Caught in a Mess at Work? 3 Ways to Get Untangled. | Avoiding Drama

It’s easier to complicate things than to keep them simple. That’s why most of us periodically find ourselves in a mess at work.untangled 3632105088_bdaf9ebab1_m

There comes a time when we realize that we’re:

  • Too aligned with the wrong coworkers
  • At odds with our boss
  • Parked in the wrong job
  • Part of a doomed project

Situations like these creep up on us.

Pay attention.

Each day we’re faced with decisions and options that take us down one path or another, usually believing we’re advancing our careers not putting them at risk.

I’ll write it here again: Things are rarely what they seem, and that’s especially true at work. The closer you are to where the real work gets done, the farther away you are from the decisions and decision-makers affecting the organization’s direction.

The less you really know, the more careful you need to be about your choices. This is why developing business savvy is so important.

We often make a mess our of careers by getting tangled up with the wrong people or by putting ourselves in places where we can’t meet expectations.

Here are a couple examples:

  • You get hired by a boss who once worked with you as a staff professional and where you were also friends.  Now you’re expected to  support his wrong-footed policies. If you buck the boss,  you lose all around.
  • You’re new on the job and the boss isn’t training you. You turn to coworkers for help which they give gladly along with their “rules” for getting along, so there are no “problems.” In time you realize that you’re in the wrong camp.
  • You eagerly accepted a role on an important project team to gain some visibility for your technical talents. The forceful team leader has a predetermined result she’s promoting. You realize that her basic premise is wrong, the team is going in the wrong direction, and the result is going to be a bust with your name on it.

We get ourselves into these situations through our own naiveté. As much as we want to be optimistic about opportunities, we need to stop and weigh the potential downsides.

5 ways to disentangle

It is much easier to get situations tangled up than to untangle them. (If you’ve ever tried to get the knots out of a necklace or a fishing line, you know.)

When you need to extricate yourself from a complicated  situation at work,  consider these approaches:

  1. Avoid getting in deeper: Assess the people and/or decisions that are exacerbating the problem and figure out how to start distancing yourself from them. That may mean changing the way you communicate, reducing personal (not professional) sharing, and developing relationships with others who represent your viewpoints.
  2. Resist the “lures”: Step away from the temptations that may have drawn you to the situation in the first place like special access to the boss, the need to make “friends” with everyone, associations with “big” players, and egoism. Instead, refocus on doing your best work for the right reasons, even it if means accepting a short term setback.
  3. Plan and activate an escape plan: When you’re in a mess, you have to get out of it, slowly and carefully in most cases. This takes careful planning and a bit of finesse. You may need to craft a special bit of face-to-face communication, build new alliances, reduce your level of involvement, and/or make a big break. It all depends on the severity of the mess and the risk it imposes on you over time.

The worst thing you can do is nothing. The longer you stay in a bad situation, the more you risk increasingly dire consequences, the worst of which is feeling trapped and helpless.

Avoid drama.

The best thing you can do for your career is to avoid pointless drama caused by unhealthy entanglements. It only adds stress and needless complexity to the work you’ve been hired to do. Each time you’re given a career opportunity, first ask yourself, “What am I really getting myself into?” That should help you take the right step and avoid troublesome drama.

Photo from framelius via Flickr

How Supervising a Small Group Prepares You for the Big Stage | Learning to Lead

Bad supervisors are everywhere. Some know they’re bad and don’t care. Some are clueless. But most desperately want to do better.small group 2528391784_86bfb5b6c9_m

Most of us don’t want to go to work and be known for doing a poor job. Too often, new supervisors were great technical performers inexperienced in how to lead others. Once they’re in the job, they discover that their success is measured by how well others perform under their direction.

That’s when many panic and make a mess of things by:

  • Micromanaging
  • Holing up in their offices
  • Giving orders and shunning feedback
  • Withholding information
  • Clinging to confidants

New supervisors often feel self-conscious, uncertain, and/or afraid because they really don’t know what to do. So they muddle along, maybe even reading a how-to-supervise book or taking a training course. But often, it may be too little too late.

Start small.

The best thing that can happen to a new supervisor is being assigned responsibility for a  small group.

It can be as small as one (although smart companies stay away from one-on-one or even two-on-one reporting). Three employees, in my view, would be the perfect start.

Why is that? Because it requires the new supervisor to deal with a triangle. (No love triangles, please.) Three employees promise enough work style, personality, and performance challenges to deal with like:

  • Balancing work load
  • Dealing with attitude differences
  • Engaging them as a team
  • Communicating clearly and effectively
  • Implementing policies and procedures fairly
  • Addressing unwanted behaviors
  • Setting boundaries
  • Evaluating and rewarding performance

In a small work group, the margin for supervisory error is small. That means if you botch a decision or an action, it quickly reverberates among all employees who will react in ways that you will have to contend with in order to restore the balance.

Lead like it’s big.

Small work groups can make a big difference no matter the size of the company.

That means you need to supervise three as though they were thirty. This isn’t a club you’re in charge of; it’s a business unit representing a significant investment in salary and benefits. The group is expected to contribute output that directly or indirectly impacts profitability.

So take charge of the expectations management has of your group. Approach your three professionally, so they see themselves as significant and you as their means to success.

Effective small group supervisors do exactly what successful corporate executives do. They lead.

As soon as you become the supervisor, assemble your group and communicate:

  • What the group is there to do (what business you are all in together)
  • Your style of supervision (meeting frequency, information needs, hot buttons)
  • Direction for the next year plus perspectives about the future
  • SMART performance goals for the group (Then set up meetings to establish their individual performance goals for the year.)
  • The kind of operating culture you desire (teamwork, cross-training, informal and formal communication, integrity, general conduct)

Your small work group is your training ground. If you aren’t comfortable taking this approach with three people, imagine how overwhelming it would be with three times as many or more.

(By the way, you can also get supervisor-like experience by being a team leader too.)

Positioning yourself for more

Great supervisors get great results. When your small group produces more and better work with you at the helm, you will be noticed and so will your employees.

Great supervisors are a rarity. Employees who have them sing their praises. They want you to succeed because when you do, they do too.

Employees know that the buck stops with you and you’ll need to make decisions along the way that they won’t like. They’ll respect you for that even though they might gripe.

By learning to lead in a small group situation, you position yourself for roles with broader scope, more employees, and a position on the organizational pyramid that will make you and your early employee team very proud.

Photo from whidbychick via Flickr

Insensitive, Divisive, or Self-Serving? Taking on Problem Behaviors | “You” Power

You experience them. You may even mention them–things that are done and said at work that aren’t right.513020382_756c859892_m

We don’t do our jobs in a vacuum. We have to interact with others. The attitudes and behaviors of our bosses, coworkers, and customers contribute to the culture of the workplace. They make it  consistently positive, negative, or a bit of both.

So what happens when you see and hear insensitive, divisive, or self-serving words and actions that don’t sit well with you? Do you:

  • Keep silent (a signal of consensus)?
  • Report it to the boss or HR for action?
  • Complain to coworkers who feel as you do?
  • Take action in your own way?

The power to affect change comes from within you. It takes a plan and committed, sustained action. The power of “you” can be formidable.

“You” Power

We often think that only management can fix what’s wrong with a company’s culture, even  when they’re a part of the problem.

We may think that sexism, bullying, antagonism between labor and management, and an everyone-for-themselves performance mentality are behaviors we have to learn to live with.

Sadly, that’s why these behaviors continue and escalate.

We all have positive role models we try to emulate. Now it’s our turn to be that positive example at work,  one day at a time.

We can each contribute to turning negative behaviors around by:

  • Becoming a conscience for what is right
  • Setting an example by what we say and do

It’s not for us to get on a soapbox necessarily, but simply to intervene, one-on-one in most cases, to call attention to a more positive way to communicate and act.

Consider personal objectives like these:

1. ) Increase awareness of language and actions that have overtones

When you hear language that’s sexist or ethnically insensitive, suggest a more appropriate  choice of words to the individual speaking or writing. Suggest that certain assignments be balanced between women and men.

In the hurry of the workplace, some coworkers may not be aware of the stereotypes they are promoting through their speech and assignments. Serving as a conscience has real power.

2.) Refuse to gossip

There’s always news that spreads throughout the workplace, but much of it can be hearsay, personal, undermining, and counterproductive. When we listen to or contribute to gossip, we become its agent.

Each time we decline to participate and offer our rationale for why, we influence one or more coworkers. That may lead to some to gossip about us, but it sets the right example, furthers your cause, and may also counteract some bullying.

3.) Discourage “us” v. “them” attitudes

Blaming can become rampant in organizations. It can target employees (us) versus management (them), employees in one group versus those in another, or you versus someone who, you believe, has made you look bad. Nothing good comes from blaming.

If you  believe in personal accountability, as I do, then you can wield personal power by always owning the outcomes of your work, being unwilling to enter into the blame game, and expecting others to also own their work. When they don’t, that’s an opportunity for you to raise their awareness.

4.) Quell complaining and venting

If coworkers know you will listen to their complaints, they will continue to unload on you. If, when they start, you say you’re too pressed for time to listen or call attention to what they did to create the issue, they will likely stop.

A great many complainers fill their days dumping their load on anyone who will listen. If you reduce their audience by one, others may follow suit.

A matter of time

 Making a difference takes time. The more ingrained the insensitive, divisive, and self-serving behavior, the more difficult it is to change. You have it in your power to influence other people. Whether it’s one or many, it just matters that you do what you can to have an affect.

Every action you take has the potential to inspire someone else to follow your lead or tap into their own “you” power. What could be better?

Photo from F-2 via Flickr


Engaging Employee Minds and Hearts | Marketing Tools for Nonprofits

It’s special to write a post inspired by the new book by my friend, Sybil Stershic, a champion of the key role employees play in the success of any organization. Sybil gives voice to the intimate connection between marketing effectiveness and the engagement of employees who deliver on the organization’s promises.

Her first book, Taking Care of the People Who Matter Most: A Guide to Employee-Customer Care framed her message for business. This book, Share of Mind, Share of Heart: Marketing Tools of Engagement for Nonprofits, aligns marketing strategies with employee engagement essentials tailored to the challenges faced by nonprofits. The book’s concise principles and guide format will help you frame a plan. It’s rare to have a marketing guide specific to the needs of nonprofits. Sybil has filled the void.


It’s a downer when we murmur to ourselves at work, “My heart’s just not in it today.” It’s even worse when we realize we feel that way most days.

Explaining away malaise may be easier when we’re doing work that feels mechanical without an  “I’m making a difference” dimension.

What’s not so easy is feeling de-energized even when the work we’re doing, either paid or unpaid, fills an important human need in the community through a nonprofit organization.

I’ve been there myself. Years ago I worked for Head Start where my job included all of these duties: grant writing, coordinating volunteers and parent programs, supervising cooks and bus drivers, and schlepping government surplus food. Yes, there were many days when my mind knew how important the work was but my heart couldn’t overcome the weariness.

Nonprofit jobs are just as demanding today, maybe more so. Employees in nonprofits are the mission’s engine. Most aren’t there to get rich but to enrich. Nonprofit leaders need to recognize that their jobs include being in service to their employees.

The  essential link

Most nonprofit leaders face challenges to sustain their organizations, meaning they need to bring in the revenues that keep things going.

What too many leaders forget is that they need to invest considerable time and attention in their employees, the very people who are the real faces of the organization and the credible voices “marketing” the good work being done each day.

Sybil Stershic’s new book, Share of Mind, Share of Heart: Marketing Tools of Engagement for Nonprofits, provides nonprofit leaders with a fresh and practical approach to marketing their organizations with an inside-out strategy.

She starts by reminding us that:

Proactively marketing your nonprofit enables you to:

  1. create an effective presence in the marketplace that helps differentiate you from competing organizations, and
  2. pursue your mission through positive relationships with your stakeholders (consumers, members, volunteers, donors, referral sources, influencers, etc.)

Then she quotes marketing professor Philip Kotler who posits that: “‘marketing is supposed to build up…share of mind  and share of heart for the organization.'”

Further defining this concept, Sybil writes that:

  • share of mind “is about creating and maintaining public awareness of your organization”
  • share of heart “is creating and maintaining an emotional bond with people who are important to your organization.”

Leadership is the mission within the mission in successful nonprofits. Executive directors and all others managing operations need to balance their marketing outward look with an internal one.

The employee as marketer

Taking employees for granted or inadvertently making them feel that way invites an organizational downward spiral. It’s like shooting yourself in your marketing foot.

Sybil reminds us that:

Engaged employees stay for what they give–they like their work and are able to contribute, whereas disengaged employees stay for what they get–a comfortable job, good salary, and decent job conditions. Who would you rather have work in your organization?

She makes this essential point:

An “inside-out marketing” approach enables you to take care of …internal stakeholders so they can take care of your external stakeholders….”

Many nonprofit leaders then ask: “How do I do that?”

Sybil’s answer is straight-forward:

To gain employee and volunteer commitment and facilitate their engagement with an organization, internal marketing strategy is based on what I call ‘The Three Rs Formula':

  • Respect–ensure your staff members and volunteers have the necessary tools and support to do their work.
  • Recognition–catch them doing something right.
  • Reinforcement–continually support a mission-based, customer-focused culture.

She drives home her point writing:

The difference in how volunteers and employees are treated on a daily basis depends on the management style of the…people in charge. Are employees and volunteers recognized and respected for their roles in fulfilling the mission or are they considered disposable commodities?

Minds and hearts

Nonprofit employees are the faces and voices of the organization and its mission. They need to have their hearts and minds fully engaged to feel fulfilled.

Nonprofit leaders need to pay attention to what  employees need and listen when they provide  feedback, verbally or by their actions.

Marketing needs to be an organic function that starts with a strong internal message voiced by engaged employees. When the heart and mind work together, we can make big things happen.

(No) Thanks for (Not) Giving at the Office | Selflessness at Work

“I gave at the office! ” That’s the put-off line used by many when asked for yet another donation to a charity, special cause, or fund-raiser. It’s a kind of cop out to stop the asking, whether we gave or not.

The reality is: There are many truly compelling reasons why we’re asked to contribute time and money to help people in dire trouble, some we may know and many we don’t.

We witnessed it in the 2012 devastation and loss of life caused by:

  • Hurricane Sandy on the east coast
  • Raging forest fires out west
  • Tornados in the mid-west
  • Relentless drought across the country

The news coverage connects us with the human misery, the disruption to people’s lives, and the unfathomable monetary and material loss. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” we say to ourselves.

Many of us look for some way to help. We may send money through organizations like the American Red Cross or Salvation Army. We may hop on buses or get in our cars and go to lend a hand.

In a dramatic crisis, something in our hearts motivates us to help however we can.

Pain at the office

Our jobs can become increasingly demanding, so it’s easy to become absorbed in our own daily grind. We’re engrossed in meeting performance expectations, dealing the boss’s idiosyncrasies, struggling with changing work methods, and managing our time.

The truth is: Crises find their way into our offices. They may affect your work unit, the department, the company, or simply the coworker you sit next to.

It’s things like:

  • A new employee who 1.) no one talks to; 2.) is mistreated, 3.) makes mistakes, or 4.) struggles to master the work
  • A persistent conflict among coworkers who can’t find common ground on a work issue
  • A boss who alienates certain team members because s/he doesn’t understand how the work is done
  • A failed work process that caused customer outrage
  • A workplace accident resulting in the serious injury of several employees
  • An unexpected workload that must be completed asap to meet customer deadlines

The big question is: What are you prepared to do?

  • Will you wait until someone asks you to pitch in?
  • Will you lay low because you “don’t want to get your hands dirty?”
  • Will you  step up and offer your ideas, expertise, time, and/or leadership?

When trouble comes to your office, there’s an opportunity to “give” of yourself because it’s the right thing to do.

Selflessness is part courage.

Crises are relative. A crisis to you may or may not be a crisis to me. It just matters that when people feel that the situations they’re in are more than they can handle, you have an opportunity to offer help.

Crises manifest confusion. Leadership promises to restore order. Your selfless entry into a crisis of any dimension is a willingness to address that confusion and quell some of it.

As with any disaster, we need to give what we know we can. It’s not about over-extending or over-reaching.

At work you can:

  • Help that struggling coworker by showing them how to avoid errors or helping them build friendships
  • Offer an idea that will help conflicting parties reach a compromise
  • Talk to the boss about his/her work knowledge if you have the right kind of relationship with him/her
  • Provide an idea that will help fix that failed customer process
  • Suggest a change in safety procedures
  • Work extra hours to meet that surprise workload

That’s how you “give at the office” when things get dicey. It’s about you thinking more about someone else than about yourself.

Thanks giving

Getting in the habit of giving selflessly at work and in the community enriches us. It’s a habit that builds on itself. The more we do, the easier it gets.

When we recognize the value of those opportunities to give, the “thanks giving” comes from within us. In many cases, “ thanks getting” will follow.

Photo from paperbacklou via Flickr

Hungry for a Great Internship? Know Where to Find the Meat.

Internships are considered a must-have for many college students (and even some high schoolers) looking for a leg up in getting a job upon graduation. They hunt to find them, compete to get them, and strive to multiply them–all for good reason.

Internships are real workplace experiences that build and showcase the job knowledge, skills, and behaviors essential to career success.

So why do so many complain about those internships once they’ve been landed?

  • The work is too menial. I feel like a lackey.
  • I don’t have enough autonomy.
  • There’s too much/too little/no supervision.
  • I’m left on my own to figure out what to do.
  • I do all this work and don’t get paid (or am paid a paltry sum).

Welcome to the business world!

There is often a misconception that, once you get a real job with a real title, all the work is meaty, independent initiatives are applauded, your supervisor is supportive, and the compensation commensurate with the work. Sorry this isn’t so, but internships can help you recalibrate your expectations.

Internship Lesson #1: Teach yourself to see and understand the realities of the work place and what drives it.

You can’t see what’s really going on unless you look. Too many student interns limit their focus to the work they are asked to perform and not the experience as a whole.

Initially, there’s good reason for that: the tasks are new to them and they want to do them well. That’s a good thing but not the only thing.

The real meat is between the bun.

Internship Lesson #2:  Learn what did or did not fit you about the company, the work, and/or the environment and why.

Your internship helps clarify what you need from a job to perform at your best and stay motivated.

That means discovering are how effectively you:

  • Handle ambiguity and too little/too much direction
  • Perform under pressure
  • Communicate with executives, managers, your boss, and coworkers
  • Overcome flagging self-confidence and self-doubt
  • Use strengths and overcome weaknesses
  • Make independent decisions and come up with new ideas
  • See your work in the context of the company’s big picture
  • Influence or take the lead when there’s an opportunity
  • Stay positive and avoid getting caught up in office gripes
  • Put knowledge and skills to use in the right way

You need to make your internship as much about discovering who you are within the dynamics of the job as you do about future line items on your resume.

Here comes the judge.

This week I served on a panel to judge internship presentations at a local university. The fifteen students in this six hour undergraduate course interned with major corporations like AT&T, Guardian Life, Allstate, Abercrombie & Fitch and small businesses including a restaurant, spa/pool company, law office, and long-term care facility. Most students were business and/or marketing majors.

The students who stood out were those who discovered the most about themselves while interning. One learned he didn’t want to be in law because he knew he couldn’t defend someone he knew had committed the crime. Another loved the company she interned with (they wanted to hire her) but realized she wanted to work for a large firm. Two other students surprised themselves at how effective they were talking to front-line employees as well as the company president, seeing how they were able to adapt their communications styles successfully. Others learned how it felt to own and defend their web design assignments.

Win-win internships

There are no bad internships unless you choose not to learn anything from them. Every business is fascinating in its own right. Each has a unique business model, leader-driven culture, performance history, cadre of employees, and customers/clients. No matter what your internship role, you are always in a position to observe, explore, and contribute. So whenever you can, take a big bite and savor the flavor.

Photo from Lego-LM via Flickr

Immature, Self-Absorbed, or Clueless? How to Save Employees from Themselves.

Employees can be maddening. They often behave in ways that seem to make no sense.

As supervisors, we try to understand what we see and hear, putting it into some kind of context so we can decide what, if anything, we should do.

No one said the job would be easy, but there are times it seems impossible.

Pay close attention

All employees come to work with personal job expectations and the history that spawned them.

As supervisors, we expect employees to perform their job duties, achieving set goals and adhering to standards and practices.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, some employees don’t see their jobs from either a supervisor’s or the company’s perspective. They see them predominantly through a lens focused on their personal needs.

The temptation is to label these employees as immature, self-absorbed, and/or clueless, and then assume they are “young,” newly-minted entrants into the work world. Both would be a mistake.

Instead, the first signs of immaturity, self-absorption, and cluelessness that impact work negatively need to be identified and discussed with the employee right away.

As supervisors, if we let them slide, we:

  • grant employees a pass to continue them
  • validate that they are acceptable
  • establish them as the basis for replication by others
  • fail to correct issues that will hurt their future opportunities

If this makes you feel like a parent, that’s probably apt, especially for supervisors who have employees that don’t know how to:

  • behave professionally
  • connect their work with “why”  and “what” they are paid
  • subordinate their personal wants and needs to the “team”
  • connect the dots between what they do and how it affects the business

Make them matter

Part of a supervisor’s job is to help their employees avoid self-destructing, especially out of naiveté. This isn’t easy for two reasons:

  • Those conversations generally awkward for the supervisor.
  • Employees don’t want to or can’t, at the time, hear what you’re saying.

Employees are important people in any organization. It costs a lot to hire them and to fire them. By the time you get to supervise them, there was probably money spent to train them.

Aside from that, if, you, as a supervisor, know that an employee is doing things that will negatively affect his/her career, you really need to try to get through to them.

Think of it this way: If the employee’s behavior continues, they will eventually be so undesirable anywhere in the company, that they may one day lose their job. What you do to help them may save them from themselves.

Cues and clues

It can be easy to gloss over behaviors that lead to problems over time. They may seem unimportant at first, but when added together, can become career ending. Here are some examples:


  • Work attire that pushes the envelope
  • Excessive socializing
  • Excuses for unfinished work, lateness, and non-compliance with direction
  • An undisciplined approach to assignments


  • Need for repeated recognition and praise
  • Demands for promotion based solely on time in the current position
  • Expressed dissatisfaction with their job title
  • Compulsive use of social media on the job


  • Lack of emotional intelligence with their supervisor and coworkers
  • Narrow view of the impact and implications of ideas/decisions
  • Poor judgment and lack of sensitivity when communicating
  • Weak understanding of the business model and their role in it

Knowledge saves

We’ve all had career “don’t get it” moments. If we were lucky, we had family, friends, great bosses, colleagues, and mentors within reach to straighten us out.

That’s what supervisors need to be–teachers who will level with employees, help them retool their perspectives, and provide a better course of action to take.

I agree this can be icky. I’ve had my share of employees and clients who didn’t want to hear what I had to say, but I kept saying it until the day it registered. That day made all the frustrating ones worth it.

We often can’t save ourselves from ourselves until someone throws us a life preserver. Let that be you.

Photo from noelle-christine-images via Flickr