When my new bosses arrived in New York, one from Frankfurt and one from London, I was on a list of people they wanted to see. I didn’t know what to expect.
It was after yet another reorganization in the bank’s IT department, in which my team and I had been dispatched to Communications. In our meeting, I described what we did - driving adoption of modern collaboration tools - and how we built the largest internal social network in financial services. I shared some of the many stories of value and employee engagement.
After a few minutes, the expressions on their faces went from friendly to neutral to incredulous. “Anyone can post something?” they asked, making clear the recklessness of what we had done. “Who approved this?!”
In that moment, I knew my career in Communications would be short-lived. The managers across the table did not seem to know or care about innovations in communications. What mattered more to them was maintaining monopoly control over the information employees received and how they received it.
But how could this be? After all, one of our cultural values was “innovation.” There was a Communications campaign with posters to remind us. The company had innovation hubs in Berlin and Palo Alto and there were annual pilgrimages to Silicon Valley. We were repeatedly told we needed to be more agile and entrepreneurial. Why wasn’t our innovation celebrated?
Years later, I now realize the problem wasn’t with my new managers but with the culture. At my company and at almost every corporation I work with, employees are treated like young children or worse: Do as you’re told. Always ask permission. Speak when spoken to.
The people I meet across companies and countries - well-educated, responsible adults - tell me how they are subject to the whims and moods of their manager. How they have to account for each hour. How they have to speak only to the appropriate level or risk being scolded. Despite all the sound and fury regarding the need for innovation and failure and continuous learning. etc, etc. there remains a sea of managers desperate for control and a sense of self-worth, waiting to ask: “Who approved this?”
I could have quit my job, or I could have quit trying. Instead, I spent my time in the Communications Department purposefully building a network of people inside and outside the company who found value in what I did. That gave me power my bosses couldn’t take away. It also gave me options and helped me feel better each day.
What is it you need approval for at work? What will you do when you don’t get it?