler than figuring out how to make sure it lives up to your description every day.
The costs of incivility in the workplace are easily felt, though perhaps harder to quantify. Calls for civility then, a common refrain lately in and out of the workplace, seem like common sense. But is that definitely the case?
I was at SHRM’s Annual Conference in Chicago last week, speaking about how HR can support effective remote work. I’ve given different versions of this talk in a few contexts, but one of my core messages is always that remote work (in any form, be it fully remote teams or roles, or a ‘work from home’ policy) cannot succeed if it is layered over a low-trust work environment.
When I speak about this topic, I share a few symptoms of low-trust as it relates to remote work, and one of them is an organization in which managers are free to treat ‘work from home’ as a reward, rather than understanding and applying a clearly defined business reason for committing to remote work/’work from home’ as an organization.