Achieving Balance In An Unbalanced World

By Michael Abruzzese, Ph.D.
© Copyright 2021 Vista Health Services, Inc.

Posted February 12, 2021

Gratitude and optimism and being content have gotten me through so much of my life, and if I can share those things with others and help each other out … we’re all in this crazy world together. There’s love, and there’s fear. I choose love” – Johnny Fox, 64, Coney Island sword swallower

As the story goes, the seasoned old pro referred to his early days in management as being similar to learning to swim as a child. “My parents just threw me in the water and I learned.” Wasn’t that, ah, just a bit difficult, asks the new hire? “Well, it was a lot easier once I got out of the handcuffs and made my way out of the burlap bag,” the old pro replied.

There are no more “old pros” today, just ‘mentors.’ And although more legend than truth, the story stands today as a metaphor for how even enlightened managers train new hires. Simply put, they train them badly when it comes to understanding how to solve problems and move themselves along smoothly in the organization. Consequently, when mistakes inevitably happen, people may be blamed by their supervisors for not knowing any better when in reality, they were never fully informed in the first place. A more helpful approach is for the supervisors to examine their own behavior to see how they may have handcuffed their employees and prevented them from being more successful in a particular setting.

Nobody likes to fail and few managers want their employees to do poorly, yet few managers take a balanced approach to training and developing workers. Usually, the training consists of a few hours in a classroom or workshop setting without the manager present or a policy handbook is reviewed by staff, again without the manager present. Such a “hands-off” managing approach is a sure set-up for problems later on…problems the manager will almost certainly need to solve by taking a “hands-on” stance. If for no other reason than to spare the manager the need to intervene later on, it’s usually far better for managers to be directly involved in the training of new personnel from the beginning.

The days are gone when employees could be trained by rote to do repetitive jobs needing little supervision, but many management courses and  books still emphasize the “sink or swim” approach that blames the employee for not being able to make the cut rather than focusing the responsibility where it belongs – on the manager’s failure to properly educate the employee as to the expectations of the organization.

Every organization has two sets of rules…the written rules and the unwritten rules. The written rules are usually fairly straight forward and can be found in manuals or handing on walls within the workplace. Remember, though, the only reason rules are hanging on walls today is that for years businesses didn’t have the rules clearly posted and government action was needed to get management to provide them. Similarly, the unwritten rules pointing the way to success in today’s rapidly evolving work setting are rarely ever discussed, let alone posted clearly. Although it does little good to let new employees try and figure out what the unwritten rules are, the majority of businesses persist in making the employees play a high stakes guessing game. Why the mystery?

Mystery? In a company that’s desperate for good help? “Nonsense. There’s no mystery here, no secrets…we’re an open company and we want our employees to succeed,” comes the defensive, official and heartfelt reply. And it’s largely true, but wanting someone to succeed doesn’t help them to do so anymore than wishing something makes it so. Many employees today must be able to think on their feet and problem-solve as never before. As operations become more customer sensitive, the variety of complaints, demands and novel situations expands.

Why do companies have so much ‘mystery’ attached to them? What are the ‘unwritten rules?’

As companies try to anticipate their staffing needs, more technology is put in place that gives the appearance of service while sacrificing a true connection between employees, managers, customers and clients. No workshop or training manual can take into consideration every nuance and eventuality and here the unwritten rules are very important.

Rules such as: “What would the boss what me to do in this case?”; “When is it all right to ignore the manualized response to give this client the help really needed?”; “What will make my boss happy in this case?; or, more to the point: “What would make my boss mad at me?” These sample questions, of course, assume that the organization really wants to solve customer problems and provide stellar service and products. But knowing the answer to such questions is just as important in an organization that really doesn’t want to solve customer problems, isn’t it?

Well, it is if you want to work in such an organization and you want to keep your job. And that, too, may be an unwritten rule in your workplace: “We don’t really want to provide service, we just want to give the appearance that we do, so try to keep the customer mollified and get them off the phone. If you can’t do that, then transfer them or disconnect them. It’s OK.”

These rules are never really discussed, but these and similar points are at the heart of providing service in a customer based economy where resources are no sooner put in place before pulled taught as many new businesses believe they must run before they learn how to walk. And intangibles such as these are to what mentors and old pros refer when they reminisce about the stress of fitting into the organization and climbing up the ladder.

SO how can employees succeed and flourish in such an environment? Well, if management can’t or won’t help, then it can be up to the employees themselves to form support groups of trusted dyads or triads to pool knowledge and learn from each other. In essence, it’s like taking the responsibility to create your own mentor when none is available, a mentor that can help new employees leverage their knowledge in an attempt to balance what they know (the written rules) with what they suspect or wonder over (the unwritten rules). It’s hard to succeed when you don’t know what the rules are and even knowing the rules won’t guarantee success, but it’s a lot easier once you get out of the handcuffs and make your way out of the bag.

Michael Abruzzese, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist on Cape Cod and a former Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of Ten Lessons in Power Psychology; Psychology Tips and Techniques For People Who Would Never Visit a Psychologist’s Office.

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