Tuesday, July 20, 2021

How can people find inspiration at work? #CreateMeaning

What do I know about "inspiration" at work? I'm not sure I know much, but I think I may have some advice that could be useful.

I was in the high-tech write-software-every-day workplace since about 1976 or so. (The first two years were part-time while in college.) I use past perfect "was" because I'm old enough (and lucky enough) to be able to retire from daily work. I've switched from writing code to writing books about writing code.

For the math-impaired, my software career spanned 45 years.

Early in this career, the question of finding inspiration at work wasn't asked in the same stark way people discuss it nowadays. When I was younger, the idea of maintaining a work/life balance wasn't something we were asked or encouraged to consider. We did the best we could and tried to avoid getting replaced by someone who could do it better.

Which -- with the advantages of hind-sight -- was a terrible way to live and work. Simply awful. I was lucky enough to see hundreds of projects in my working career. I worked with scores of different organizations. There was a spectrum of bad behavior.

I did learn this: Fear is not Inspiring. I learned a few other things, but let's start with fear.

The Fear Factor

I want to dwell a bit on the fear factor in the workplace. I'm firmly convinced that some manager types suffer with a nagging background of essential fear for their own jobs. And they can project this fear onto folks around them.

Try these shoes on for a moment. The technology has moved on and you haven't kept up. You're trying to manage people, but you have a nagging suspicion your core managerial skills are weak enough that you could be replaced. Motivated by fear, you encourage "casual overtime" and "working weekends" and "meeting the committed schedule". Perhaps you feel it necessary to go so far as to demand these things.

Fear of getting fired creates an uninspiring place to work. It will be an incubator for burnout. 

Further, I suspect it can lead to worse situations than people quitting. I think the "work a little harder" folks plant seeds for various kinds of workplace abuses. 

I think there are a variety of fears. The fear of getting fired is at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: we could get fired, and be unable to get another job. We're in the Physiological and Safety realm of the needs pyramid.

A fear of a project not working out means we'll tumble in the eyes of more senior management. This is somewhere in the higher level of Social Belonging and Esteem needs. The problem is that projects have a variety of metrics, and simply making the schedule is an easy metric and can seem to lead to immediate esteem.

What about higher level cognitive needs like Self-actualization and Transcendence? I strongly suspect fears related to these needs can color someone's workplace. I think these often show up as "Am I really going to be doing this for the Rest of My Life?" questions. This becomes an undercurrent of negativity stemming from fear of being trapped in unfulfilling work. 

We might see these fears in several places. We each harbor our own private fears. In any organization with a hierarchy, we'll have to deal with fears that trickle down to us from supervisors. In non-hierarchical organizations, we'll have to deal with fears of our peers and colleagues. We're surrounded by fears, and I think this can sap our inspiration.

What can we do to find inspiration in a work environment?

My Experience

I've worked on hundreds of projects. That means hundreds of jobs that came to an end. And when the project ended, I was no longer needed. 

In effect, I was fired hundreds of times.

This isn't a helpful thing. If Maslow's base physiological needs are met, then having a project end isn't too horrible. I was a contract programmer in the olden days when we were salaried, and the company would carry us from assignment to assignment. Being let go by a customer can be harsh, but getting paid in spite of being let go softens the blow.

I emphatically do not recommend this way of working as a source of inspiration. Some people like the constant changing gears and changing directions. Other people might find it terrifying: each project is a whole new group of people in a new organization. Potentially very unsettling.

I don't think the "get tougher" or "grow thicker skin" advice is good. I'm don't think it worked out for me. I think this kind of transience left me feeling isolated. I think it lead me to carry around a sense of superiority. So. Let's set aside any dumb-sounding advice based on a literal review of my experience. 

How Did I Cope?

Finding ways to cope, I think, is important, but it is also potentially misleading. The idea of coping with new projects, new organizations, travel, and getting fired all the time isn't inspiring. It's merely coping with an endless stream of loss and separation. 

Underpinning the idea of coping is a more foundational question. Where did I find the inspiration to keep on doing this contract programming thing for so many years? And the other question is how well my search for inspiration might apply to folks who aren't commuting computer programmers?

I think there's a first step that many people can take. It's this:

We can disentangle our self-worth from the work-place imposed sense of worth.

This may be overly glib. But. I think the things rewarded in the workplace aren't a good reflection of who we are and what we're capable of. While it's important to be confident in one's self, our confidence can be undermined by a toxic workplace. Having confidence can let us take our skills and abilities in a variety of directions. We might, for example, decide to find another workplace; one where our value is recognized. Or, we might decide to change our circumstances in the workplace we're currently inhabiting. In both cases, we're asserting our value. We're making a further claim about our value: we may not match the workplace's expectations of us. The workplace can change, or we can find another workplace.

We might see a mismatch in lousy performance reviews. These can can stem from many causes. Perhaps we're not suited for a job and need to find something else. Or, perhaps the person reviewing our work doesn't see what we could (or should) be doing. (They have their own fears, and they may not be willing to try to make the changes we'd like them to make.)

Looking back, I may have been doing this all along, without being clear or intentional about it. Perhaps I excelled at places that valued me, and failed to meet expectations at places that treated me poorly. Perhaps my job shifting was (in an indirect way) a search for a workplace that valued me, my unique experiences, and my distinctive voice.

I was not intentional about it. I stumbled from job to job, knowing the sales folks would find me a next assignment when the current assignment had run its course. I think a vague sense of self-worth is what lead me to locating inspiration in spite of a lot of change and disruption.

Finding Inspiration

When we think of inspiration, we think of a spiritual drive to do the work. This doesn't often parallel with working for pay to cover rent and expenses. 

A good manager, however, can create a cohesive team from a group of people. A group of peers can welcome a new colleague. This creates belonging and esteem: the middle levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We may find that a team or a team's goal may be inspiring. This means that our own self-worth is recognized and valued by our co-workers. This can be a marvelous experience.

What about the bad manager or unhelpful group of colleagues? In this cases, we're forced to make the best of an awkward situation. I think we can do this:

We can search for inspiration at the margins of our work life. 

Can we find some side-bar aspect of the work that leads to some helpful insights? Perhaps there is a chronic problem we can take notes on and -- eventually -- fix. Perhaps someone is less helpful that others, and we can try to understand what would make them less toxic. Perhaps cleaning the break-room fridge is better than complaining about month-old food. (Yuck. But. If things are better, it may be worth it.)

For years, I had an aspiration to write about software development. To further this dream, I started taking more and more careful notes of projects I was on. In the era before the World Wide Web, publication was difficult, but not impossible. I wrote small articles for technical magazines; this effort was something that inspired me to work with customers who were inept and had horrible, horrible problems. I liked the awful customers because it provided me good examples of things that should not be done.

At the end of a horrible project, I'd have a good anecdote for what not to do.

I acknowledge my two ideas of self worth and inspiration isn't a dramatic, life-changing epiphany. I'm pretty sure the scales won't fall from anyone's eyes as they think about looking at sidebar topics as a source of inspiration.

Looking at the margins, edges, and corners of a job can help to reveal the whole job. The whole team. The whole goal. Finding this broader view might inspire us to look for a better team with better goals. In other cases, it might help us find the missing skills in the team we're on. In other cases, a better perspective might help us steer our supervisor toward doing something that's better than what they're doing right now.

There are very fine lines between toxic, poorly organized, poorly managed, confusing work places, and workplaces that are still trying to find a workable organization. Most places have a combination of good and bad, inept and well-done, confusing and sensible features. Indeed, these may all be different axes and an organization is really a multi-dimensional object with different kinds of overlaps and gaps. 

I believe the foundation for inspiration is a clear sense of self-worth. I think we create meaning in our workplace by knowing what we can contribute, what we want to contribute, and what the organization needs. Our unique contribution and what the organization needs may not overlap at all, or the organization may have always been searching for someone like us. Either way, our awareness of our skills, our experience, and our authentic voice is what lets us find inspiration.

1 comment:

  1. Great article Steve. I have had similar thoughts over the years as I saw how various organizations / departments valued or didn't value the people that worked in them.