Dealing With and Solving Career Problems

You'll find “spud peeling,” conflicts, frustrations, and crises in every job. The knowledge of your strengths gained through it, can help you cope with career difficulties and suggest positive alternative ways to solve your problems.

Change itself is a good place to start our discussion. The variety of changes affecting careers are accelerating almost daily. These include departmental and company mergers and divestitures, reorganizations, technological advances, changed product lines, cutbacks, new corporate expectations and aspirations.

As long as you, like almost everyone else, base your identity on your job title, changes are likely to accentuate your fears and retard or stop your progress. But most of the identity crises arising from change can be avoided.

The following example is probably outside your area of experience, so you may view it objectively.

A coal miner in Appalachia has been out of work for more than ten years. H e and his family are on public welfare. He tells a social worker, “My grandfather was a coal miner; my father was a coal miner; I was born a coal miner; and I'll die a coal miner.”

The social worker says, “But your chances of getting a job in the mines is nil; they don't need any more coal miners.”

Clinging to his identity, the desperate man replies, “I was born a coal miner and I will die a coal miner.”

He was convinced to participate in a “System to Identify Motivated Skills” or (S.I.M.S.) career assessment project.

The coal miner's greatest achievement was winning second prize for developing a special-color hybrid rose. Next was helping several members of his garden club arrange their gardens. Third was recognizing a color-change signal that warned of an impending explosion. He got the mine cleared and saved many lives. His fourth achievement was winning his foreman's approval for high production and for cutting straight seams in the coal mine. Fifth, sixth, and seventh again related to his gardening activities. He had grown things since early childhood.

When he saw that his color sense had enabled him to observe the warning signal and grow the hybrid rose, that his love of physical activity had inspired him to work outdoors and to produce in the coal mines, that his sense of spatial relationships and orderliness had enabled him to arrange gardens and cut straight coal seams, he realized that he had inherited not just the coal miner “title.” He learned to appreciate his special variety of motivated skills or strengths and adapted to a new career in gardening and tree care. He soon got off welfare and earned a good living.

A special word on change should be added for professional and management women who feel their talents have atrophied while they raised their families. The S.I.M.S. process and functional self-analysis probably will help you see how you have maintained most of your skills - although you have not applied them to traditional employment activities. You do not lose your career identity even though you may change the way you apply your skills. The woman who organizes a car pool to transport the neighborhood kids to school is applying her talent for organizing. The woman who volunteers to sit for a group of preschool children, gets them involved in learning games, and otherwise helps them develop is demonstrating her strengths in teaching and child care.

The “bridging” quality in S.I.M.S. also has proved helpful to overseas managers who have returned to the United States. The change problem in this situation is the very real difference between being part of the American colony abroad and returning to live in America. Many job and personal relationships are radically different, and often job content and title are different. These differences affect one's self-confidence and identity.

Another area of change with which managers must deal is firing people. That should be done with genuine kindness - not with money (the golden handshake), not just keeping a person on the payroll until he gets a new job, not even helping him find a similar job. Real kindness, and the minimizing of management's guilt feelings, is effected by what I call continuing employment.

The Continuing Employment Principle

Every person terminated, except for cause, tends to feel he is unwanted and to some degree useless. These feelings greatly hamper his chances of getting another job quickly, or of getting a better or different one. This is what happens when contracts are canceled and thousands are let go so the organization may survive and continue to provide employment for the thousands who are left. It is what happens when men and women are part of a general reduction in force for whatever “good” reason. The only exception that comes to mind is when men and women are discharged from military service. Even then their unemployment, however temporary, quickly causes self-deprecation.

The continuing employment principle helps terminated employees know their strengths and potential, not their limitations. It helps them recognize how these strengths can be organized so as to be valuable to another employer. It uncovers hidden talents that can make people more employable, trains them to find their own jobs, and shows them how to make best use of available public and private placement services.

The Humble Oil Company and Exxon Corporation pioneered this approach in 1960. The results were widely publicized both in company publications and in publications of the National Association of Manufacturers and Research Institute of America. One-third of the first group of 44 released management and professional people were helped to change vocations without the need for retraining. They experienced really new starts in life, at pay levels averaging within 5 percent of their prior levels. Forty-three were in comparable jobs within a hundred days.

This is too close to perfection to expect repetition. But S.I.M.S. and the continuing employment approach to termination usually insure 70 percent reemployment within 90 days. And more than one-third are able to change their vocations successfully without the need for retraining.

Any large organization can have in-house capability to effect the continuing employment principle. A group of companies could establish the facilities for providing such service for employers and employees in any city. The availability of this service to terminated employees would help managers cope with the distasteful task of firing.

Resistance to change, being less fearful of the devil you know than of whatever devils may come with change, always will be present. Upgrading of the quality of management and professional life, any improvement, is change. Progress, which is one person's meat, can seem like poison to another, but it cannot be stopped. Improved ways need to be found to spread the benefits of progress. S.I.M.S. is one way to turn changes into bridges to a generally higher quality of life.

Knowing your strengths can be advantageous in dealing with the parts of your job you dislike. First, the parts that do give you satisfaction will be aligned with your strengths. You can more easily identify these parts and therefore become aware of the other parts. Ordinarily, the parts you dislike will infrequently constitute more than a third of your job, usually less than a quarter of it.

The confusion over motivated strengths and unmotivated ones can be illustrated by an example. Plant management had just begun to move from Theory X management toward the Theory Y style of participative management. The supervisors knew how to give orders, but not how to share responsibility. The new vice-president wanted the new management style accelerated, so he asked his headquarters to send a team of psychologists and trainers to train the supervisors in cooperative problem solving.

One of these professionals decided to apply S.I.M.S. to the situation. He worked with groups of six supervisors at a time.

On the walls of the meeting room hung one large sheet of paper for each supervisor. After the introductions, the trainer asked, “Would you be able to identify the parts of your job you like so much that you wish you had more similar tasks ?” The men had expected to be asked what their problems were so they could be discussed and worked on jointly. It took some explaining to get them to understand - and believe - what was desired. Then each went to his sheet and began to list five or more parts of his job that he liked best.

It took a while, and they needed every bit of the encouragement given. When they had completed their lists, the trainer opened the meeting to discussion.

After a long silence, one supervisor exploded. “Joe,” he shouted, turning to the man next to him, “we've worked side by side for more than eight years and you never told me that you enjoyed training new employees. I hate that part of my job. If I had known, I'd have asked you to train some of mine and I would gladly have taken over any part of the job you don't like.”

Soon each man was willing to discuss first the satisfying parts of his job, then talk about the other parts. Then they began to help one another find solutions to their problems. By getting each to open up about job satisfactions and achievements first, thereby establishing each as competent in his own way, the trainer made it possible for the supervisors to move on to problem solving or coping.

The Partnership Of Excellence

There are four main ways people use to cope with parts of their jobs they dislike. The most popular approach is to be sloppy. Many people become careless when they have no interest in the things they have to do.

Nearly as popular is ignoring the task, almost hoping it will disappear through neglect, and that some “poor slob” will think little enough of himself to take it on.

A third style is adopted by the perfectionist. Such a person wants to be sure each part of his job is done perfectly, even if it kills him – sometimes, it does. (There is a relationship between doing frustrating, dissatisfying work and peptic ulcers, arthritis, and neuroses.) The perfectionist approach to disliked tasks is particularly grueling. Because people are so easily distracted from such jobs, they often take longer than seems reasonable. This approach often is used to please a supervisor and get a promotion. But, because of good results, the person may get saddled with even more displeasing tasks and wind up in an unbreakable cycle.

The fourth style is called the partnership of excellence. It seems to be the easiest choice, as well as the most effective one.

It begins with the recognition that there is excellence in each person and that there is dignity in every kind of work activity. There is no dirty work; there is no work that is demeaning to everyone. The activities that drive you up the wall are not enough to “drive anyone crazy,” and they are not activities that only an idiot would do willingly. (Admittedly, some tasks have been oversimplified. Tightening nut nine on bolt nine all day long has dulled or hypnotized people doing well at that task. Fortunately, large numbers of organizations are on the way to truly enriching such oversimplified tasks.)

Once you get the idea that different tasks use different forms of excellence in different people, you will not look down on those who enjoy doing work you find most unpleasant. When you reach that point, you begin to use the partnership of excellence concept.

Assume you have identified those parts of your job that relate most closely to your strengths and have therefore isolated the parts you would rather be without. If there are 14 parts to your job, eight might directly apply your strengths. Two involve skills you don't particularly care about using, but you must do these tasks to perform your job. The other four you would rather drop, but cannot do so at the moment.

Going at it this way, you already have isolated the four most irritating parts of your job.

Your next move in the partnership of excellence approach is to look around for someone who would enjoy doing those four parts of your job as much as you enjoy the eight you have listed as satisfying. With your new attitude of respect for such persons - you might previously have looked down on them for taking on such tasks - you are likely to find someone more than willing to take over two of the parts. You may also learn he dislikes some parts of his job that you would enjoy doing. You may even be able, albeit unofficially, to swap these job parts, and both may gain by it. The organization would gain two increasingly satisfied managers, and four tasks would be done more reliably - and probably more effectively.

This concept gives “aliveness” to job content. It also establishes relationships based on each person's respect for the competencies of others and enhances cooperation among those who share the approach. It makes a person both selfish and generous, in that he retains the parts of the job he likes while giving someone else the opportunity to do more of what that person likes to do.

Shifting activities usually takes time, but the time can be shortened by cooperative planning with your supervisor. While the shift in your activities is in the planning stage, you may have to work harder at the tasks you dislike. Some of the frustration will be softened, however, because you can expect to find others who will more than willingly relieve you of most of them.

When you have arranged to switch some of your tasks with your co-workers, you'll of course need to let your boss in on what is going on and why. He should be pleased with having your energies released for more productive application in the areas of your greatest strengths.

This takes us into communication – the day-by-day contacts between managers and employees and annual reviews or appraisals. Annual review and problem-solving meetings will be dealt with here as “coping” elements.

Some managers think: “The appraisal data we collect on employees are just worthless.” That is extreme, but it is not very far from the general condition: “Some managers won't say anything critical; others won't say anything specific.”

Most managers view annual reviews as a waste of time. Their subordinates often share that view. These conferences, designed for a supervisor to “help” subordinates “improve,” are usually followed by a drop in productivity for at least three months.

Fortunately, the concepts of behavioral scientists are making some headway. Several organizations are using B. F. Skinner's process of positively reinforcing (or praising) the behavior and outcomes a manager wants to be repeated. Increasingly they are applying the theories of Frederick Herzberg and Abraham Maslow, recognizing that most people are at a level of development where they want recognition, encouragement, and challenges to the best that is in them, that they are seekers, in Maslow's terminology, of self-actualization, and that there is little payoff (temporary at best) from traditional approaches to motivation such as higher pay, improved working conditions, modifications of policy, and other factors peripheral to the actual task. These are dissatisfaction-avoidance factors; they do not directly motivate. On the other hand, the research shows, satisfiers, or motivators, are such factors as achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement, and other self-actualizing elements.

One company that uses the Skinner-Herzberg-Maslow approaches saw a cut in absenteeism of more than 1,000 employees from 11 percent to 4 ½ percent in less than a year. These approaches helped another company cut its freight costs more than half a million dollars a year over a three-year period.

Some behaviorists believe they can identify “non-motivatable” workers.

But this conflicts with my finding that each person does have excellence in him and does have motivated skills. Undoubtedly most managerial problems come from those who would be classified as dissatisfied. Examination of the studies referred to indicates the failure to find ways to identify and release the skills people are motivated to use. It appears that the so-called non-motivatable persons have temporarily given up efforts to develop or to find positions that turn them on.

With the team approach, it is effective in renewing and changing the careers of men and women on welfare rolls, hard-core unemployed youth, ex-convicts, early-retired persons, women long out of the workforce as well as management and professional people. The great majority participating in career assessment seminars, for different purposes, have gained lasting renewal through learning more about themselves, expanding their perception of their usefulness, and realistically taking the blinders off and seeing new horizons.

An Approach To Career Renewal

Dissatisfied workers are not the only ones who bring problems to management. All people have problems, and most of them cannot be scratched away. One rarely used approach to people-problem solving could be very helpful. The following example will show how it works.

A company sent two levels of managers to a career development workshop. Some of them were doing well and needed only a clearer understanding of their goals. Others were on the verge of being terminated if their attitudes and productivity didn't improve soon.

One in the latter category, it turned out, had been sliding in his career for two years. Assistant to a sales manager, he was seen as a comer and had performed like one since he had been hired out of college ten years earlier. Creative ideas and sales inventiveness were among his greatest strengths, but he hadn't been contributing in those areas for two years. He did what he was asked to, but no more. He passed the salt (but not the adjacent pepper) when asked for the salt.

Following the group identification process, he commented about his lack of contributions during the two years : “I guess I stopped giving ideas to my boss after he turned down one of my ideas. I got the feeling that he didn't want my ideas anymore; so I figured if that's what he wants, that's what he'll get. I decided to do just what I was told, and no more. I can see now that I was only cheating myself. I have many ideas on how to improve things. Keeping them inside made me feel more and more guilty and is causing me to withdraw from relationships. I'm going to stop this stupid business.”

And he did. Two months later, after he had done some outstanding work, his boss gave him a raise and told him that if he had not changed just about that time, the raise could just as easily have been a pink slip. When it became clear this junior manager had become minimally cooperative, his supervisor, Bill, could have handled it on a personal basis:

BILL: Jim, I've noticed you seem to have something on your mind. I'm not going to pry, but I may have some suggestions that could help you get over those problems – whatever they are. Let's talk for half an hour, or have lunch.

During this period, Bill would be very careful not to pry.

BILL: I suppose you've had problems before in your life just like everyone else – and you've overcome or survived them. Right?

JIM: I've had my share of troubles.

BILL: Each of us has some inner strengths to help us overcome problems. I'm not going to give you any religious talk. I do want to help you remember the strengths you used to get by your troubles in the past. They might be helpful to you this time as well. Is that a possibility?

JIM: Could be. But I know myself pretty well.

BILL: Yes, but when we have heavy things on our minds, all of us tend to forget those strengths for a while. I'd like to get you remembering what your strengths are without asking you to answer any questions. I will ask you some questions, but I don't want you to give me the answers.

JIM: What's the big mystery?

BILL: I just want you to be aware of the strengths you have to help you overcome whatever problems you have. Your strengths, just like those of everyone else, are most likely to have been used when you do things you feel have been achievements. Right?

JIM : Okay.

BILL: When you remember enough achievements, experiences when you did things well that you also enjoyed doing, you'll be able to see a pattern of your strengths. Now I'll ask you a few questions that I hope will help you see this pattern. It may enable you to know which strengths to use to overcome whatever may be bothering you now. The first question may seem unrelated, perhaps silly, but it will start you remembering things. Make a mental note of the earliest achievement you can recall, something, perhaps, you did before you were ten. [Pause]

Now, think about a few achievements you had during the past five years. [Pause]

Next, think about a couple of achievements during your college years – things that might or might not have been concerned with your studies. [Pause]

Now, think of three or four of your greatest achievements during the past ten years, achievements connected with any part of your life. [Pause]

Now, keeping them all in mind as best you can, try to see some skills that you used repeatedly to make those experiences happen. [Pause]

When you recognize the repeated skills - some of your dependable strengths - you'll be better able to overcome your present problem and whatever others may trouble you in the future.

Jim may or may not say anything. If he has nodded or signaled at all during these questions, he will have associated Bill with his achievements and will have partially regained the warmth of the old relationship. He will be sure to know Bill sees him as a person with uniqueness, not just as someone else who takes orders. Jim will have been helped to stop feeling sorry for himself and reach a point where he knows he often has overcome difficulties and is an achiever. This boost to his self-confidence is likely to get him moving again.

The S.I.M.S. approach to people-problem solving can safely be used by an amateur along the lines given in the above example. It very quickly moves the person from being a part of the problem to becoming a contributor to the solution. It helps the person help himself by looking at many past successful demonstrations of his abilities.

Because S.I.M.S. helps in so many areas, it is necessary to make clear once again that S.I.M.S. is one contributing system, not a panacea.

Overcoming Conflicts

In this coping-problem-solving article, there is one more area to be covered – conflicts.

All behavioral approaches to conflict management point to the boss's opinion of his subordinates' competence as contributing to conflicts. The manager who knows, or suspects, that someone is not competent sooner or later will reveal his attitude through his actions. Such actions may involve bypassing, not consulting, ignoring, consulting on obviously minor elements, being brusque, and speaking adversely. The person treated like this may withdraw or, on the other extreme, may become overly aggressive. Either way, conflict is stimulated. The manager and employee will, by their remarks and attitudes, mess up numerous conferences and efforts and block decisions and progress.

How can S.I.M.S. contribute to overcoming this source of so many conflicts?

Begin with the assumption that most people do not know all their strengths. We can reasonably assume that most people working together do not know one another's strengths. Initially, they have no experienced basis for making judgments about others' competence. It is common for people to probe for other people's weaknesses, to find out what they can get away with rather than probe for their strengths. It follows that such people will continue to be unaware of one another's strengths or areas of competence for a long time.

For instance, a large civic group elected to its board an aging man, Mike, who had been a member for many years. He was always willing to do some of the necessary chores. His election was more in recognition of his zest than of any special contribution he might make. At most meetings he was a listener and voted with the majority.

Mike, a mail room foreman with a large merchandising firm, participated with other members of the board in a team-building seminar, which included a group skills identification process. The others were quite surprised to learn that he had been a state running champion; and, for 20 years, had organized and directed a variety of sports activities for youth in the metropolitan region.

Most board members were business owners, executives, or professionals. This news of Mike's competence as an organizer of highly successful youth programs (he was shy and always had avoided publicity associated with the athletic events) made this virtually ignored man very important to the current purposes of the association. In addition, each had learned something of the strengths of the other members. All became interested in Mike's opinions on matters related to his areas of competence, and he gained more respect from them. Perhaps equally important is that the bickering for status practically ended. It was demonstrated that when people in a group can appreciate why they should respect one another, they organize and cooperate in different ways, and have less cause for conflicts.

Aside from the frustrations averted by this application of S.I.M.S., other byproducts include better organization for results, faster and better-deliberated decisions, fewer chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes, and more intelligent use of the available strengths as well as more willingness to request outside help with competencies not found among group members.

Behavioral psychologists and futurists, all appear to agree that man must become more willfully adaptable. These adaptations or changes will bring identity crises, and preparing for them will reduce concomitant stresses and conflicts.

S.I.M.S. brings into this area a new element for stability-awareness of one's strengths in ways that permit them to be combined and adapted in different ways without a loss of identity. Examples show how this releases men and women from job title attachment and gives them greater freedom to change obsolete vocations without undue anxiety.

Examples also show how managers may constructively overcome those deep guilt feelings usually associated with terminating subordinates: And they illustrate the partnership of excellence principle, which can help a manager cope with parts of a job he dislikes.

They show how the S.I.M.S. basic approach of looking for the best in each person helped one organization's managers to begin communicating again, after many years of compartmentalization. All people have motivated skills and do become self-motivated when traditional barriers to the release of those skills are overcome. The examples also show how helping a person identify the best that is in him will strengthen the confidence so necessary for coping with and resolving problems.

Finally, they demonstrate how conflicts based on competence factors can be substantially reduced through a team-building approach that uses S.I.M.S. to help persons know and respect one another's strengths.

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