Work is a simple concept. People go to work so they can earn money, in order to live the life they want, or at least survive a little longer. But underneath that simple concept are layers of complexity. Workplaces are complex and the problems within them are many and varied.
Some of my close friends call me an idealist when it comes to work. I think they’re right.
I feel that everyone should have the right to enjoy their work. That people should be able to work in a safe environment, both mentally and physically.
I think that people should be able to feel a sense of achievement from work and to find enjoyment in progressing their careers if they choose to. I feel that we should hold people accountable for what they do, at all levels. People should also suffer consequences if they treat others badly to pursue their own self interests.
The problems with work
Although I hold my ideals high, I realise they are far out of reach for many people, in many workplaces. But that doesn’t mean we give up. We keep trudging forward, improving one leader, team and workplace at a time.
To do this, first, we need to acknowledge the problems with work.
Nobody really wants to be at work
Whilst many people, including myself, recognise the benefits and structure that work provides, it’s clear to me that the majority of people would rather be doing something else.
I’m not saying that everyone hates work. But if I ask ten people in my workplace what they would rather be doing today, nine would probably say “Lying on the beach”, “Fishing”, “Doing the gardening”, “Watching a movie” or “Working on my side project”. That’s myself included.
Does anybody really want to tackle that hard conversation with a team member, or get yelled at by an unhappy customer? Of course not. But we do, because we need to work.
I acknowledge that for me, lying on a beach all day for the rest of my life would often be boring. But day to day, people still hold up an ideal life of leisure, regardless. As a whole, I like work. On a detailed level, looking at the day to day grind, sometimes I’d rather be at the beach.
Therefore, workplace leaders have a unique challenge because they are leading people who instinctively would like to be doing something else.
Workplaces are ruled by fear
I’ve worked in a lot of places, thanks mainly to my previous consulting career. I’ve worked in different cities and countries. I have never seen a workplace that isn’t run, at least in part, by fear.
I don’t think fear is the right way, but I acknowledge why it works. Because it’s easy. It’s easy to be the boss and tell people to do things. Sometimes they do them just because they’re scared of the consequences. The threat of being fired, getting a bad reputation or being criticised by a senior person is always there, lurking in the background.
But where does the fear come from?
Sometimes, it’s because people need the money, and they aren’t sure if they can get another job. Other times, it’s because they are striving to improve their career, and a hit to their reputation might take them back a step. Sometimes it’s even simpler. People are scared of feeling bad, useless, or worthless.
Fear often lurks behind a friendly face
Even in the friendliest of workplaces, I’ve seen fear manifest itself subtly and quietly. Instead of outright stress and conflict, fear causes people to stop speaking up. They sit silently and the leadership don’t hear any problems, so things continue on as they are.
“No news is good news”, they say.
People are civil and polite, and until you dig deeper, you might not think anything is amiss.
Then, instead of fighting, good people start to quit because it’s easier and less stressful. They hit the stress release valve by leaving that workplace and never looking back. I’ve seen very stressed people turn from frantic to relaxed overnight, when they have decided that enough is enough.
Sometimes, people who do speak up are labelled as troublemakers. Depending on the culture of the organisation, they might be fired. Sometimes, they might be “managed out”, gradually hampered and criticised until they choose to leave.
Workplace fear is a challenge for workplace leaders. Leadership authority will always provide a daunting prospect for some team members. Authority and fear can be a quick way to make progress. Unfortunately, that’s why it’s so common.
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a scary leader, you’d be surprised. Leaders and managers usually have access to senior people, and people talk. Even without direct authority, leaders can cause problems for others below them in the pecking order of a company.
Workplace leaders are leading people who, in many cases, are fearful of getting fired, being criticised and fearful of speaking up.
There isn’t enough money for everyone
Many people at work want to get a promotion. But there is never room for everyone. Only a limited number of leadership roles exist in a team and organisation.
Everyone wants more money. But money is finite, and companies don’t prosper by increasing everybody’s salary each year, indefinitely.
This means leaders need to make hard choices. Some people are going to be unhappy, because you can’t please everyone. Sometimes, the perception of favouritism rears it’s ugly head, as team members feel slighted at a colleague’s success.
Even when team members are not overly ambitious, they often still want more money, for doing the same work.
Workplace leaders are leading people who want to be paid more, when there are finite resources to go around.
Everybody is different
Everybody in a team or organisation has different wants, needs and aspirations. This creates conflict. Some leaders want everyone to commit to a team equally, but many team members consider work as a secondary priority to their home life or other passion.
Some team members are ambitious, putting themselves above the rest of the team and stomping on throats to get what they want. Others are quiet achievers, shunning the spotlight but still harbouring ambitions to progress their careers.
The rise of workplace flexibility means leaders can no longer expect everybody to work nine to five. Some team members need to come in later to drop their kids at school, while others start at 7am and want to leave at 3pm. Neither are better or worse, and all have the potential to be high performers.
This presents a difficult leadership challenge. Leaders can’t expect everybody to act the same, or have the same needs.
Workplace leaders are leading people who have different goals, aspirations, needs and personalities. One size does not fit all.
Is it all doom and gloom? Should we lose hope? What can we do?
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably feeling a little deflated. There are so many problems with work, how could we possibly solve them?
The good news is, you don’t need to solve them for everybody. You only need to solve them for your team. You can’t control what happens in your whole organisation. And you shouldn’t even try.
But someone should try to help your team survive and thrive in your workplace. The best person to start doing that, is you.
Now that the situation feels a little more achievable, let’s get to work.
Leading people who don’t want to be at work
We know that not everybody loves work, and lots of people want to be at the beach. So what can we do about it? Well, it’s time to start thinking about making things a little more interesting.
Variety is the spice of life. If you can provide team members with more variety in their work, they’re likely to spend less time thinking about the beach and more time wondering how to tackle the latest challenge.
Doing the same thing over and over is boring. Find out what makes your team members tick. Perhaps they are studying outside of work. Maybe they have a personal passion that you can help bring into the workplace. Are they interested in a different aspect of your team’s work, or even something outside of your team?
If you can allocate time for team members to focus on something they enjoy a little more than their regular tasks, you have the potential to increase their enjoyment of work as a whole. Whether it be mentoring with a colleague to learn new skills, or a side project that they can work on for a few hours per week, consider whether you can make things a little more interesting for your team.
It is a balancing act. After all, your team still needs to finish their work. But if you give your team permission to spend time on something interesting from time to time, this can go a long way to helping.
They still may not love work, or proclaim you to be the best boss ever, but you might just see a little extra spring in their step on Monday morning.
Leading people who are fearful
Most people know they aren’t going to be fired out of the blue, for no reason. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t scared. People fear being scolded, belittled and having work dumped on them unexpectedly, without being able to say no.
You need your team to speak up. You need people to push back on you when you do something unreasonable. Why? Because that’s how you get better. That’s how you understand how your team is feeling and how you can adjust to cater for it.
When people say “No”, consider it a gift
When people speak up and say “No”, this is a gift. It means you can start solving the problem and making a change. If you can’t change it, you can work with someone senior, who can.
There are several ways to encourage your team to speak up:
- Ask for feedback and opportunities for improvement, and act on them when you can.
- Be available, so that you can support your team, when they need it.
- Listen to concerns and try to address them. Escalate them higher if you need to.
- Tell your team that you would rather hear bad news early so you can help, rather than not hear anything until it’s too late.
- Show that you are willing to fight for your team, even if that means putting yourself at risk. This is part of managing up.
- Don’t punish people for speaking up. Instead, set consequences for bad behaviour.
The more you can show your team that speaking up is a good thing, the more that it will catch on with others in your organisation.
Sometimes, it means putting yourself at risk of criticism, but that’s the only way things will change.
Leading people when there isn’t enough money to go around
Many people think of career opportunities in terms of promotions and raises. But these are in short supply. Many companies are struggling to compete in ever-changing circumstances, so money is often not freely available.
If you change your mindset when it comes to career opportunities, there are things you can do for your team, even if you can’t provide money or promote anyone.
Prepare your team for the future, not just the present
One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to prepare them for future roles. Just thinking about how your team member can help your team now is short sighted. They will eventually grow, develop and improve their skills, which may take them away from your team.
This is a good thing. This is what the goal should be. As such, you should think of opportunities as ways to develop your team, not just to pay them more or promote them.
This can be in the form of:
- Coaching and mentoring team members, to learn skills that they want to learn.
- Providing time for team members to work on side projects that develop their skills.
- Delegating accountability for part of your team’s work, so they can take charge and learn how to lead.
- Giving permission to your team members to spend time working with other teams, to help them learn a different skillset.
You don’t want to have the mindset that your team members must stay with you forever. So let them free and watch them improve. They might leave your team, but that’s a positive step for them, and you’ve done your job.
Make sure you’re honest with your team. If you can’t promote people or pay them more, tell them so, and offer other opportunities instead. Don’t string them along with false hope of career improvement, if there are few opportunities for promotions or salary increases.
Leading people who are all different
We are all unique snowflakes. We can’t treat everyone the same, because one size doesn’t fit everybody.
This isn’t to say we must try to please everyone all the time, either. In the workplace, there are constraints, and you can’t let team members do whatever they like.
In addition to providing opportunities and variety for your team, you need to try to cater for different types of team members, different personalities and varied work requirements.
Flexibility is important
We can do this in several ways. Firstly, consider allowing your team members to work flexibly, whether it be working from home, or varying their working hours. For these arrangements to succeed, clear communication and expectations are key. You need to know what work they’ll be doing, and when it will be done.
But to be honest, if your team member is completing their work to a good level of quality at the right time, does it really matter where, or when they do it?
Set clear boundaries and expectations, and uphold them
When you’re dealing with a set of different personalities, ambitions and personal styles, you need to set minimum standards for appropriate behaviour. Make it clear what you expect from individuals and address concerns quickly if people don’t follow these standards.
Without consequences and clear expectations, some team members have a tendency to trample over others who are less forceful or vocal. The more openly ambitious team members may belittle and bully those that are simply happy to do their work and go home.
As such, you need to make it clear that you expect certain behaviour in your team. It doesn’t matter how fantastic a team member is at their job, there should be consequences if they behave badly.
I would rather have an average performer who fosters a positive team environment, than a genius who creates conflict and disrupts the team. So make it clear.
Leaders have a unique set of challenges, but you can overcome them
Leaders have a unique challenge. It doesn’t matter if you lead an operational team, or a project team, you have the opportunity to make a difference and solve common workplace problems.
Leaders are dealing with workers who don’t really want to be at work, who are fearful, who want to progress their careers where opportunities are scarce. Not only that, but all of these team members are different, with varied goals and aspirations.
If you look at your organisation and see the problems in their entirety, it can feel like a hopeless task.
But narrow the lens a little and focus on what you can control. That’s where you can make a difference.
So don’t give up. We can make the workplace better, one leader at a time.
Will it ever be perfect? No, but it can always be better than it is now.
So keep going.
What are your most common workplace challenges, and how how you solved them?