Sink or Swim: How to Survive in the World of Work

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A dear friend contacted me recently, out of her mind with frustration. It seems her employer had just derailed her pet project again, changing his mind and her team’s direction for the third time in two months. The change, sadly for her, will mean longer hours, heightened stress, and the certainty of a missed deadline for which, inevitably, he will hold her responsible. But perhaps even more significant, to her the change means a total disregard for her expertise and a lack of appreciation for the hours and dedication already poured into the work. After years of  experiencing this dysfunctional pattern, my once passionate friend, a driven project manager, is now feeling nothing more than ineffective and deflated. Unwilling to expend her energy on what seems to be a losing battle,  she has decided to stop trying so hard and simply “go with the flow.”  But even as she says this, I hear the doubt in her voice. She wonders out loud, “Does this acceptance mean I’m growing up or does it mean I’m giving up?”

We’ve all dealt with difficult people. And when those people possess all of the power at work, it’s no wonder we’re tempted to just give in, to ride the waves they make and float with the current instead of fighting to swim upstream. I mean, can you imagine the ease of just being agreeable, of not having constant conflict with a supervisor who disregards what’s right or best for an organization in favor of feeding his own ego?

But this is also about the point in your internal dialogue when your sense of self kicks in and smacks you in the face with an oar. “What about my ideals!?” it screams. “What about all of my hard work? How about my talent, my skill, and what I know to be right for this project, my career and the organization?  What about those rocks up ahead in the river that threaten to burst a hole in my team’s raft and throw us out of it altogether?!”

According to Harvard Business School, most employees are enthusiastic when they start a new job, but in approximately 85 percent of companies, employees’ morale sharply declines after their first six months and continues to deteriorate in subsequent years. According to David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer, “The fault lies squarely at the feet of management, both the policies and procedures companies employ in managing their workforces and in the relationships that individual managers establish with their direct reports.”

The school’s report goes on to explain that to maintain enthusiasm in the workplace, management must understand three goals that most employees seek from their work (equity, achievement and camaraderie), and then satisfy all three of them. “Indeed,” say the authors, “one goal cannot be substituted for another. Improved recognition cannot replace better pay, money cannot substitute for taking pride in a job well done, and pride alone will not pay the mortgage.”

So the good news is, you’re not alone if you’re disillusioned at work. The bad news is, with morale declining in 85% of companies, it’s safe to say that your situation isn’t likely to change any time soon.

The question is, what do you do about it? Do you keep fighting the current, or do you keep your head above water and float downstream?

The answer may depend on your personality. It’s entirely possible for some determined, skilled swimmers to fight the current, battle the rapids and make their way to the top of the river. Others might choose to take their chances and paddle, in unison with their team and flawed captain, down to its mouth; some rivers, after all, may lead to a vast ocean of future possibility. And for a rare few of an especially brave disposition, the key to satisfaction might be nothing less than to jump ship immediately, swim to shore and leave the water altogether. Many an industrious explorer has been known to leave the security of chartered waters to create a new, independent and successful life on land before.

Whichever path you choose, you can find your way to happiness if you’re mindful about it. First, remember to take good care of yourself. Bolster yourself with positive thoughts, stay in shape, and get plenty of rest because no one can traverse rapids without being mentally and physically up to the challenge. And perhaps even more important, remember that you can’t change the powerful force of a raging river. With a cool head, determination and a little faith, however, you can navigate it.



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