Monday, April 4, 2022

Professional Detachment

Actions to take: Recognize when you are overinvested in the outcomes of work issues or decisions. Stop yourself from rash actions or rash communications on the matter. Take big-picture preventative measures such as having other passions, as well as more immediate measures such as consulting colleagues on the specific issue.

Have you ever been so sure you are right about something that you would move mountains to convince everyone?

One time, I was in a branch manager's meeting for a large library system when the chain of command announced a major change to our organizational structure. They were adding additional management positions to the branches. Great news, as I was directly supervising 25 people at the time. However, we weren't taking a traditional approach, like adding an assistant manager or department managers. Rather, the positions under the branch manager would supervise a cross section of the library—some shelvers, some desk workers, and some professional librarians each. As they explained, "It will be as though each supervisor has their own mini-library." 

I spent the remainder of the meeting in something akin to an adrenaline panic. I needed to change their minds about this plan. If I could come up with the right explanation, then surely they would see the problems that this kind of structure will cause. As soon as the meeting ended, I rushed to my boss to try to express my concerns. (I had not yet learned that there's no point in questioning decisions that are finalized.) Naturally, she brushed me off. Lots to do after any manager's meeting but especially one with an announcement this big. 

After work, I called some friends to vent and game plan my next steps. I couldn't sleep that night. At the next one-on-one with my boss, I laid out a comprehensive explanation of the problems with this kind of structure. I talked about how it would cause mass confusion about who was responsible for what, decision-making be knee-capped, etc. etc. etc. She listened patiently and delicately brushed me off once again. Later, I did the same thing with her boss. Eventually, I had a sit-down meeting with the executive director of the entire library system. Each person kindly and patiently brushed off my concerns. 

That week, the problem consumed me. I was up late every night unable to sleep. It was all I thought about. It was all I talked about with my spouse. I needed to help my organization avoid the crisis that I had decided would inevitably occur if we went through with the decision.

The organization went through with the decision. Of course we did. We already had gone through with the decision by the time I first heard about it. My worry, my mental energy, my passion about this issue only caused problems. It was a huge distraction from my day-to-day work, and it was time I could have been using to figure out how to implement the change as effectively as possible. It was a huge distraction and time-sink for the chain of command above me. 

There is such a thing as too much passion for your job. There are times when your level of emotional investment is a problem, not an asset. Here is what to do instead:

  1. Accept the limitations of your role: This suggestion alone deserves its own blog entry. It is not your job to fix certain problems. It is not your job to make certain decisions. When you try to fight battles that don't take place on your turf, so to speak, you will only end up resentful at your lack of effectiveness. Further, those problems and decisions belong to someone. When you step in to "fix" them, you are showing a lack of respect and trust for those people (who are usually your superiors).

  2. Take the long view: Think about five years ago. Do you remember the big issue like this one from five years ago? If no, that should tell you something about how important this one is in the grand scheme of things. If yes, did all of your flailing and warning amount to anything? Even if you were ultimately proven to be right, I bet all your work and worry didn't change the outcome. Channel the patience of President Lincoln and remind yourself, "This, too, shall pass."

  3. Consult with more experienced colleagues: An obvious one, but sometimes we need reminders to do the obvious things. It is calming simply to hear another person say that they've been though similar circumstances and made it out alive. I guarantee that your more experienced colleagues know what you are feeling. They can talk you through it and help you see your way to the other side. 

  4. Have other passions: Much of the problem with too much passion for the job comes from the fact that we can't think about anything else. If there is nothing for you to do about it, ruminating about a work issue is self-undermining. When you have other things to focus on, concerns about work recede into the background. Friends, family, video games, exercise, hobbies. Find anything that is engaging enough for you to commit your full mental energy to. 

The dose makes the poison. Anything is toxic when you get too much of it. Passion for your work is no exception. When you find yourself too emotionally involved in a decision at work, step back and breathe. Give yourself several days before deciding to voice your opinion. Don't just think about the outcome you want to see. Rather, think about the outcome you are likely to see. Accept that acceptance may be the only realistic path forward.

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