Let’s Be Frank: So (Mostly) Everyone Hated Their Jobs?

By Inspector Frank. December 29, 2021

Editor’s Note:  Writing under the pseudonym Inspector Frank, the author of this column offers a first-hand, candid view of what he has witnessed throughout his career. His purpose in sharing these experiences and opinions is to encourage readers to think deeper about what they do, why they do it, and the possible impact of their decisions.

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With these ever-changing events during the Covid pandemic, we have been bombarded with all kinds of articles and news stories about the “changing face” of work; how work cultures are evolving, how flexible working conditions are becoming the new expectation, and how it is now a mad employee market (especially in certain sectors) where the balance of bargaining power has shifted from employers to the employees.

One of my favorite news pieces that catches almost as much media attention as the pandemic itself has been the American-led “Great Resignation.” I really love how the media spins everything, always looking for that most ominous catchphrase. The “Great Resignation” basically refers to the high number of people who have quit their jobs over the course of this pandemic. When you call something “The Great X” it kind of makes me curious and, to be honest, makes me think of a sketchy carnival barker trying to separate me from my hard-earned money.

So obviously, with the calming catchphrase leading the way, there has been a veritable boom in discussions on things like how to attract employees, how to retain employees, what does the new work structure look like, and what do we have to do as a company to maintain our edge or even come out of this better placed? These concerns have obviously led to an increase in management consulting companies offering various fixes to help companies navigate this “Great Resignation.”

Being an inspection type, I like data before I start overthinking things. So naturally, I have been reading about recent changes in workplaces and their effects, as well as proposed solutions to the “Great Resignation.” Turns out that most people leaving their jobs are mid-career (so they’re established and on their way to becoming SMEs or managers) and the biggest affected sectors are healthcare and technology.

This led me to two related ideas:

  1. Did a significant portion of employees outright hate their jobs or the work they were doing? Did they like their chosen career/field at all?
  2. If there is a boom in and a boon for management consulting work, were there a lot of companies that had bad organizational structure and/or poor leadership? Or maybe it’s back to idea #1, and maybe the leadership of many institutions really didn’t like their jobs?

Now, some companies are worried and are working towards finding solutions to their workforce shortages; and some previous employees are looking for new ways to work or new careers that will fulfill them. Throw in ever-changing pandemic rules around the world and you have some interesting times.

Obviously, companies and employees want to find new ways to do things. People want work that they get some kind of fulfillment from and employers need the bodies with the right skills propelling them forward.

Some of these proposed solutions are downright interesting, others seem confusing, and behind all of it are companies trying to cash in by offering the “right” training, solutions, and turnkey fixes. One of these I have been seeing more and more articles on is the concept of “co-creation.” This particular concept caught my eye because it seems many of the individuals involved (including reporters) have differing concepts of what co-creation means and how it can help get your workers more engaged. In fact, I just saw a series of articles that basically states that workers are demanding co-creation these days as the workplace adapts to Covid restrictions.

I am always up for looking at a new way of doing things, but when I dove into researching this concept of co-creation, I realized that it is not a new idea, nor am I sure that everyone is asking for what they actually want. One article’s byline was: “It’s time for business, political and organizational leaders to give up on management.” That’s a pretty extreme statement in my mind.

So, what is this idea of co-creation?

Co-creation is a strategy that brings together multiple parties to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome. It really boils down to engaging your customer base to help build value in your products, as opposed to the view that the consumer is a passive outsider from your business where the only interaction is at the point of sale. Seems straightforward, but the current batch of management gurus are morphing this idea into one where co-creation now refers to employee/employer relationships where management is more of a shared idea. I’m not against new ideas, but letting your employees do whatever they want in order to keep them happy doesn’t seem like good management or a good organizational structure at all unless there already exists a very strong culture of accountability.

This brave new world seems to be as confused and full of “experts” who can solve your organizational issues as the old one was.

But obviously, companies do have to do something to reengage and retain workers, especially in professional or highly skilled positions. Companies have been trying new ways to work around Covid restrictions and they will have to rise to this challenge as well. In my opinion, a few things have to happen for companies to be effective at this, or any challenge/transition for that matter.

Leadership and management must first recognize and embrace that the old bureaucratic “one-size-fits-all” approach to employee relations doesn’t work very well, although it is often the easiest path to take. The problem with “outside of the bureaucracy” thinking is that it requires stable and confident leaders and managers at all levels. And as you can tell from my previous articles, I am not sure many companies have that in spades.

It also requires engaged and responsible employees, which means if your organization doesn’t currently have a lot of them, you have to work to build that culture up. I don’t see the competition for employees changing anytime soon. This is going to force corporations to assess what is important and desired in their workforce, and more importantly, assess what is important and desired in organizational leaders. Maybe they will even cut some of the chaff out in the process.

But here’s where we hit one of the big oppositions to significant cultural and management change in most organizations. It is in the best interest of the participants in any big or established bureaucracy to not rock the boat or be willing to change. Especially at management levels, and especially where management may already be bloated. Change might equal loss of your job if you are in an already questionable position. In fact, even good managers will become desperate if they think their job is at risk and try to justify the need for their position in the organization.

However, if companies need to make changes to survive, I think that this will end up showing the weaknesses of some company’s organizational structures and identities. In other words, weak managers will have a hard time hiding. Based on some of the companies I have worked for, I think this may make some senior management start to question if the managers they oversee are competently doing their jobs.

Is mid-level management making things happen because of their inputs, or are things happening in your company in spite of these managers?

As an industry, we need to quit grasping for new management solutions and styles like a drowning man reaching for a float. We need flexible, competent personnel who are engaged in their work and we need them managed by competent leaders. Organizational problems will always show up when the system is put under stress. It’s no different from inspecting a pressure vessel with acoustic emission testing. Put the system under stress and existing flaws past a certain size will propagate and become detectable.

I have always tried to engage and empower those working for me. I don’t always succeed, but I keep trying and am always learning. One example I have always looked to for inspiration is the American Airborne Forces of World War II. Out of necessity they needed competent, flexible, and dedicated “employees” in their troops, at all levels of command. Why? Because they needed units that would function under the greatest of applied stresses and uncontrollable circumstances.

I will leave you with this to ponder. Airborne forces have to be adaptable. On the flight in and parachute descent to the ground, there are many opportunities for disaster. Think of a plane getting shot down, or a parachute failing to open, or the parachute opening and the dangling paratrooper catching flack or ground fire. This means the minute the plan starts being executed it is likely to start falling apart. How do you run something under that amount of stress and uncertainty? Well, here are a few of the things that these new airborne units at the time started doing to overcome this significant obstacle:

  1. Make flexibility and adaptability to change the backbone of your organizational culture. Part of this can be done by empowering employees at all levels and allowing them to have inputs based on their skills and expertise in the direction they are going. Ensure all levels know the plans, including long-term (strategic) plans and short-term (tactical) plans. Allow them flexibility in their positions to do what they think is best to accomplish those plans. This also improves the corporate culture’s ability to withstand stress. How, you might ask? Well, it actually starts creating a more engaged workforce with a greater overall understanding of the big picture. This makes replacing managers with employees easier and people always buy into something more when they know their voices are heard. Think of the D-Day airborne landing around Normandy in WW2. Because of the night insertion and heavy anti-aircraft fire, many paratroopers were dropped far from where they were supposed to be and units became very spread out. But the flexibility and adaptability fostered during training empowered these paratroopers to overcome the obstacles, meet up in small groups, and still try (and in many cases succeed) to accomplish their objectives. Even where no mid-level and in some cases high-level command and control existed any longer.
  2. Normalize crisis response within your organization so it doesn’t induce emotional panic, but rather gives your employees an opportunity to shine. If we go back to the airborne forces for a moment: when they loaded the personnel into airplanes, they broke up sub-units and command elements across multiple chalks on multiple aircrafts. Why? It’s no good to have the entire command element in one plane that just got shot down. However, the chances of losing two planes could happen so even breaking things up could still mean a unit hits the ground missing senior and junior command elements, and maybe even some specialty skills. Again, if you have employees that know the long-term strategic and short-term tactical plans they can adapt to changes much more robustly.

We need to quit grasping at “catch-phrase” management styles for a way out of every crisis our companies face. What we really need is to build and foster competent and flexible managers and employees so that when the system gets stressed it doesn’t crack and fail, but rather, plastically deforms into the new shape required.

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