Many articles back I discussed some of the different personality types at the office. Although by no means a comprehensive list it did have some of the more popular archetypes we all seem to find ourselves working with. One of the characters that I identified which inhabit our professional lives is the chess player. The Chess Player came to my mind when I started thinking about this article. In the earlier article I describe their behavior as:
Every word they utter, every article of clothing they wear, every priority they maintain is a manipulation. These folks are really good at this. The thing they aren’t usually good at is long term impact.
You find the chess player in nearly every type of office in the world. They are in results oriented organizations but they really excel in organizations where results may not be the higher priority. They, in fact, help set the culture of these organizations. The biggest thing in common with the chess player and the organizational culture you work in is that sometimes it’s difficult to really understand the core priorities.
Organizational culture is complex
Organizational culture is not a hard and fast set of rules, it’s not the mission statement, and it’s certainly not what the chief executives of the organization says it is. Organizational culture is a multifaceted thing and actually quite complex when you really start exploring it. It’s a bit like a painting of a monochromatic scene. There may be many unique gradients of color but there is also a general theme, or color, that is prevalent throughout the work. One of the biggest roots to any organization is a tendency to embrace one of the bifurcated focuses on driving perceptions that may or may or may not be reality vs. driving towards outcomes and results.
A good way to understand the situation quickly is to remember that perception has its basis in feelings and emotions. Outcomes and results tend to focus on quantifiable measures. All you have to do is ask yourself the following question: Do we often place a high priority on how things feel? If the answer is yes then you are in an organization where perceptions are highly valued. If the if the answer is hell no, then you’re probably in an organization that only cares about outcomes and nothing else matters.
Sometimes the two are intertwined in such a way that the perception is quantifiable measures, but the reality is your just making the numbers look good and the actual outcomes are nearly meaningless. I admit that’s a bit confusing, but i’ll explain in a bit.
Much of this conversation relates to understanding your environment at large. When I first discussed if you should see the forest for the trees, the argument was that the analogy of knowing how big the forest was, or what the great trends are isn’t nearly as valuable as dealing with your unique situation, or metaphorical tree, at hand. Using that analogy, forests can be very dark, or very light. You can be in a proverbial shaft of light while standing in a very dark forest and still need to put on a pair of shades to keep from being blinded. This is because the priority can be different at different levels. A local office may be driven by metrics but the larger organization can be driven by perceptions. It often can be the exact reverse as well. Another thing to keep in mind is that culture does not necessarily mean universal, for example a manager of one office may have his head really far up the rectum of numbers and true impact while other branches maybe more in line to a corporate culture focused on perceptions. These outliers can exist in a state that is opposite to the culture, which is the organizational equivalent to the blinding shaft of light in the dark forest or the line of red in a painting that’s otherwise mostly blues.
Like any strategy, information is important. You have to know what the actual organization priorities really are. Every organization has a culture. Understanding the specifics of the culture as it relates to the mix of perceptions, outcomes, and results is empowering. There are questions you can ask to get you to that understanding: What is your organization like? Does your organization focus on results and do they really care about the results? For example, are the priorities actual metrics or if it’s the perception of meeting metrics. This is what I was alluding to earlier when I said “making the numbers look good and the actual outcomes are nearly meaningless”. Let’s look at tell signs that your organization is focused on perceptions.
All organizations have some quantifiable thing like: a need to hit the metric of 300 calls per day, twenty enrollee’s per month or drive 2000 miles in patrols. Once those miles are driven or the 300 calls per day are made, is anyone really looking at the data that came from it? Are they exploring the value of the types of calls per day or the routes and times of the miles driven? What about events attended per year? You may hear ‘the quality of the events we choose’ from a manager who is signing off, but if there are multiple attendees to an annual event, even a fairly useless one, then you can tell your org cares more about perceptions than metrics. It’s the same with the other metrics that I suggested.
Now, you might say that you can’t remain an organization very long if you only care about perceptions. There are in fact organizations and industries that rely very heavily on perceptions. I’m looking at you non profits, government and education. The value in these organizations is more about continuing to try then it is about actual outcomes. Education offers some of the best examples of what I’m talking about. Looking at K12, schools have the classic requirement of dedicating a specific number of individualized hours to a struggling student. The unique results from the differing modalities used by the teachers in those hours aren’t really measured systematically, just the hours. This is why we can have a system that throws more and more money at a problem yet is criticized for being sub-par compared to other first world countries. The perception is that we are assisting the kids struggling to learn how to read, the reality is that we are checking a box. Yup, got 9 hours in this week of individualized attention.
Another good education example, and one that I have a high level of interaction with, is college resources available to kids with messed up backgrounds. This one is really more about perceptions. It’s my personal experience that a college age teen who was screwed up from abuse or some other less-than-ideal early childhood situation has a very very low probability of getting through college no matter how many resources you throw it at them. All those mentors, programs and creative ideas look great in a report but when the number graduated is always close to zero, the only thing the organization can hold its hat on is how out of the box it was in its attempts. The person who came up with the new twist on the vision board idea is going to be lauded for really trying to reach those kids and then the next cool idea is presented and a flurry of activity commences again. Boards’ of directors get emotional stories of some minor success reinforced with photo filled newsletters, and the cycle of perception of a successful endeavor over the reality of outcomes continues.
Admittedly i’m beating up on government and education because i’m in a situation in my life where i’m exposed to those things at a much greater level than I have been before. I haven’t forgotten employers. On the other end of the scale is an International manufacturer that measures everything. When I say everything I mean literally every moment spent by every employee on the production floor, every dollar down to the penny, every phone call, everything. They do this because numbers are the one universal for an international conglomerate. In this type of situation it doesn’t matter what your boss thinks of you personally, they see their numbers every month and where you rank on them. If your ranking is good, or better yet if it’s great, your boss could hate you with a passion and fight tooth and nail to keep you at the company.
It is possible that you could wined up in a small office where the numbers are overlooked because of perception. Yes, Bob may have good numbers but Jane’s really coming on strong! No matter how much the boss wants Jane to succeed, even stacking the deck in her favor won’t work in the long term. That type of situation is like the red line in the blue painting, but in this kind of organization the numbers always bear out eventually.
The important thing here is that once you understand the culture of your environment, both macro and micro, then you have sort of a road map for your potential for long term success. Let’s say you’re a numbers guy in a very high touchy feely and perception oriented environment. If your in that local area organizational aberration, that streak of light in the dark forest, and the culture of your organization or industry aligns more to you results / numbers personality then you stick it out. Think local hometown bank versus some national bank, or local pest control company versus corporate. The clear tact to leverage your experience is to use every opportunity to look for that better position up the chain or in the organization with more renown because the industry is still a good bet for you.
The more challenging situation many find ourselves in happens when we really aren’t a good fit for the macro environment. If you are a results-oriented individual in a bureaucratic and perception oriented system such as the government or nonprofit sectors then let me just get the bad news out now. You’re not going to survive for the long-haul without learning how to go numb during the workday. You may ascend to be one of those managers who creates that beam of light or that odd colored streak in the other wise dull painting but you won’t be able to change the greater environment. Because of this there will always be frustration in your world. Well, to be honest as the kids say, there is always some frustration at work. There will be much greater levels in this situation as the mismatch between the individual and the environment will make things that much worse.
Developing the Strategy
Step One is to try to really understand the entire cultural mix. To do this you have to look at the culture of yourself and your environment dispassionately. The environment is a little harder to understand because the nature of it can be so skewed. This goes back to my intro, the perception that’s generated may be one of outcomes but the reality may be that focus on measurable outcomes may be more important than the outcomes themselves. Then you’re just a bureaucrat meeting your rules but not really having any impact.
One trick is to do a little research on personality profiles. There are a million of them. They’re usually structured in such a way to identify fitness for a particular job or for team members to better understand each other. I don’t often hear of personality profiles being used to assess the personality fitness of someone for an entire industry but I think this is a reasonable thing to do. At the very least it will provide some additional information about your existing situation.
I was a mis-match for my career in sales because I wasn’t quantifiable in my outcomes. I liked to help people. In short I was more perception based, then outcomes-based. Is it any wonder that after two decades I had developed a reputation as the most liked and yet most fired sales rep?
I would say the second step is to figure out how to focus on the actual cultural priority, even if it’s not the direct department’s priority. If you’re an engineer and your boss is a little bit more flexible, but the organization or industry you happen to be in is really buttoned-up, then your stuff has to be better than perfect. Your boss won’t be around forever in a world where every job is in transition, but if you get a reputation that your stuff is safe your future opportunities will be better.
Step three is to plan your exit if you realize your personality is inherently opposite of the cultural priorities of the organization and / or industry. This can be really difficult to do if your training and experience is in one type of industry but your personality is completely different. If you are so focused on outcomes that you get frustrated at wasting time at events that are unproductive you better get out of the public sector. Unfortunately if your resume is filled with nonprofits and agencies, I don’t think the local banking Institution or Industrial Corporation is going to give you a high priority. Heck just because of your background you may get kicked out of consideration for interviews because of their resume filtering systems. This is where you have to be very strategic in building up some sort of transferable skill or network.
A good example of this type of situation would be that you could be employed as a systems analyst in the government sector yet politics would limit your ability to actually change any systems. The perception to the stakeholders is is that there is a dynamic high tech solution that has been employed by the government Institution that’s supported by a bunch of high-end systems analysts. The reality is nothing is changing and everybody has to deal with the same old systemic flaws that could easily be fixed. If you’re good with sitting around and answering a bunch of tech support inquiries and going to meetings to discuss what could be improved (but rarely is) then stick around. If not it’s time to look at your exit strategy.
The solution in this case is to assist on a bunch of open source projects. You’re not getting any money for that because it’s open source but if you choose the products correctly it could help transition you to the industry you want to be in.
You could also be in a hardcore numbers oriented environment, but find yourself always more concerned with what people think of you then your outcomes because of how you’re wired. In that case go get whatever credential you need to move into a perceptions oriented industry. Fortunately credentials are big deal in perceptions oriented Industries because the perception is that a degree is actually meaningful for outcomes.
Our work lives are ever more difficult no matter what kind of organization you are in. One way to help ease the challenges over the long haul is to make sure that we are a good match for our macro environment. That statement may give the warm-and-fuzzy perception of good career advice with no real teeth to it. I promise you if you are truly a mismatch with your industry, and you change to one you are more aligned to, I guarantee you’ll be happy with the outcome.
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