You’ve probably heard the theory that a frog placed in a pot of water that is ever-so-slowly heated to a boil will stay in said pot and die a blissfully ignorant death. This science experiment is often brought up as an analogy for things in our lives that gradually get worse and fail to spur us into action.
Now, first, let’s pause. Contemporary thought is that the whole frog thing isn’t true, and I’m not willing to do my own experiment just to say, “See, I told ya’ so.” I have a son who is a huge animal-lover and would never forgive me, even though he does enjoy a good frog leg on a Chinese buffet from time to time.
Even if the frog thing were true, we might want to put a trace on the scientist who came up with this warped experiment to make sure he’s not also boiling human victims in his free time.
But just because the actual experiment isn’t true and the guy who came up with it is a serial killer doesn’t mean there’s not some solid applications to the modern workplace. The reality is, I am a repeat offender at allowing the heat to be gradually turned up on my career without realizing that, as a human and not a frog, I have arms to reach down and turn the heat off.
Let me explain:
A Case Study in Staying Too Long
In one of the stops on my work journey, the first year was fantastic. I had a supportive boss, was doing amazing work and more or less fit in as good as I’m ever going to fit in with the employee culture. I was getting stuff done. My work was appreciated, and I felt a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
Then the second year came. Along with it came a change in leadership for the department and a newly hired supervisor who was chosen despite every single person on our team recommending the other guy.
Things turned sour.
All of a sudden, what used to take five minutes now had a 16-step processes that involved three all-team meetings that lasted a minimum of 45 minutes each. Our department went from being the department of “Yes, I can do that for you” to “Yes, I can do that for you… but you’re going to have to come with us on a round-the-world journey after filling out four fours in triplicate so that you’ll be so frustrated you’ll hate asking us to do anything to help you out ever again.”
I also noticed that the words “please” and “thank you” became theoretical concepts instead of words people actually used. Team members were more interested in playing politics to earn titles they felt they deserved instead of reaching out to the departments we relied on to do good work to form meaningful relationships.
We started to build a questionably intrusive marketing automation stack that was unnecessarily Big Brotherish, and I was put in charge of a big piece of that machine. It was hard to do what was being asked of me and still sleep at night.
But I stayed. And I suffered. Mightily.
My health deteriorated along with my work quantity and quality. I couldn’t stand being in meetings where our supervisor bashed her colleagues who weren’t in the room. It made me feel dirty. Taking it up the chain made things worse.
For not the first time in my career, I failed to recognize that I should have updated my resume months before and start a job search to get me to a place that was a better fit for what I do and who I am. I was the frog. Again.
Check Out Some of the Stories I’ve Told
Ryan Lee (MMM ’16) talks about how Northwestern’s MMM program prepared him for his work as senior director of product management with Hologram, an Internet of Things startup. Published May…
Current student Raj Shekhar Madhurakavi talks about the lessons he’s learned in the MEM program as he prepares for graduation and a new role as senior program manager at Mathworks.…
Denny Hsieh applies lessons from Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Project Management (MPM) program into his daily work at Intel. Published May 10, 2022 Denny Hsieh speaks candidly when he discusses…
Start a ‘Good Things’ Folder Today
Today, I’m in a much better place, literally and figuratively.
I work for a hospital that changes kids lives. So when I physically arrive at work, I don’t feel like I’m going to puke. I’m around co-workers who know and accept that I’m not going to talk badly about anyone in the company and that it really annoys me if others do. They respect my beliefs, the quality of my work, the quantity of my work, and my abilities to be a creative force while at the same time leading the way on marketing strategy.
My boss is, in a word, amazing. She is my fullback to take down potential obstacles, she offers a quick “yes” if I tell her there’s a piece of technology I need to do my job better, and she’s quick with a joke and a light of my smoke, as Billy Joel once crooned.
She’s also a big part in the thing I realized plays into the One Sign You Need to Start a Job Search, in that what she does helps me not start looking elsewhere. What is that thing?
I started my career as a newspaperman just as the internet emerged. Yeah, that happened. Lots of jobs are hard, and I’d contend being a journalist is one of them. Part of the job description is essentially “Go piss people off.” That’s not to say I ever went looking for people to piss off for the sake of pissing them off. But if you’re doing your job as a journalist well, which is to say you’re using the power you have been entrusted with to help hold accountable others who have been entrusted with power, well, it’s gonna happen.
Power corrupts, and I have been a first-hand witness to good people doing incredibly bad things because they thought no one was watching. No one likes to be called out on their imperfections, and they’re even more upset if you point out things that are potentially illegal or unethical.
Journalists can easily accumulate a hate folder, physical and virtual, filled with letters and emails that state things such as how much of a dirt-bag coward they are and what might happen to their wives and children because once-hidden information has been put under a spotlight for others to see.
So very early on in my career, I started a Good-Things Folder. Every once in a while, a pleased reader or story subject would write to me and tell me how much they appreciated what I did and that they thought I did it well. Sometimes I got hand-drawn pictures from their kids. Into this folder I would put encouraging notes from my wife, kudos from fellow journalists and congratulations from my supervisors or other higher-ups.
Then, when I was in the midst of a beat-down based on something I had written, I would pull this folder out and say, “Hey, no matter what that guy says, I shouldn’t go live in a pig sty and roll around in the mud with all the other little piggies. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
The realization I’ve had recently is that one way to tell that you need to start a job search is when your Good-Things Folder has a long, long, long gap between kind words from colleagues and supervisors.
Why These Gaps Happen
There are several reasons these gaps happen. First and foremost, you might have started being less than great at your job. It happens. It happened to me at the stop I mentioned above. Forget the reasons it happened. That’s the blame game. Ultimately, it’s on me to realize my work sucks and I need to go someplace where it might not suck.
Second, your industry could collapse. As newspapers imploded, people stopped supporting one another like they did because they were spending so much time jockeying for position to try to avoid being in the next group of employees who met the ax. Contributing positively to the team environment and the employee culture not only became something the bosses didn’t care as much about, it became something that HR didn’t seem to care all that much about. They were too busy preparing dwindling severance packages for the next round of layoffs to hold Sally accountable for being a cancer in the workplace.
Third, you could land with a supervisor who sucks at positive feedback. I once had a supervisor tell me she wasn’t good at positive feedback so don’t expect any, even if I’m doing a great job. Yes, really. And she was then promoted! If you’re a supervisor who isn’t good at positive feedback, you’re like a baseball player who can hit only fastballs. You’re not complete, and no one in authority should support your advancement to a position of authority over any other human being. The reality is, many, many, many employees — especially creative types — are jazzed by a kind word that recognizes their contributions to the mission. If you’re a salesperson, your success can be easily measured by the amount of stuff you sell. But creative folks put their souls out into the workspace without many objective ways to measure whether it’s actually good. Sure, there’s some back-end data that can and should be used to help determined what worked and what didn’t, but in the moment? In the moment, sometimes we all just want to know that our amazing effort was appreciated and that what it produced matched or exceeded what was expected.
And if you can’t share a kind word like that, again, stop being a supervisor. Today.
These three reasons for gaps all are things that should not be. We should never stay in situations where our work sucks, people shouldn’t be so insular in a dying industry that they can’t be supportive, and sucky supervisors should go away.
Currently, my Good-Things Folder runneth over with encouragement, support and appreciation from my colleagues, supervisor and other higher-ups Just today, a co-worker told me a video I made was so good it made her cry. She didn’t have to take the time to send me that, but she did, and I appreciate it.
But I am committed to monitoring this Good-Things Folder for gaps, and if there start to be gaps, I’m going to take a hard look as to why. Hey, sometimes people just get busy and there’s not a real reason, but I’m at least going to ask myself the tough questions.
So start a Good-Things Folder. Give it a few months. Be generous with what you put in there. You don’t need a grand proclamation that you’re the World’s Best Anything to have it “count.” Search for the positive and see what you find. If you find nothing or if you then see a large gap devoid of support, encouragement and appreciation from your co-workers and colleagues, take it as a sign to polish up your resume and at least see what else is out there.
Don’t be a frog. You’re better than that. And somewhere out there are some great folks who won’t be shy about telling you so.