People join good projects and leave bad management

Today’s post is about one of the most concise yet most meaningful sayings about the workplace I’ve heard:

People join good projects and leave bad management.

Besides the poignant humor nearly everyone feels when, on first hearing the phrase, they remember projects they enthusiastically joined only to find their optimism ruined by an intolerable relationship with a manager, it has meaning on many other levels.
My goal in this post, as in this blog, is to help raise awareness about a problem and describe solutions. In this case also to publicize the phrase, which I consider useful and funny and not nearly well-known enough for how useful and funny it is. Searching on the phrase links to my first post on this phrase.
More importantly, it gives helpful advice for

  • Job searches
  • Interviews
  • How to enjoy your time at work

and more. You probably spend a quarter to a third of your waking time at work so you might as well enjoy it.
Most importantly, it tells you where to find emotional reward at work — other people, especially your managers — and that it’s different from where people expect when they look for work — the project. Of course the project matters. If you want long-term meaning at work you can’t find it working on a project against your values. But no amount of meaning and value can overcome working relationships you don’t like.
If you leave a job, blaming management, only to search for a new job based on its project, you only set yourself up to continue the same cycle you created yourself. At best you can hope to get lucky with managers that can overcome your shortsightedness.
By contrast, if you learn how to create working relationships you like, you can find emotional reward at most jobs where the project doesn’t collide with your values too much — that is, you’ll know how to create a working environment you like.
I’m confident that if you put me in any job, no matter how much I disliked the management, with a project meeting or not too far from my values, I could find ways to enjoy my time there. I might still plan to leave as soon as I could, but I wouldn’t be miserable while there. That lack of misery wouldn’t just help me enjoy my time there, it would help me enjoy my time off the job and would take pressure off me to find another job desperately. Then I could take time and care to find a better next job for me.
Some people are in situations where they can’t choose their work or affect their working relationships — wage slavery, for example, or the like. This post does not cover such situations.

Job searches

People behave look for jobs based on the reputation of the company they’ll work for and projects they’ll work on, as if their emotional systems responded to the reputation of a company or how fast it’s growing. They want to work for well-known companies, fast-growing ones, big ones, or little ones.
Before the interview, they act as if they’ll take the job if the company offers it and they have no better options — as if they could know how they’d feel working at the company without asking what it’s like.
They don’t realize that no matter what the reputation, size, or anything else about the company, they’ll spend their time working with other people. And not with people in general. With specific individuals with specific personalities in specific teams in a specific environment with a specific culture. Those people determine what they do, evaluate their performance, help them finish their tasks, decide when they can take vacations, decide if they deserve raises, hire other people, fire people, and so on.
That is, other people play a major role in your environment at work. If there are managers and policies you won’t like, they’re often there before you start, waiting for you to discover them if only you look before applying.
Few people do, though. They’re too busy evaluating the project, or at best properties about the company they can glean from reading about it on the web, missing out on thinking of important questions to ask their interviewers about the people, culture, and management.

Job interviews

Job interviews generally consist of someone at the company asking questions of the person applying — a one-way evaluation. Both presume if offered, the applicant will accept the job, maybe after some negotiation.
Yet often toward the end of the interview, the interviewer will ask if the interviewee has any questions. Many interviewees see this question as an opportunity to show off how much they know about the company.
What a wasted opportunity!
They could use this time to learn about the people, team, and management they’ll work with — what “people join good projects and leave bad management” suggest will determine whether they like working there or not.
People could, but rarely do, ask questions like

  • What’s the company culture like?
  • Do you like working here? Why or why not?
  • What’s my manager like?
  • Why did the last person leave this position?
  • What are the other people in the team like?
  • What’s the turnover here?

Do these questions sound too probing? Get used to them. They don’t the more you get that people leave bad management. “Bad” doesn’t have to mean bad for everyone, just that they don’t match you.
How to get used to asking such questions? First, experience being the best teacher, you can practice at interviews at companies you aren’t that interested in joining. You might surprise yourself to learn that interviewers appreciate what they’ll often see as more serious interest and experienced consideration.
Second, you can internalize the belief that nobody benefits from high turnover, which leaving bad management leads to. You don’t have to find yourself trapped working with that many managers before realizing you’ll help everyone by figuring out how to avoid such problems. You can introduce questions above with remarks like “I like to make sure we have a great fit and foresee how I’ll fit if I can learn about the working environment. Do you mind if I ask a few questions about the people?”
You can guarantee when effective and experienced leaders and executives consider working somewhere they talk to many people in their teams and find out answers to such questions. Acting like a leader motivates people to treat you like a leader. Acting meek, accepting anything they give you motivates people to give you anything.

Enjoying your time at work

Eventually you start working somewhere. No matter how much you prepare and select a job with people you like working with, conflicts arise. People have different values.
Many people view work as a time and place to do penance — like you’re not supposed to like it so why try. I don’t know what they think of people who know how to enjoy working. As best I can tell, they seem to regard those people as lucky, like they were born with a gene to enjoy work or just happened to fall into a job and working environment that matched their personality.
If only I were so lucky to be born with that temperament or to fall into such a well-matched job!“, I can imagine them thinking. “Poor me. I can’t do anything about my lamentable situation. I can only suffer through it so I can pay my bills.”
As if your ability to enjoy your time at work was any more difficult than enjoying your time anyplace else.
Not so.
People who enjoy their work don’t have special genes. They rarely luckily fall into jobs they like. Even if they start companies they aren’t guaranteed to happen into cultures they love — except through their own doing.
They make their jobs likable and enjoyable with skill. The most important skills for making your job environment awesome are social skills, like the simple ones I write about in my social skills series, though they’re just a start. People leave bad management.
People who know how to create great working relationships — skills anyone can learn — can create great working environments.
What makes an environment you like depends on you. You can take what they give you without acting on it or  For some people that means working hard together. For some it means collaborating a lot. For some it means getting to know each other personally deeply. For some it means keeping things lighthearted.
One thing I guarantee will not lead to enjoying your workplace — resigning to disliking it, believing yourself unable to do anything about it, and complaining to each other about your lamentable situation. Such behavior and beliefs is the opposite of “Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for improving things to the extent you can” — one of my mottos.

Lessons Learned

  1. Understand the importance of relationships at work to your emotional reward
  2. Understand the limited importance of projects to your emotional reward
  3. Learn social skills
  4. Don’t expect project skills to improve how you feel about your job

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