The Workologist: Stuck in the Middle (With Good Ideas)


It does sound as if you occupy a distinct spot in your organization’s culture, and as a result, you may be uniquely situated to spur improvements. But before you proceed, make sure you don’t fall prey to Irreplaceable Me Syndrome.

That’s the Workologist’s name for a common malady: the well-intentioned belief that only you can assure the brightest future for your enterprise. (Usually this manifests itself in the form of guilt about quitting a longtime job for a plainly better opportunity.) Keep this in mind, because you’re teetering on the edge of trying to solve problems that are not your responsibility. Managers should not require a mole to understand workers’ views — and workers should not make their futures contingent on someone else’s intervention, however benevolent. Finally, being “friends” with co-workers can be a mixed blessing, so make sure you’re careful to separate professional responsibility from personal obligation.

Perhaps next time a lower-level employee expresses a legitimate grievance, you should encourage that person to formulate a way to make his or her views known to someone who can actually do something about the problem. You may even have strategic advice about which manager would be best to approach, and how. But either way, bear in mind that what feels like gathering useful intel about how an organization can be improved can very easily cross over into listening to aimless venting and grievance gossip. That’s very human, but the person it helps least is you.

You can also consider ways to translate the critiques you’ve heard into suggestions to higher-ups that won’t involve betraying confidences. (Floating possible solutions is always better than listing problems.) If you’re worried that you’ll be perceived as abusing your inside knowledge, you can road-test your thoughts: “That’s a good point about problem X, and I’m on good terms with manager Y, so what if I suggest solution Z — without mentioning any names?”

The upshot is that you need to make sure you’re thinking about your position the right way. It may be an opportunity — both for the enterprise, and for you. But don’t allow yourself to feel obligated to every constituency in the organization. That’s not an opportunity; it’s a burden.

Supervising Friends, Ethically

I was recently promoted to a new midlevel supervisor position, and several of the people I now oversee are good friends. I think they are doing excellent work, but I’m concerned that I not show special treatment. How does one supervise friends ethically? ANONYMOUS

Asking this question is a good sign. After all, it’s easy to assume your judgment and decisions are unimpeachable. Pausing to reflect shows a degree of thoughtfulness that will serve you well.

Still, you don’t want to overthink this — and end up behaving in response to your perception of others’ perceptions. It may be more useful to take a step back and frame the situation a little differently. For some input on that, I spoke to Lolly Daskal, a longtime leadership coach and consultant and the author of “The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness.

“I’ve bumped up against this a lot,” Ms. Daskal said, adding that, as with many challenges that come with a promotion, managers often focus on short-term how-to tactics.

She suggests a different emphasis: Think about the bigger picture. This means establishing your credibility and decisiveness with all of your charges. “Invite them in, one by one,” she continued, explain your approach and vision, acknowledge that you’ll need each person’s support, and ask for feedback. Include everyone, and everyone should feel empowered and engaged.

Ms. Daskal’s broader message is that grappling with core values shouldn’t wait until there’s a dilemma: “You have to establish who you are going to be when you first start your career,” she said. But it’s never too late to start thinking that way.

And it sounds as if you’ve already done so. “This person has self-awareness, which is already one step ahead of the game,” Ms. Daskal said. It’s more typical to declare, “This is what I’m going to do,” than to back off, assess the circumstances, and ask, “How do I best handle this?” That’s what you’re doing. The trick is: You have to keep doing it, and you’ll be fine.

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