Chaos: three observations about change from the workplace trenches
This week, I left a job I had been in for three years. I came to this job licking my wounds from another workplace that didn’t work out so well. In that workplace—which I entered with the hope of finally building some sort of career—I exited within five months, feeling completely disempowered, my confidence shattered. I questioned my ability to judge who I could and should trust, and I learned some hard lessons about what people will do when they’re backed into a corner. I stopped blogging because of it, and it took me over a year to tentatively dip my toe back into the blogging waters again.
So those were the circumstances in which I came to the job I stayed in for three years, and that I left this week. It’s been a mixed bag of experiences and—because I was working on a national project—should have been a career high. It wasn’t. For first three months, I was the happiest I had been in a job for a very long time. The leadership was strong and engaged, I was doing work that was of value and valued, and my professional experience and knowledge was taken seriously. Then there was a merger, a restructure and a reorganisation of the business. Several times. For another three months, I managed to continue in “business as usual” mode while the ensuing chaos wreaked havoc on the good work we were all doing. Many colleagues fell by the wayside as budget cuts ate into funding for positions. Strategy fell by the wayside too, as did vision. Communication died. All that was left, really, was an environment that survived on the goodwill of the staff who were left—staff who were still committed to providing a service to the public, even though they were worried about their own survival.
Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is. ~ Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger, A Game of Thrones
For another two years, the project I worked on was buffeted about by the recommendations of contractors and junior staff, who set the direction in the absence of strong leadership. Project managers came and project managers went. Ditto team leaders. To be fair, the last six months were enjoyable because I was working on a meaty social research project with another colleague. It was with some despondency I handed over the final report yesterday, knowing that in all likelihood, the report will be shelved by management, embarrassed by the inconvenient truths it contains. Still, I am proud of this piece of work and if my legacy is this, it’s a solid piece of work to go out on.
The question I am often asked is: why did I stay so long if the environment was so dysfunctional? And the answer is simply this: it might have been dysfunctional, but generally speaking, it wasn’t toxic. Sure, there were toxic people around, but these were the exception rather than the rule and could, for the most part, be avoided. And the people seated near and around me were smart and funny and became my friends. So it wasn’t a bad place to be—I’ve been in much, much worse. And, while it wasn’t particularly engaging work-wise, I was being paid well and I could take extended leave to go overseas. Apart from the frustrations of working on a project that wasn’t able to deliver on its mission, and staff cuts aside, it was a relatively stress free environment. No one cared that I didn’t get in much before 9.30 each morning. Ditto my request to have every Wednesday off. No one cared much if I didn’t do anything—it was only my own drive and professionalism that kept me delivering—most of the time—against the odds.
Interestingly, I am going back to an environment where the chaos I’ve experienced over the last three years is just beginning there. Slashed budget, restructures, staff cuts. Rinse and repeat. I feel, though, that I am well-equipped for what’s to come. I have first-hand experience having lived through the worst of it, and it is these observations and insights I want to share with you today.
1. Opportunists are everywhere
While chaos brings out the best in many people, it also brings out the worst. There are any number of usurpers jockeying for position, knives out, happy to sacrifice colleagues if it means they get ahead. The uncertain environment means that the unscrupulous can take of advantage of the weak, especially weak leaders, and keep on climbing that ladder, reaping the rewards of money, status and power. The system allows them to surround themselves with cronies or strategic alliances, oblivious to the damage this causes to morale—and those who are not treated so favourably. Those further up the ladder don’t care, because they are too busy feathering their own nests and ensuring their own survival.
There is not much you can do about this except to recognise who these opportunists are, and ensure they do no harm to you. This is easier said than done, because if you have an ounce of integrity, you will want to challenge the situation and expose the opportunists—and the damage they cause—for who they really are. Don’t. Challenging these appointments—unless you have nothing to lose—will only make you a target.
2. You stay only as long as you are useful
I have seen some truly Incompetent People (IP) continued to be employed, while talented people are retired or moved along or cut loose. It took me a long time to realise that the difference between who stays and who goes is often usefulness, perceived or real. The IP stay because they can sell or trade their value, or perceived value, to the Powers That Be (PTB). Or the PTB decide someone is useful, for example, the IP might make a good scapegoat one day, or they have a skill that the PTB need, or knowledge the PTB can tap into or use. Sometimes the IP’s usefulness is simply that it’s easier to keep them on the payroll than to hire someone new, and sometimes this is because of timing. Know that your efforts to rid the workplace of the IP will be 99.9% unsuccessful and ineffective because their usefulness, either real or perceived, will outweigh their incompetence. The only way an IP will depart—unless its of their own volition—is if they are no longer useful.
3. You have no control
In chaotic situations, I have observed good people trying to gain a modicum of control, a foothold in a landslide, and fail, and succumbing to disillusionment. They believe they can control the outcomes if they play the game, for example, applying for their own job, contributing to change workshops, giving feedback to leaders on the corporate plan. This is an illusion, and the system continues to function because of this illusion; it wants people to be aspirational and helpful because it means they are and will be compliant. However, the wheels are already in motion, the die is cast, things will happen and are happening irrespective of your input or willingness to play the game. Decisions are made and are being made outside your sphere of influence. The sooner you realise that you have absolutely no control over anything, the sooner you can detach yourself from the outcome. In this environment of chaos, becoming less concerned about how things will turn out, and investing your time in things you can control, is where you’ll find your freedom and how you’ll stay relatively sane. I poured my energies into running, blogging, writing and publishing—for you it will be something else. Find and then follow your “outside” bliss.
If you are in an environment that is experiencing significant amounts of change, navigating this chaos will be the reality of your working life for weeks, months, and probably years to come. Your only goal is to survive. Forget about making a difference, or improving the culture, or working on strategic initiatives unless it’s business as usual activities. You can concentrate on (maybe) trying to help fix this stuff once the dust settles, but only then. What you can do is act with integrity, authenticity and honesty. Support your colleagues. Behave courageously where it’s warranted, but pick the ditch you want to die in.
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