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Why Aussie Workers Are Worried About Their Status (Or Lack Of It) At Work

There seems to be an inverse correlation between an out-of-control world and the pursuit of personal control.

10/11/2017 7:43 AM AEDT | Updated 10/11/2017 7:50 AM AEDT
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"Our workplace status has become super important and we get hypersensitive about any affronts to it."

Status anger. We're increasingly experiencing it in our workplaces.

"I need to be kept in the loop on that issue."

"Why wasn't I cc-ed on that email?"

"Please brief me on what was discussed at that meeting."

"It would be good to understand why I wasn't promoted in the last round."

This is more than just the usual birdsong of a modern office. When we listen and watch closely, like we do from behind the one-way mirror in focus groups, we see and hear the emotional potency behind these types of statements and behaviours.

The soundtrack of our working life seems to have a strong rhythm section of anxiety and resentment, as well as a frustrated desire for the solos of our personal aspiration and self-belief.

On the one hand, many Australian employees seem to have strong negative feelings about not being appropriately included and regarded. On the other hand, they seem to see themselves positively -- capable of more than just their current lot in the cubicle.

And the data echoes the countless conversations and endless email strings. A 2016 survey of Australian employees by Reventure, a think tank about workplaces, found that half of the participants were intending to look for a new job the following year. Only 47 percent felt they received recognition at work, and a third believed they had the support needed to advance their careers.

What's going on here? What's giving rise to this newish discontent about whether employees see themselves fitting in or not fitting in?

The Transparency Trap.

It's hard to find an organisation nowadays that doesn't commit to 'transparency' and 'inclusivity' in its values statements and cultural pieces. Spell check would probably pick out their omission if it were to occur. But words are promises and people attach themselves to promises; when we promise to be open about our actions and to involve staff in decisions, we promise a lot.

Frankly, it's often more than we can realistically deliver, as some boss always has to make the final decision about hiring, firing, and handing out finite resources toward infinite workloads. There can be a disconnection between saying "let's involve everybody" and then operating within a strategy and structure.

When we're not careful about setting the boundaries of transparency and inclusion, we end up creating expectations that no hierarchical organisation is truly designed to meet. Or, as a guy I know in a flowing-orange robe says, "Expectations are premeditated resentments".

Interestingly, organisations like parliamentary political parties and the military seem to have less regular outbreaks of status anger, probably because folks like backbenchers and non-commissioned officers are clearer on where they stand (which is pretty much in a dung-heap, but at least a certain dung-heap).

Conversely, the current saga on dual citizenship -- new to the political landscape -- classically speaks to people being extremely concerned with their status and legitimacy.

The Control Craze.

I'm not sure I have to produce heaps of 'proof points' for the statement: The world can be a scary and kind of f*cked-up place. Others have commented on how random factors like terrorism and mass shootings impact on our sense of confidence about what we can control and influence, e.g. bugger all.

And then there's the impact of non-random factors like economic globalisation and digital transformation. Or, as one CEO said to me, "People like me get excited about innovation. People on my shop floor think it means they're about to lose their jobs".

When you can't control what's bigger than and beyond you, you logically try to exert maximum control over what's immediately at hand: your home, your lifestyle, your food, and your job. It's what makes you feel safer and more secure against the figurative saber-toothed tigers.

Indeed, there seems to be an inverse correlation between an out-of-control world and the pursuit of personal control. Hence, perceived threats to that personal control at the office -- my role, my title, my office space, my ergonomic chair, my team members -- get met with classic 'fight or flight'. We tend to either jack up at work colleagues or walk out the door.

The Social Reshuffle.

We're moving from living in real, connected communities with things like neighbours (we actually know), P&Cs and RSLs to self-selected, digital communities. Once upon a time, there were opportunities to have status -- the respect of our peers, social standing and sense of purpose -- through non-work structures like clubs, religious organisations, youth groups and cooperative societies. People could be both posties and Presidents of Probus at the same time. In the virtual world, status is a problematic proposition that's about 'likes' on your Facebook updates and followers you've never met.

As a result, people turn to the tangible for their status affirmation and the meaning that it lends to our lives; namely to our workplaces where we now spend the majority of our time. The same Reventure survey found that a whopping 72 percent of employees are now searching for meaning and purpose through their work.

Our workplace status has become super important and we get hypersensitive about any affronts to it. I overheard a professional caterer at a café say this when meeting with a volunteer group about an upcoming fundraiser: "I'll ask you not to question my reputation. My baked ham has been raved about by more people than you could possibly count".

In addition to not criticising the pork products, here are some things I am seeing leaders implementing to help their folks, and themselves, navigate these unsettled societal seas.

Coffee.

Honesty always cuts through the clutter. It seems the most honest we are with each other is when we ask for that peace-making coffee; it's what changes the conversation from the superficial forms of workplace conflict to what's really going on here. It's up to bosses to lead by example and promote cultures where people can speak with true candour and without fear of repercussion. We have the best baristas in the world. Use them to regularly talk about what people really want to know: What's in it for me? What's my trajectory and its timeline?

Check-ins.

Somehow, over the course of the Industrial Revolution and beyond, we decided it was a good idea to leave our emotions (our true selves and our integrity) at home before catching the horse-drawn cart, train or self-driving car to work. It wasn't. It's called denial and isn't sustainable.

In a recent workplace where I was boss, I got zip from my reports when we talked 'Work in Progress'. But when I'd ask them "What's really worrying you right now?" or "What are your feelings about this issue?" I got a lot, and hopefully they did too. When we say it's okay to have feelings and emotions in a workplace, and provide opportunities to air them, we unlock the value of a huge and underutilised asset. It's called our humanity.

Conscious Computing. (Or Mindful Meetings or Woke Workshopping -- you get the picture).

I once met an extremely well-trained commercial pilot at a party and he told me, "I do basically nothing. Autopilot does it all". He was, in short, extremely unfulfilled with his work (but it pays the private school fees nicely, thank you very much).

The metaphor applies. Psychological auto-pilot in any job -- grinding through emails, filling up Outlook Calendar, sneak-peaking at Facebook that goes from five minutes to 50 minutes to five hours -- is demoralising.

An alternative that some North American digital commentators are suggesting is 'conscious computing' or the deliberate practice of being self-aware and mindful about what you're doing with that keyboard and that screen in the current moment.

It's about regularly asking ourselves: What am I doing to positively contribute, or to learn and develop as a person, through these devices right now? This seems really sensible from a health perspective considering we spend the majority of our waking lives online.

Rather than the enforced artificiality of 'digital detox' and unplugging from the Matrix, it's a more practical technique to avoid becoming a workplace zombie who gets occasionally riled up when finding out you didn't get that meeting ping.

Speaking of which, my phone hasn't gone off today. I won't be worried.

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