Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 16, 2008
I refuse to apologize for taking a stand that is in the best interests of the company.
I am having a little difficulty knowing where the line dividing personal assistant and administrative staff lies. I’ve been harshly reprimanded for questioning or challenging a principal on a matter that I felt was an abuse of company resources and the administrative staff.
After I utilized the open-door policy by questioning said principal regarding a particular task, I was promptly told that I was out of line and then reprimanded by the operations manager, who explicitly said never to question a principal.
That comment makes me very uncomfortable.
As a fellow employee of this company, I assume the best interest of the company should be my first priority. If I believe that a particular task is an abuse of the company or I have a few concerns about it, I should feel free to confront the person ordering that task and ask questions, I think. Am I wrong? They make it seem as if we’re a family in this office and the doors are always open, but that is clearly not the case.
Shouldn’t an administrative assistant, as well as every employee, have the right to question a superior without fear of wounding an ego, inevitably resulting in an H.R. violation — usually “insubordination,” the vague corporate offense that encompasses anything not pleasing to a superior.
Caste, caste, caste … it is everywhere we look. At the grocery store, on the playground and most obviously at work, where you can be reprimanded and even fired for not bending over and taking it with a smile.
I am not apologizing! Maybe it would save me from an H.R. report to do so but I refuse to compromise my integrity. Am I being just as irrational as this jerk with a title? Refuse to
Dear Refuse to Apologize,
My answer to you is a simple thing but hard to grasp. It is abundant, ancient and commonplace but sighted at a distance more often than caught. It is the truth and it is like a fish. There are big fish and small fish, and there are big truths and small truths but there are more small ones than big ones. The biggest ones are mostly mirages sprung from the exhausted minds of seekers who have grown weary, hungry and full of wishes. They see things that aren’t there. If wishes were fishes, as they say … (or is that “if wishes were horses”?).
This is all by way of delaying a small, blunt truth: Companies are made of people trying to get what they want. Everyone you are working for is a person trying to get what he or she wants. You can either stand in their way, in which case they will treat you as an obstacle, or you can aid them in getting what they want, in which case they might treat you as an ally.
So put aside for a moment your thoughts about how the company should be and what the company should want, and ask yourself what each individual with whom you are in conflict wants. There is nothing in the company but that. There is no company God who is going to decide who is right and wrong. There is no company parent who is going to step in and, after hearing both sides, punish the wrongdoer. The people in H.R. are just more people trying to get what they want. If getting what they want means nodding in agreement about abstract principles and then sabotaging you behind your back, then they will do that.
This description of reality may be offensive to you. But I didn’t make this up. I observed it. Maybe you can benefit from my experience by seeing, now, what it took me years to learn.
So what do your co-workers and superiors want? One way to learn what people want is to look at what they have. If your boss has a shiny red sports car, she wants shiny red sports cars. If she has three children, she wants children. If she has a position of power she wants power.
If she wants power and you are challenging her, then you are threatening to deprive her of what she wants, and naturally she will do things to thwart you so she can continue to get what she wants.
In trying to determine what your co-workers want, you must also ask what they want from you. Have they asked you to keep a close eye on them so as to prevent them from going to excess? Have they asked you to police their actions lest they exceed the bounds of their authority? Have they asked you to notify them if you feel they are failing to live up to the company’s values? Ask yourself what they have actually asked you to do. Literally: What have they asked you to do? Then try just doing that. Try doing just what they have asked you to do.
Do they want you to be on time? Do they want you to lecture them on the company’s policies and ideals? What have they asked you to do? What they have asked you to do is what they are paying you to do.
No matter what you understood when you were hired, you are now being paid to do what certain individuals want you to do. If you do these things they will pay you. If you don’t, they will try to make you go away. So try just doing these things and see if you can live with that. It may be that you can’t live with that.
It may be that you want to run things. If you want to run things, then find a job running things. Not everyone is good at running things. Not everyone wants to run things. People are needed who want to run things and are good at it. You can surely find a job doing that if that is what you want. But that does not appear to be the job you have.
If you find a job running things then you will confront a host of subordinates, each of whom wants something. Some of them may want to also run things. If you let them run certain things they will work hard for you. If you hoard all the running of things for yourself, then they will work against you.
You have to figure out what people want. It isn’t complicated. Just look at what they have. Look at what they try to get. The things people have and the things people try to get are the things people want. If you help them get these things, they will be your allies. If you try to thwart them, they will be your enemies. This is a simple and commonplace truth, yet like a fish it can be slippery to grasp.