8 minutes reading time (1647 words)

You Are Not In Charge: Deal With It!

Let's begin with a different, and hopefully useful, perspective on our lives in organizations: We are not in charge. We have never been in charge and we never will be. And those people who think they are in charge? They are not in charge either! Though we support them in the illusion that they are.

Whether it is a corporation or a public agency organizations are just too big, too complicated, and (most of all) too full of people for any one person to be fully charge of them. Tons of vehicles, computers, desks, tea pots, buildings, plants, policies, procedures, and people are loosely linked together to serve the marketplace. Centuries ago, when piles of this stuff became especially confusing, someone craving order or control or efficiency came to the seemingly logical conclusion that "Somebody ought to be in charge of all this!" The world's first self-appointed manager went to work on creating order from chaos, eventually resulting in assistants and their assistants and hierarchy was created...and authority was distributed...and roles were sorted...and weekly meetings were established...and pyramids took shape...and executive furniture was designed...and on...and on...and on, resulting in today.

Each little organization, which at its formation made wonderful sense in the minds of its creators, seems inclined to stretch and grow and shape itself to the worlds it served. What were once reasonable, sensible organization purposes get systematized and silo-ed and begin to run afoul of individual purposes and customer needs and local politicians and government agencies. Those at the top of the organization pyramid discover that too many of the people working for them are either unaware of what they are supposed to be doing—or they are dedicated to doing something entirely different--or both! Managers "in charge" discover they are not—though they are still expected to be by the people above and below them. Their own internal voices (learned in childhood) keep repeating, "But YOU are supposed to be in charge!" So management by objectives was invented--to preserve the illusion (at least on paper) that somewhere there is someone who knows what we are all doing together! And there you have it: Another crop of managers in an impossible positions, blamed by others, blaming themselves, for not being in charge.

This short description is a caricature of how I see this "in charge" mentality playing out at work. It usually does not work and we need alternatives to it, alternatives which help all of us get things done when we are not in charge.

A first alternation is one of perspective, a perspective more valuable than any additional skill. Read the first paragraph of this article again:

"Let's begin with a different and hopefully useful perspective on our lives in organizations: We are not in charge. We have never been in charge and we never will be. And those people who think they are in charge? They are not in charge either--though we support them in the illusion that they are."

True acceptance of this paragraph offers us instant relief. Whew! Now we can quit pretending to ourselves and others that we are Super Manager. Or that we ought to be.
Now we can move our expectations down to a human scale. With new acceptance of
this old reality, there are a number of "not in charge" ways of getting things done:

1. Establish networks of key players in the organization, people who can inform you, people who can possibly help you in the future, people you can help. Recognize your dependence on them. (If you think you are not dependent on anyone, then you are a major source of your own problem.) Tend your networks; keep up on what is going on in their work lives. Help key people take responsibility for changing what they have into what they want. Think of yourself as someone helps them get what they want, rather than as someone who meet their needs directly. Anticipate their needs and aid them in meeting those needs. Don't wait until you are in trouble or they are in trouble. Yes, this request has huge implications for you as an already over-burdened person. And, if those people you must work with are truly important to you then you better find a way to make them your priority. You may be experiencing the consequences of not doing so.

2. Identify what others want that you also want. Talk with key people in your network about their work: Why is it important to them in their lives? Yes, in their lives; not just in their job descriptions. What are the deeper purpose they are trying to serve? What makes this work meaningful for them? Talk with them about how they might get what they want and how you might help in the process. When you have the opportunity to talk at this level, there is the potential for creating energy in others. We each bring more energy to that work that is linked directly to our life's purposes—even when we cannot articulate what our purposes are.

3. Develop a realistic assessment of your work situation and yourself. No whitewashing. No fooling yourself. When you describe problems facing you at work, be objective in your description. There much less likelihood you will solve a poorly described problem. Seek the counsel of others who bring different perspectives to the work.

The person that is easiest to change at work is, guess who: You! Significant change begins with you so be realistic about what you are contributing to the situation surrounding you. What strengths and weaknesses do you bring? How are you fooling yourself or attempting to fool others? Notice when you assign responsibility for change to others--who do not even know that change is needed! What are they, mind readers? As difficult as it is to change ourselves, it is much easier than changing unknowing and unwilling others.

4. Your success in enlisting others to help you get things done is dependent on more than just the relationship you have built with them. Your track record on getting things done and your expertise are also important. Build a pattern of accomplishment that the organization respects. It is not enough that you know you are successful; the organization has to recognize your success too. The organization does not judge you against your internal standards; it judges you against its own standards—which it may or may not publicize. Your job is to figure out what the organization wants, what you are willing to do, and how you help the organization understand what you are contributing. When the "powers that be" see you as successful, this will give you more latitude. You may not like this reality and you do not have to honor it......but you will be measured against it.

5. Here is a corollary to the last point: Build a unique body of expertise valued by others. When you have unique knowledge and skills, you are a special resource to the people around you. You will be more valued, more necessary, more powerful. What is it that you know and are able to do that others see as special? What do others call upon you to do now? What would you like for them to be asking of you? What can you do to see that happens?

6. As you pursue progress, be satisfied to do it in small, steady, patient ways. Through time, hundreds of people have created the structure and system you work within. We all have moments when we wish we could change everything with the snap of our fingers. Remember that quick changes you make this week can be reversed by someone else's quick change next week. A pattern of smaller, related changes is often more effective than one big and radical change. It takes more skill and perseverance to change things through time. That skill is often not rewarded so you have to create your own rewards, your own satisfaction.

Those six points are based on watching myself and a few hundred others succeed and fail in organizations similar to those where you work. The biggest challenge is pursuing personal goals at work that are good for the organization AND not supported by the organization...A tough and common dilemma. As I said in the sixth point, you cannot depend on the system to reward you so you must do it yourself. This links work goals to life goals, work meaning to life meaning.

Though you are not in charge at work, you are in charge of your own life...You may not be in control of your own life, but you are still in charge of it. If you are not, who is??? My observations of people most successful at work reveals many of them to be very aware of the lives they are attempting to create for themselves. Their success is based upon pursuing a "game" that is larger than work. A life game.

So what is the life you are trying to build for yourself? And how does work fit into that? You can apply many of the six points listed above to your life, not just your work. Try it. Who are the key people in your life? What do they want and how can you help them? What is your present assessment of the state of your life? And of yourself? What patterns of accomplishment are building in your life? And what do you uniquely bring? How have you persisted in what is truly important to you in life? Attend to the life questions in this short paragraph and many of the work questions will take care of themselves. Not that they will disappear, but they will be considered within a larger and more compelling perspective. Leading at work is best done by leading your life.

Based on Geoff Bellman's book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, Berrett-Koehler, 2nd edition 2001.

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