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What do you do? Or, How do we talk about our profession?

I rather like The Book of Life, which is part of The School of Life, founded in 2008 by philosopher Alain de Botton. The School and the Book both offer a secular approach to making our emotional lives more fulfilling. In particular, I was struck the other day by their piece on how our work shapes our entire lives
Given the number of waking hours that our work consumes, and the prevailing culture of overworking (be it real or perceived) in many sectors, it is worth interrogating what our jobs mean for us. The question, “What do you do?”, although tedious, is a common one, particularly at networking events or events with friends of friends who might not share our own interests. For those of us who spend much of our social time with work colleagues, like I do, work-chat more generally can consume much of our free time.
When talking about work, we often link it to objective events and activities, day-to-day tasks and connections with things that are in the news. To focus on the psychological requirements and consequences of our work, as the article suggests, offers a radical shift away from seeing ourselves as tools that produce action in the world to see, instead, the equally real but more intangible human elements of our work. 
The question that the article poses is: “What is the psychological character of your work?” To answer requires deeper thought about elements of our professional lives that perhaps we do not think about very much at all. Except in my most cynical moments, I tend not to think about the emotional toll of my toil, or indeed the emotional rewards of it. Yet, of course, my work encourages certain of my traits and weakens others. The article suggests a set of possible traits to consider in formulating our answers to these questions:
  • Patience vs impatience: is the job ‘fire-fighting’ or strategic planning?
  • Suspicious vs trusting: does the job require getting at the hidden truth, or working with people who are upfront?
  • Speculative vs concrete: are you focused on innovation and what-might-be, or carefully attending to practical details of the here-and-now?
  • Consensus-seeking vs independent: is the ability to take a collective view more important than taking a personal viewpoint or offering an unusual approach?
  • Optimistic vs pessimistic: are you encouraged to focus on the positives, or to tackle dangers, pitfalls, and looming disasters?
  • Financially focused vs sheltered from finance: does status in the profession vary hugely with wealth, and the work encourage thinking in terms of profit-and-loss?
  • Fragile dignity vs solid status: are workers subject to deep rebuffs, with work in which they are heavily invested emotionally being easily and frequently rejected? Do capacity or qualifications dictate success?
  • Better nature vs worse nature: does the job remind you of the best in life, or introduce you to the worst of human nature?
  • Logical vs haphazard hierarchy: is it clear how progress and promotion are earned, or is there a strong element of chance, leading to anxiety and distrust? 
  • A declining vs growing industry: does it feel as though the golden age of your profession is past, or is it emerging into new arenas?

It might be possible to establish a generic profile for work, such as in academia. I am not, currently, an academic, but I am a PhD student, as well as holding down a full-time job in an organisation with some clear homologies with academia. I often think of whether or not I wish to jump ship and move into academia. Perhaps the way to make the best decision is to think not of the tasks that the job requires, but to think of the psychological profile of the career path. It would be easy to construct an ideal image of academia, founded on trust — a meritocratic, rational set of peers — and solid status, but that is clearly not the experience of a large number of people working in the industry. So, for those currently working as academics, how would you sum up the psychological profile of your job, and its impact on you?

Image used under a creative commons licence

The purpose of line management

As well as it being that time of year again (i.e. annual appraisal rounds), I am just returning to a role with line management responsibilities, so the function of line management was very much on my mind when I ran across a blogpost on Medium (@Medium) about how they run their review processes: MadLibs. Okay, that sounds at first like an off-the-wall, ‘only in California’ approach, but Gabe Kleinman makes a persuasive case.

I think almost every organisation that surveys its employees regularly will find that complaints such as ‘better line management’ and ‘more focus on learning and development’ crop up routinely and persistently. It sounds like Medium has come up with a way to break the cycle of complaint –> HR ‘innovation’ –> patchy implementation –> complaint. Rather than laborious soul-searching assessments or ‘off-the-peg’ feedback, their approach sets out some key issues that should be addressed in any feedback process and makes it easy. Those feeding back (including as part of ‘360’ appraisal) answer questions like:

  1. I can count on [x] to ___
  2. When things are going badly, [x] does/is ___ and ___
  3. Some areas for growth include ___ and ___
Gage’s post describes in more detail how Medium implement their approach in practice, but what I think is key is the values that are implicit in this approach: that the heart of line management is developing staff. On a day-to-day basis, there is the assignment of work, and there’s always management by exception, being able and willing to intervene when things within the team or with an individual’s work is going poorly, but these are really the manager fulfilling their responsibilities to the company or organisation; where managers can really add value is in how they fulfil their responsibility to direct-reports: facilitating learning and development. An appraisal system like the one Gabe describes puts this front-and-centre, instead of systems that focus on how well the direct-report has done in serving the company, ticking off objectives, which essentially opts the manager out of the most challenging but important element of the line-management relationship.
I am definitely going to be giving some thought to how the principles and ideas behind Medium’s approach could be integrated in my organisation, and in my own line management!

Career progression and careerism

I think I am not too much of a careerist. I enjoy having a lot of pans in the fire; I did better in my liberal arts degree when I had more courses, rather than fewer; I have a history of studying on the side of whatever I am doing ‘full time’ (work or, indeed, other studies). I have a certain admiration for those at work who are blatant careerists, successfully manoeuvring themselves into various prestigious posts, sometimes at quite a lick, because I find it impossible to make the prestige of the job itself my sole focus. Nevertheless, I wonder whether this might harm my career.

I’ve spent the last few weeks applying for promotion and preparing for an interview to that effect (hence the silence here), and I want to reflect on some of the questions and insecurities that chasing career highs can throw up in some sectors. This post was prompted in part by Presmued Incompetent (well worth reading), and in part by a junior colleague asking one simple question about the promotion process: ‘Do you think it really all comes down to whether they like you?’

I don’t work in higher ed (the focus of Presumed Incompetent) at the moment, but my public-sector employer is similar to a HE institution in some respects: a relatively small organisation staffed by a small corps of ‘lifers’ and others who float in and out, giving rise to a constant undercurrent of ‘churn’ (and of being overstretched); ostensibly professionalised and yet not quite there; and vaguely militaristic in its culture of duty and service. And because it is small and relies so heavily on a culture of behaviour to which everyone is expected to conform, ‘whether they like you’ lurks beneath the surface of career progression ostensibly based on ‘competences’ and ‘people strategies’.

As a person who can be task-focused, my immediate (slightly paranoid) reaction to the question of whether it’s all about likeability is, ‘I hope not!’. I spend less time sizing up my senior colleagues to identify which of them might be ‘useful’ than some of my peers. Liking someone and judging whether they meet the required competences are, however, so often intertwined, that the question needs exploring.

I have some faith in the objectivity of our HR function. If one were failing badly with respect of a competence, one would know about it sharpish, and any interviewing panel would not be swayed by personal preferences. But what about if one is failing/passing arguably? This makes me uncomfortable. I am happy to argue for myself, but if, in the closed room, senior colleagues are arguing for or against me, then does it all really come down to whether they like me and my attitude to the job? And is that why, instinctively, knowing that I am not really ‘clubbable’ (I can sometimes be mouthy about my feminism and atheism, and terse when over-worked, and erratically dressed…) I come to rely on my willingness to work hard, taking on the things that need doing but are lacking in prestige, hoping that this will be a saving grace in terms of ‘like’.

This approach has its Type-A resonances. It still has the sense of careerism about it, with decisions about resources being made on the basis of hoping to progress, but it is the (discredited) flip-side of careerism that many women find themselves trapped by, when in a number of workplaces saying ‘no’ to certain tasks (and pursuing certain others) is really valued, rather than contributing heavily across the board.

I am suspicious that, even when trying to play my career the way that my most careerist male colleagues do, I can still fall into the trap of letting myself be sucked into ‘service’. When I do think that I am acting in a careerist fashion – such as applying for, and taking, a role that involved temporary promotion – later experience leads me to wonder whether I have shot myself in the foot. Far from being a wonderful stepping stone, taking that role benefited the manager who advised me to apply (no one else applied!) and prevented me from taking part in a number of development and learning opportunities that might (I’ll have to wait and see) have helped me achieve a permanent promotion more easily. Perhaps I lack the discernment necessary to be a successful careerist. But what if that is (secretly) one of the competences for promotion?

Whatever happens, this promotion round might be revealing in terms of how careerist I need to be in order to progress in the organisation. I’ll need to take stock of how (typically) careerist I want to/can be, how ruthless in accepting or refusing tasks based on their clear connection to a further promotion rather than how much I personally enjoy and value the tasks (e.g. induction training for new colleagues). Whether I succeed or not, this is a litmus test for whether my values match up with my organisation’s, at least at the upper levels.

At the lower levels, I sort of already know the answer. Because what gets to me is a sense of paranoia, thinking that my careerist peers will be shaking their heads at my foolishness and chuckling because it helps them. If I were to stop approaching my job on the basis of my own values, passion and enthusiasm, it would be not because I want to beat everyone, but because I fear being (and appearing to be) beaten, particularly as a woman, knowing that female careers are often stalled by a willingness to take on too much, spreading ourselves too thinly.

Career advice from the “pros”?

So, occasionally I get emails from Experience.com. I don’t know when this started happening—I think at the end of my first year I got home and found that they had sent me some junky mail, and happened to think it might be interesting, so it’s probably my own fault. I generally don’t read their emails, but occasionally they suggest an article or whathaveyou that might look interesting, so I read it. Often for the mocks. Sometimes they’re so simplistic, I have to assume my cohort is comprised mainly of idiots. Other times, they’re just funny in and of themselves.

Take this one by Rands Pantelones (you can find his own blog here), entitled A Glimpse and a Hook: Confessions of a Hiring Manager. It has some good advice: people are reading your resume fast; everyone knows buzzwords are going to be fudged, so don’t be an idiot and put down something you can’t talk about; etc. It’s also full of hypocrisy.

Take this paragraph:

Sound like a human. Here’s a doozy, this intern says he “planned, designed, and coordinated engineers efforts for the development of a mission critical system”. ZzzzzzzzzzZzz. What did this guy actually do? I honestly don’t know. Let’s call this type of writing style resume mumbo jumbo and let’s agree that usage of this style is tantamount to saying nothing at all.

Okay, probably not bad advice, right? Indeed, rather good advice, as not only is this lacking in concrete information, but it sounds down-right suspicious, doesn’t it? This is an intern, after all. I would be very inclined to take Mr. Pantelones seriously if only for one thing. He can’t take his own advice. The entire essay begins thus:

While hiring phenomenal teams is the most important thing I do, I’m balancing that task with the fact that I need to build product and manage the endless stream of people walking into my office.

Product? Product? What product, sir? Mumbo jumbo much? “Product” probably tops quite a few of those lists about office mumbo jumbo that people despise (I just can’t be bothered to find them right now).

Oh, and “hiring phenomenal teams” sounds like something that comes out of every recruiters’ and employers’ brochure to make themselves better and more important than they really are, so they will get our attention (ditto “endless stream”).

Rands suggests that he’s made some pretty bad hiring choices, and he does seem to love his mumbo jumbo, as much as he claims otherwise. So, if someone were treating his resume the way he argues all hiring managers do, would he get a job? I think all Experience.com readers should think about that when they’re wondering how much credence to give to his depiction of resume consideration. What a shame there’s no comments section on that site…

That being said, I think Mr. Pantelones is probably good at his job. He just goes to show how prevalent all the ‘mistakes’ (embellishment, mumbo jumbo, etc.) really are in the job market-place these days, and you sort of have to laugh a bit at the irony, don’t you?

A quartet of ‘new’ poets

Bookslut has an interesting feature about four ‘new’ female poets: Anna Leahy, Kate Greenstreet, Nicole Cooley, and Nancy Kuhl. They have some interesting things to say about the terms ‘new’ or ’emerging’. It’s really interesting to hear what Kuhl, in particular, has to say:

I have mixed feelings about the term — on the one hand, of course, it might be said that we are all always emerging, but at what point has one emerged? And after emerging, then what? Has Nicole, with her third collection now forthcoming, slipped or propelled herself into that other dubious category: mid-career? I know other terms are no better or more accurate — many who might be called emerging poets are not new or young or beginning — but I do wish we had a reasonable alternative. Maybe simply “first-book poets.”

I think I’ve been writing poetry and prose fiction on and off since I was a seven-year-old playing with my grandmother’s typewriter. If I were to ever actually publish a whole book, would I be ’emerging’? Emerging where? Into the public sphere, perhaps? But in and of myself? I’m sure these four feel the same way. From the way Leahy describes her own experience of getting published, ’emerging’ is perhaps not even the right term; it almost feels like, at least in that situation, she was caught on a wave that someone else (the industry, perhaps?) was propelling.

I love writing, and I wish I had time to do more of it. It’s quite encouraging to hear about the experiences, both in writing and publishing, of other people.

PS: Leahy has a very interesting article soon to be published in Legacy about whether or not there is such a thing as ‘women’s poetry’ anymore. Bookmark it if you like these sorts of things!

When does the New Year start?

No, the answer is not “00:01 on 1st January”, thank you very much. I think most people will agree that, in fact, the New Year begins where the holiday season ends: going back to work. In my case, the New Year started yesterday, when I flew back to Boston for the final time. (Can you sense the excitement?) I flew with American Airlines, not wholly of my own volition; I bought the tickets on Priceline‘s “name your own price” service, where you don’t find out your airline until after you’ve booked. In my experience, American Airlines have old planes, which means poor entertainment systems (think back to ye olden days of one screen mounted on the ceiling showing one reel of PG films/sit-coms), mediocre food, and in this particular case poor staff (because I turned down the initial drink offering—I had my own bottle of water with me, and I don’t like to be wasteful—when the actual meal came around the hostess then asked me snidely, “Will you be eating?”). Still, I got back in one piece, and that’s the main thing.

As I’d booked a morning-afternoon flight, I got back in fairly good shape and not overly tired, so I went to the gym. I’ll confess, however, that it wasn’t solely my willpower driving me to the gym. It was the fact that the night before, my father and I had watched Claire Sweeney’s Big Fat Diet. I thought that it might be a bit like awful, rubbish celebrity ‘reality’ tv, but it wasn’t. I felt so much empathy for Claire as she embarked upon what was essentially the ‘living as you want’ diet. Watching her health risks rise scared both me and my father, aside from the shocking visuals of how only 3 weeks without exercise or controlled diet can begin to radically change one’s body shape.

Between watching that and getting back here (where deadlines suddenly seem far more real and close), my New Year has definitely leapt out of the gates after what threatened to be a sluggish start!

Breasts, breasts, breasts…

Society does seem obsessed with them, when we stop to think about it. If this title caught your eye, then consider yourself part of society, and ask yourself why while reading this excellent article over at The F-Word, which I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Bold and wonderfully open, it can’t help but be a little troubling as well, particularly this paragraph, which I present to you now, teaser-style (somewhat ironically, given that it’s about breasts…):

Nowadays things are much better. I’ve got better at dressing to make my breasts look smaller (not that I should have to, although I would choose to anyway), and looking older means that I get less unwanted attention (not that I should have received unwanted attention when I was younger either, and not that I am exactly geriatric at 25). I no longer feel like a sex object every waking moment. I no longer hate my breasts and I no longer feel that they’re unwanted appendages. I would definitely like them to be smaller and I won’t pretend otherwise, but they feel like part of me, rather than the disembodied udders that they used to feel like. I’m still not happy though. Why should I ever have felt that way? Why should I have had to have struggled so hard to be respected and taken seriously?