Friday, January 27, 2012

It's All About Your Mindset

Despite the poor economy, several engineers at my company have recently found other jobs. Each time someone leaves, the morale seems to dip a little. You can't go a few minutes without overhearing hushed conversations about how much greener the grass is outside the company, that our company/management/policies drive employees away, that such-and-such's new job is going to be so much better, etc. This is on top of the constant complaining that you hear from the chronically disgruntled who are bound and determined to be dissatisfied with every aspect of their job and who seem to believe that it's their duty to make others unhappy as well. From what I've heard from other professionals (and from the impression I get from Dilbert), this problem is far from being unique to my company.

When employee disgruntlement reaches critical mass...

Here's my confession; up until about three years ago I was part of those types of conversations. I kept a stiff upper lip for the first six months or so of my job, but I eventually allowed myself to be influenced by the attitudes of a number of coworkers, both newer employees as well as veterans. They were angry with the bureaucracy (there's a lot of that in the nuclear industry), with various company policies, with the management, with the pay, etc. One coworker who had been with the company for 25+ years took it upon himself to personally tell each new guy to "do yourself a favor and quit". Others were less overt, but they still grumbled continuously. A large chunk of each Friday was dedicated to unmitigated complaining. The effect of all this was that half of the engineers who started around the same time as me quit within less than two years. I had tried to join them; at my one year mark I had several resumes out and was doing job interviews with other companies. Now I'm very glad that none of those resumes or interviews went anywhere.

Except for an increase in responsibilities, very little has changed about my job. However, I've since gone from despising my job to enjoying it. The only real change was in my own behavior; I made a conscious decision to be grateful for the position I had (this is even easier to do in our current economy) and to take on a "can-do" attitude. Although this will swell his head a bit and I'll never hear the end of it, I have to admit that I was helped along this path by my friend and coworker, Bryce, who was also the one who introduced me to Warhammer 40K. Bryce showed me that your job is what you make of it. I saw that he could derive fulfillment by working as hard as he could and trying to make a difference regardless of roadblocks, uncooperative coworkers, or red tape. With his example of a positive attitude and his accomplishments, I saw that professional satisfaction and happiness are determined primarily by oneself.

Abraham Lincoln said that "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be". This is as true about work as anything else. I decided to be happy with my job and feel like I've succeeded at it. In just a few years my professional life has changed entirely. I stopped looking for reasons to be miserable and now feel a strong loyalty toward the company and a sense of gratitude for my job and my responsibilities. I don't dread Monday mornings anymore; I look forward to another week to get things done. Of course, I rarely accomplish everything I need to, but that just ensures that there's rarely a dull moment. I can still get frustrated with coworkers or with the bureaucracy, but I've found it a lot more productive to suck it up and tell myself 'I'll get through this' than to gripe about the situation.

The following is what I learned while on the path to enjoying my job:

1. Venting doesn't work
I have never vented my frustrations and felt better afterward. Nor have I seen others do so. It is completely and utterly non-productive as it simply reinforces negative feelings and attitudes while encouraging a (mostly false) sense of helplessness. Venting to others usually has the effect of either annoying them or encourages them to vent as well, resulting in a morale-destroying cycle. What I've witnessed over and over again has been angry employees bouncing their frustrations off each other and blaming everyone and everything else for their dissatisfaction. Participants in these discussions inevitably end up in a fouler mood and with even less appreciation for having a secure job in a shaky economy.

2. New employees are watching the older employees
A word of advice to more experienced/veteran employees: your attitude strongly affects your younger coworkers. The new guys have recently chosen to throw in their lot with the company. This is a serious decision that is hard to back out of. Your attitude will affect how they feel about the company and how they view their professional future. Whether you like it or not, new employees will look to you as a mentor and an example. If you are constantly complaining about the job, the management, etc., your attitude will be exaggerated in the newer employees who don't have enough experience to tell them otherwise. I cannot stress this point enough: DO NOT POISON THE NEW EMPLOYEES' MORALE! If you can't muster a good attitude, for the new guys' sakes keep your disgruntlement to yourself and let them decide for themselves whether or not the job is a good one.

3. Follow the golden rule and treat others as you would want to be treated
Unless you like to have people deal impatiently with you, to treat every interaction with you as an inconvenience, to yell at you, or to refuse to return your phone calls or emails, don't treat others this way. The simple act of returning a coworker's phone call as quickly as possible can go a long way toward making the workplace a lot less stressful. For every half-dozen or so fellow employees who let me down there is at least one individual whose work ethic, competence, and professionalism makes my job infinitely easier. Those people inevitably end up at the top of my list of people to commend to their managers or to help out if they ask for it. Much of a person's attitude towards his or her job is determined by the environment created by fellow employees. Do your best to make it a good environment and others just might reciprocate.

4. Do your job to the best of your ability
Throughout industry, a lot of young engineers are dismayed to find that very little of what they do involves cutting edge design work. In fact, engineers often do a surprising amount of writing. Although I do some limited designing, most of my job would be better described as process design and procedure writing. Even if your job isn't quite what you thought it would be, remember that you're being paid to do it. At a minimum, it's only honest to do what you're being paid to do as well as you can. Even better is to take pride in your work and strive for continual improvement. I wouldn't have thought that I'd be writing as much as I do, but I've come to enjoy the challenge of producing the best procedures and processes possible, to be proud of my successes, and to learn from my failures.

I've come to despise phrases like "good enough for government work". It's not the government's work, or the company's work, it's your work, whether you like it or not. It reflects on you: on your professionalism, on your competence, and on your dedication. Too often I've seen employees attempt to divorce themselves from their work and thus try to avoid taking responsibility for the quality of their product. On this subject, the late Admiral H.G. Rickover said:
Responsibility is a unique concept. It can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion or ignorance or passing the blame can pass the burden to someone else.
When doing a job - any job - one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever. He must look after his work just as conscientiously, as though it were his own business and his own money. [...] Too many spend their entire working lives looking for the next job. When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.
I have yet to meet a satisfied employee whose work product was poor. Of course, I'm not saying that unhappy employees are necessarily unproductive since I've often seen good work come from otherwise dissatisfied employees. I will say, however, that those who hate their jobs and therefore try to justify doing poor work will never be happy, and that those who value the quality of their work have a better chance of eventually coming to tolerate (or even to enjoy) their job.

[from The Far Side by Gary Larson]

5. Job satisfaction takes personal effort
If you're waiting for your boss or the management to make you happy, then I can guarantee that you'll find disappointment in the future. If you think that a change in policy or an increase in pay will finally make your job worth the effort, then you're hopelessly self-deluded. I have yet to see a disgruntled employee become satisfied through the efforts of others. On the contrary, I have often seen managers go out of their way to improve employees' happiness only to be met with cynicism and ingratitude. You must decide to have a positive attitude. You have to work at it. You have to learn to stop whining and to start counting your blessings. It was only when I learned this lesson that things turned around for me. And from what I've seen in the lives of others around me, I think I can safely say that this principle extends beyond the workplace and into everyday life. The happiest people I know are not the ones with the least difficulties or challenges, they're the ones who have consciously decided to be happy.

1 comment:

  1. I know Carl really appreciates you and all you do. Thanks for this post. It will really help me in my day-to-day household stuff that I've been struggling with.



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