The paradox of “they”

“I wish they would recognize my work.”

“If only they would listen.”

“They laid off people today.”

Just this week, I thanked them for an opportunity and cursed them when they slighted me.

Who’s “they”?

It’s personal

Your access to opportunities and pay is driven by a complex human calculus. It’s individual people, not “the firm”, who decide who’s naughty and who’s nice, who’s a top performer and who’s expendable. For most knowledge workers, there are few objective criteria available to compare the wildly different types of jobs and circumstances. So managers substitute other, simpler, questions instead:

Do I know and like this person?

Am I dependent on them?

Do they work in an important area? 

Do they have important connections?

Can I improve my own standing by helping or hurting them?

When a recent survey asked what would make you happier at work, 65% said a better boss. (Only 35 percent chose a pay raise.) 58% said they would be more successful in their career if they got along better with their boss.

It’s personal. When you change managers, it’s like working for a different company.

And it’s not personal

Yet for all the truth in work being about relationships, large enterprises can also be seen as machines that transcend relationships. People come and go - from CEOs and Presidents to double-digit turnover of entire firms. Different cogs, perhaps, but the machine keeps functioning.

Sometimes what happens to you isn’t about you. Or about your boss. It can just be a result of working in an incredibly large, complex system where luck plays a big role. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

What can you do?

As I was leaving for work one day, my youngest daughter, Hanako, asked why I had to go. Thinking quickly, I blurted out that “the world is broken and I have to fix it”. Being 4 years old, she accepted that explanation.

I kept thinking about that job description and how “they” would never let me do that. But the world of work is undeniably broken and somebody needs to fix it. Why not me?

I realized - almost too late - that I have more control than I thought. Instead of hoping for a good boss or for good luck, I realized I could try to create my own future. In the face of fear or uncertainty of personal and impersonal forces, I could take a bit of control by investing in my skills, working out loud, and building a purposeful network.

Cue the Bon Jovi music:

It’s my life...

I ain't gonna be just a face in the crowd...

Tomorrow's getting harder make no mistake

Luck ain't even lucky

Got to make your own breaks

We’ve got a world to fix. “They” can only stop us if we let them.