How to change from an "alpha" to a "beta"
November 22, 2017 3:46 AM   Subscribe

My workplace is absolutely awash with people who are constantly jockeying for position. I am in the really fortunate position of having now been promoted to the job I want at the level I want to stay at for the rest of my career. So how can I be one of the people who manage to put their egos aside and quit playing these games?

People in my workplace can be incredibly petty about stuff that really shouldn't matter. Things like who gets their name first on a report, who gets to go along to unimportant meetings, who will share what information and who won't in an attempt to look like the most knowledgeable, etc. People are fighting over crumbs and it's pathetic. It seems to go all through the organisation and our rates of bullying and harassment claims are astronomical.

Add to this my team lead is a terrible micromanager and can't stand to not be not only part of everything but the absolute centre of everything. I've posted about him before and the situation is only slightly improved but this question is different as I'd now like to change my response and not let him and the rest of it wind me up so much.

There is one (and only one) laid-back guy on the team who absolutely doesn't let this stuff bother him in the slightest. He thinks the team lead is great because he works so hard and instead of seeing it as interference he sees it as support. This guy hasn't been promoted since he started but he doesn't seem to care about that either. I've asked him why and he says he just focusses on what's important in life - his family - and doesn't let other stuff get to him. I think this is amazing and so healthy.

I pushed and fought to get where I am and I'm satisfied. I have job security and a nice salary and I don't have to prove myself anymore. So how do I just...stop? I'm seeking advice on how to change my mindset. Please assume that changing my mindset wont affect my ability to do my job properly, and that (for many reasons) changing jobs is not an option and is not going to happen. Thank you.
posted by hazyjane to Work & Money (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a back yard?

If so, get yourself a little chook shed and four or five hens. Spend a bit of time each day just sitting and watching them wandering about the yard eating up your snails and slugs and bugs.

Name the bossiest one after your team lead.

Bonus: best eggs you ever ate.
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 AM on November 22, 2017 [50 favorites]

Not meaning to be flippant but the way to stop is to stop engaging in the games. You stop arguing about what position your name is on the report, you share relevant information and you request information not available to you and do your job and go home.

You don't provide enough information about what you do but there seems to be an assumption that the organisation will keep doing well and will keep tolerating a few chilled people on each team. If that is the case consider the following.

In a dysfunctional organisation chilled dude (original) and chilled hazyjane are likely to be top of the list of people to be let go when things get tough because everybody else will have cozied up to the decisionmakers whilst you went home all relaxed and went to basket weaving class.

And even if the business is doing well the organisation may view chilled peeps as people who hinder progression of the less chilled junior go getters because you can't promote folks if you don't have a need at the next higher level. And if the next level up is being filled by chilled people who won't vacate those spots whilst employed by the organisation the organisation may encourage them to find a less competitive employer in due course.

Now, that may be ok if you work in an indutry and are in a location where you can easily get another job. But it may not be ok as well. Having said that nobody can predict the future so do what makes you happy.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:32 AM on November 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

Think about what specific things you want to change - is it needing to prove yourself by always showing what you know? - is it whatever you did as part of career progression? - perhaps getting your name first on a report? Within the job context, what was the purpose of those things? Do they still serve a function as part of you doing the best job you can do [e.g. getting in early in the morning/being the last person out/having your name first on a report]? If those actions/behaviours make sense as part of the job, keep them. Their role is not to help you get ahead but to help you do a good job. If they are not useful to the job, let them go. It's hard to let go but easier when it's a specific thing. In time, this will help you change your mindset as you observe what happens after you let go of something you've identified as problematic. Make a list and start working through it.

If what you want to change is how you feel about things or people, for example how you react to your team lead, then you will need to figure out the why. It's possible but it takes time. It would help to identify your biggest stressors and how they interact with your ego, with your sense of self and self-worth. But the biggest thing is how other people react to you, what it is that drives their behaviour. It seems to me that you're describing an environment where everyone is stressing out about what they're doing, their actions, their egos, how what they do impacts them. Start watching this and step out of it. Start thinking about how what you do impacts others, not yourself. I found this book useful towards doing that. You can now focus on consolidating your position, building relationships and doing a good job. Do the things that help you do that.
posted by mkdirusername at 4:40 AM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think the trick is to be able to get your head down over your own work & produce the stuff that your organisation values. IMHO one of the main reasons why people get twitchy about the trivial crap (like who goes to which meeting) is because they're insecure about the quality & value of their actual work product. When you know that you're producing good work, you can concentrate on that instead. Obviously it helps a lot if it's the kind of organisation where you also get positive feedback on your work from peers & managers, because that's validating & motivating.

It's easier in some workplaces than others. I'm lucky to work in a large technical organisation where I've built up some expertise in a specific area, and my boss trusts me to get the work done - so I mostly get left alone to get on with it as I see fit. On the other hand - my partner works in an academic department that has an explicit up-or-out expectation - so even though she turns out plenty of published work and gets tons of citations, she still feels like an odd one out because she's not interested in having the title of professor, which everyone else there is trained to think of as their primary goal - so she's super-productive but it's still an awkward fit.

Don't know which of those applies at your place - but if you have some kind of valued specialism, you have a head start on this I think.
posted by rd45 at 4:55 AM on November 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

It really helps me to ask myself a series of questions in the morning before I go in. Kind of my own personal catechism:

What do I value: My family, my time, the value of my work to my community, my sanity.
How much does the opinion of others matter to me: Only as much as it impacts those things and only as much as I let it.
Do I need to be perfect: No.
Can I work hard and find joy in that: Yes.
Can this be a good day: Probably, but if not, I still have my family, my time, my sanity, etc.

If I ground myself in some version of this before my day starts I can usually keep perspective a bit better. I also make a practice of trying to forgive myself if my day gets away from me and I start to overly engage in office politics, emotions, etc. (Hence the 'I am not perfect.') I get to try again tomorrow.
posted by jeszac at 5:26 AM on November 22, 2017 [19 favorites]

If you kind of enjoy those little challenges, or at least aren't too negatively affected by them, maybe you could turn those efforts to helping others? For example, the great guy on your team who isn't getting enough credit? Accumulated power doesn't have to be only self-focused.
posted by amtho at 5:31 AM on November 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

It sounds like the organizational culture rewards, encourages, and therefore perpetuates, the stressful, micro-managing, position-jockeying behavior you hate. Therefore, there is nothing you can do about it. It's endemic. The massive degree of change required to unseat that model is not in your power to accomplish. You live and work in an environment you are choosing to opt out of, and choosing not to align with. This choice has sort of doomed you to a lifetime of incongruity, and all the accompanying pain and suffering that will bring.

Hate the game all you want, but know that the players ARE the game, and you cannot change the players. They see the company feeding off this culture- it's supported and driven from the top down. So those who play best, succeed best. So they will keep playing and keep stressing. You can only change your perception, your response and your own comfort level. How long can you survive being a chill peg in a mega-stressed-out hole?

This is really a 2-pronged situation. First, you have to figure out how to keep yourself sane in the insane workplace. This is on you. Meditate, listen to music, visualize, take walking breaks or whatever, but you must develop a rock-solid method that the craziness cannot destroy.

Next, you have to cover up (or at least obscure in some way) the fact that you're not one of the players. Because they will notice. At some point, your lack of engagement with the culture will be made known, and probably in a way that bites you in the ass.

Find whatever it is that makes you indispensable. Find one power player who will be your champion. Become the go-to guy for SOMETHING. Or as someone else stated above, at some point, it will be noted that you're "different" in a way that translates as "OK to let go / pass over/ not reward." You'll stand out as someone who's not playing the game.

Good luck. I could not remotely do what you are describing, so I wish you all the best.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:39 AM on November 22, 2017 [10 favorites]

In a dysfunctional organisation chilled dude (original) and chilled hazyjane are likely to be top of the list of people to be let go when things get tough because everybody else will have cozied up to the decisionmakers whilst you went home all relaxed and went to basket weaving class.

It depends on the organisation. If undermining and backbiting get severe enough, chilled dude and chilled hazyjane may end up among the few uncompromised players. If everyone is constantly undercutting their 'rivals,' it may be safer not to get tagged as a rival in the first place. Staying chill and cheerful, doing your work, and remaining neutral by freely providing the information necessary to keep teams functioning instead of playing games/gatekeeping can be a viable strategy in this environment -- as long as you do keep up the perception that you are truly neutral. If Decisionmaker A's cabal goes to war with Decisionmaker B's, the loser's cabal will be in danger; if it's that kind of workplace, 'cozying up' is a mistake. Make sure that, in such a circumstance, you can't be perceived as a part of that cabal. Neutrality isn't basketweaving; do favours, as necessary, but hand them out equally, and let everyone else fight it out.

Anyway, it's not easy to learn not to care... but it can feel wonderful, and can ultimately make you considerably more productive.
posted by halation at 6:23 AM on November 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

Mentor some people below you. Choose women, non binary/non conforming people, and people of color.

Take a class first in how to be a good mentor, don’t just wing it.

Check out the manager tools podcast and resources for perspectives on what healthy leadership looks like. Read the Ask a Manager blog.
posted by bilabial at 7:09 AM on November 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

Laid-back guy is showing you the way. Try to be grateful for the work, the hard-working team, the salary, the chance to back off from the competitiveness... especially when it's awful. And when it gets so awful that the only gratitude you can come up with is something like, "at least I'm not him and at least I get to go home in a few hours", let yourself think that, too.

Every once in awhile when I'm especially grumpy I think of my forebears, and all their work stress, and how little it mattered at their funeral. What mattered were things like loving family, volunteering, love of life, art.
posted by ldthomps at 7:30 AM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am in the really fortunate position of having now been promoted to the job I want at the level I want to stay at for the rest of my career. ... Add to this my team lead is a terrible micromanager

Are you certain you'll be able to stay in your position if you don't play the games? If they make things like how many meaningless reports your name is a metric for whether they retain you or not, a micromanaging team lead can destroy your career. Is the better solution to look for a similar job at an employer with less craziness?
posted by Candleman at 9:25 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the great suggestions. I do mentor people and that's something I'm kind of known for. In particular I mentor people at least a couple levels below me in the hierarchy and I get very good feedback from them. It's people at the same level as me or one level lower who wind me up by acting petty.

I do think I have great job security as they need more people in my field than they can hire, and no one ever gets fired, even poor performers. And I don't plan to turn into one of those, just a chilled out person who can be counted on to deliver.
posted by hazyjane at 10:09 AM on November 22, 2017

The struggles over meeting attendance, name on a paper, titles, etc., are all about dominance. If you are absolutely certain that your job is secure and that you can't get screwed over by having someone steal the assignments you want or take credit for your work, well, that's an enviable position. One reason your organization has so much strife is that leadership is not strong, so power is up for grabs. It makes for an unhappy workplace.

This is especially difficult for women, who already have less power and control in the workplace. I would continue to require fair placement of my name on published work. Just blandly insist and point out why you're right. Do not be self-deprecating. If someone wonders why you weren't at the meeting on the revised seating plan for the meeting on planning the meeting to discuss meeting planning, learn to give people a bland WTF look and say Obviously, my time is too valuable for that. Do not be self-deprecating. I have routinely worked with men in IT who Will. Not. Share. Information. It's maddening and inefficient for the organization, but is effective ta giving them a little control. Do not be self-deprecating. Make a marketing plan for how to promote your work and reputation in the organization. If there's an association outside work be involved in it. A couple times a year, do an in-service meeting or presentation of something you've worked on; this helps establish your expertise and is good for the organization. Do not be self-deprecating. Be self-promoting. Mentoring is an excellent idea.

I suck at the games and it has cost me jobs I liked, especially now that my hair isn't just gray but white. Act as if you are a leader in your area, becaise you are. Don't take any crap. Protect your little bit of turf by being confident. What the heck, try the power pose if you must. Listen carefully to see if you are being undercut, respond if you are. Work at making sure your boss and your boss' boss understand your value.

Then. Close your door, if you have one, for a couple hours a day. When there's gossip and backstabbing, say positive things about people if you can, otherwise, change the subject, or leave. You can be a leader at positivity. Meetings get bogged down in people complaining about things that didn't work, the same things, in perpetuity. Have an occasional agenda item of What are some things that worked? which could be ways to use cool copier features, some great web tool, a feature in some software. Learn to disengage from the BS, and to be a source of authentic and useful good stuff. Take the long view. If your job is quite secure, you can become the sage of your office, the smart person who doesn't play the BS games and everyone turns to. Having a positive goal is a path to getting away from the trivial crap. Remind yourself that your hard work has put you in a terrific position. Also, set aside savings. Keep the old car a year or 2 longer. Take a cheaper vacation. If you have sufficient savings, you have the ability to say Fuck you to bullshit.

One of my my favorite books by one of my favorite authors has some discussions of dominance.
posted by theora55 at 10:11 AM on November 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm coming at this from a perspective of having been in a work place like yours in the past, and also having worked (more recently) in a very collegial environment. Since you at least mentor or have the power over a handful of people, I wonder if you could institute some of these changes within your own group? So if you have organization, nonhostility, and learning - there will be calmness there, and I would also bet you might have a convert and/or a person who moves into your group.

So here are some of the things that I've seen. Assuming that the names and order mean something (i.e. in academia it is relevant), I've worked in places where we had strong rules set up. Therefore, you could only be first author if you met certain criteria such as designing the experiment or doing all the research AND wrote the whole document (first draft). But with the rules, everyone knew this and didn't fight over it. If you have mentees, you could set it up to rotate to give them the opportunity to take the lead and to learn.

The other thing that I've recently seen in a collegial environment that has surprised me is that we review papers (or it could be a product, or whatever). But the idea is that everyone, from low to high level (and different backgrounds, etc.) comes to the table and critiques it using a set list of points to improve it. It is not to attack the one who brought it for review, but to make it the best for the workplace. I've been surprised in that people at all levels develop an expertise and learn not just how to do the project, but how to think about it. Anyway, I think something like this as a process for your team over and over again could raise the bar for whatever the final product is and the way that people think about their own work.

Anyway, I think processes like this would help at least your internal group.

As for the other peers - I do have a friend who worked in a cut throat environment and although he did eventually leave this place, he was able to set aside some of the petty stuff. For example, he focused on the job + product and did everything possible to do this and learn more. His colleagues didn't learn the product, how to do it, but went to meetings all day long. In his words, he hated needing to go to meetings and working with people all day long, especially since it would cut into the work they needed to get out the door. So he grew to appreciate that particular factor - if they want to spin their wheels on useless stuff, it lets you work along and pursue what you want to do. The other small thing (not sure if you have this flexibility) - because these colleagues spent ALL their time in the meetings, there eventually was a time where they had the work build up and didn't know how to do it (so they looked at him to fill the gap). At this point, he negotiated for things that he wanted to pick up the slack for them - so work from home for a week, etc. but *maybe* if people are battling over petty/stupid things at your work place - there might either be 1) the opportunity to give you breathing room and not do stupid activity X OR 2) you might be able to negotiate for something you want later - or not. Not sure if this would or would not apply to your work place at all.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 1:57 PM on November 22, 2017

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