Treat Me Wrong, Treat Me Right: Who Decides?
In my "corporate" days I spent some time as a sales engineer. I worked with two very intelligent men with comparable backgrounds and comparable positions who appeared to be treated very differently by the company. This puzzled me so I paid attention in an attempt to understand why. This is my recollection.
A good guy who let himself be treated badly
Forrest was an engineer, as far as I could tell a very intelligent and highly skilled man, probably in his mid-50s or so when I knew him. Forrest worked as the liaison between the sales and marketing arm of Paul-Munroe and the technical, manufacturing/engineering division that actually put the systems together. Forrest's main job as I recall was to make sure that the salespeople didn't put something together that would either simply not work, or, worse, blow up and create all kinds of horrendous liability for the company. He had an extremely important job and from all that I could see he did it extremely well.
The only problem was that, at least to hear him tell it, the company consistently treated Forrest like a dog.
I had no way of knowing the literal facts about the way the company did in fact treat Forrest; the fact that he complained rather bitterly on a regular basis does indicate to me that for whatever reason he was not happy with the company. I was still fairly naive at the time so I rather easily got drawn into a classic game of "Why don't you / Yes, but..." Whenever I would see Forrest, at least most of the time he would launch into some version of how awful things were for him and how badly mistreated he was. I would play my part by suggesting in one way or another that he do something about it. He, of course, would then tell me all the reasons why he couldn't possibly do that.
I was naive but I guess at some point it did dawn on me that for whatever reason at least part of the picture here was that Forrest really liked to complain. I do believe, however, that there probably were some things about the company's dealing with him that could have been improved. I guess for me, at least for my purposes here, the issue is basically: what, if anything, could Forrest have done to truly improve his situation and give him less to complain about?
My dealings with Forrest helped me to come up with what I refer to as the "M.A.S.H. Theory." The popular movie, M.A.S.H., came out somewhere in that era or perhaps a few years before I worked for Paul-Munroe; I believe I thought of the movie when I began to hear Forrest complain about his situation. The parallel I drew was simply that, like the surgeons in the movie, Forrest appeared to be very good at his job and I suspected not someone who could be easily replaced. It appeared to me that Forrest had a lot more bargaining power due to his own relative uniqueness than he realized -- or than he used.
To put it simply, it appeared to me that Forest could have gone to management and told them what kinds of changes he needed to have made if they wanted him to continue working there. As I have said before, without an "or else" requests can all too frequently fall on deaf ears. And, the supply/demand factor needs to be taken into account, simply because some people can be replaced so readily that they have virtually no bargaining power (other than possibly whatever legislation might have provided, a separate issue entirely).
But it sure seemed to me that Forrest had a lot more clout than he ever used. It probably came down, once again, to the individual, Forrest in this case, simply being unwilling to take any chances or to "rock the boat" in any way. I guess I have always believed that if something appears to really be broken that you really should make every attempt to fix it -- and our personal lives, definitely including our careers, should not in any way be an exception to this rule.
Forrest, among others I have known, apparently did not feel nearly as strongly about this as I do. And, as I mentioned earlier, he may have gotten a lot more perverse pleasure out of complaining than I realized at the time.
Same company, different guy, different attitude, different results
Jack, much like Forrest, was a very intelligent and competent engineer. Jack had specialized for many years in mobile engineering; he had spent quite a few years working for one of the major companies that manufactures cement mixers. The name escapes me right at the moment* but it was definitely one of the major names in that field. Jack had such a reputation of being a highly skilled professional that I recall management at Paul-Munroe feeling that they had really scored an accomplishment by hiring him. I would have to say, based on my experience with him, that they were probably correct. He was a truly skilled person.
Staying sane: teaching others how to deal with us
More specific to my point here, though, is my recollection of how Jack interacted with management at Paul-Munroe. A fairly constant theme I heard during my years in therapy was a statement to the effect that we pretty much have to show people how to treat us. Jack was a fine example of how this could be done in the real world.
Jack was probably comparable to Forrest in terms of personal intelligence and professional qualifications. It is probably also fair to say that they were more or less equal in terms of their importance to the company, although I suspect Jack may have been a bit more visible to those outside the company due to his reputation in the industry. Just the same, I think they were fairly comparable in this area as well.
What was so fascinating to me when I worked with both of these men, however, was the enormous difference in how they appeared to be dealt with by management. I don't know if Forrest was literally mistreated as much as he seemed to think, since some of this could have been his interpretation; but I do recall a sense throughout the company that management pretty much took Forrest for granted. The feeling was that management could pretty much do what they wanted with Forrest and, though he would certainly complain to any who would listen, he would go along with it.
Not so with Jack.
Jack in action: "No man shall serve two masters!"
During my tenure as "rotary drive manager" I became involved in some of the management meetings, at least those that affected my area of the company. I have some very clear memories of meetings in which Jack was present; on at least a couple of occasions I remember two of the Vice Presidents taking different viewpoints on a given topic -- and both of them somehow requesting help from Jack based on their particular approach to whatever was being discussed.
This, of course, is a classic setup for anyone working for an organization-whichever way Jack would go, he could be guaranteed of at least irritating one of the vice presidents, if not in fact creating a powerful enemy. Clearly a no-win situation for Jack.
The part that I liked most of all in this little drama was Jack's response. He would stand up in the middle of the meeting, and proclaim rather loudly something like this: "Gentlemen, it says right in the Bible that no man shall serve two masters. When you guys decide which of you is going to make this decision, please let me know and I will do my best to get the job done at that point."
With that, Jack would usually leave the meeting, having decided that nothing constructive was going to happen until some more fundamental decisions were made. I don't think I realized at the time, but it was probably very good strategy on Jack's part to leave at this point as well. Whereas his continued presence could have implied some sort of approval on his part, his absence from the meeting clearly underscored his absolute refusal to involve himself any further in whatever project it was until the ground rules had been firmly established.
Someone once told me that questions are weak, statements are strong. Jack did not ask if they would clarify this situation before involving him; he did not request that management avoid creating this kind of problem for him; he simply told them what he needed from them in order to give them what they wanted from him. A question would have put the power to determine a crucial part of Jack's working environment in the hands of others. The statement kept it right where it belonged: with Jack.
In one way of looking at it, this was certainly nervy of Jack, after all, he was an engineer reporting to vice presidents of the company. It would have been a fairly simple matter for one of the VPs to demand Jack's resignation (although I wonder if the company president would have gone along with this). Somehow, this did not seem to bother Jack in the least, as there was no hesitation whatsoever that I could see on his part when it came time for him to take a stand.
Good at what you do, and knowing it = less b.s. (M.A.S.H.)
I wasn't very close to Jack personally so I can only speculate as to his motivations for his behavior; however, I have a couple of fairly good ideas. First of all, he appeared to be fiercely opposed to being put in any kind of a no-win situation, and he clearly recognized that the kinds of things I am describing here would have been just that. I'm sure he also realized that a man of his talent and reputation would have had very little trouble getting another job somewhere else if one of the vice presidents had in fact fired him; but I have a hunch that beyond this, he knew that he was doing such a fantastic job for the company (he was) that they would probably not have fired him in a million years.
He was right.
What's the difference?
The moral of the two stories is simple: being good at what you do and providing plenty of value for the organization you work for, while a darned good start, is not enough to guarantee that you'll get treated fairly.
You have to insist on it. Not just with words, but with your behavior. If your entire demeanor consistently communicates, as Jack's did, "I will do the best I can for you -- provided you keep your end of the bargain," others will be much more likely to treat you right.
Of course, this is not foolproof so keeping yourself in a position to make changes if a situation becomes intolerable is your ultimate means of maintaining your standards. And your Career Sanity.
* I remembered it -- Challenge-Cook Brothers.