Before I started a corporate gig, I used to work freelancing gigs.
When freelancing, your clients are your most important relationship. No clients = no revenue = starvation.
So you do your best to keep them happy, understand their needs, and directly service their personal and corporate (read: business) goals.
If you deliver value, you keep the relationship, and good things happen.
It took me a while to realise that this is almost a direct proxy of what working for a boss is like. Except that your boss’ personal goals are suddenly much more important than corporate ones.
Happy employee-boss relationships have very limited relation to the employee doing good work that brings in business value.
It is a strange thought to me, realising the lack of correlation between corporate value provided by the individual, and personal value obtained by that same individual. It is also a thought many people would probably begrudgingly admit is true. How often do we hear stories of people who are favoured by their superiors keeping their jobs while other more productive employees get laid off? Some of these stories we might even have seen first-hand. Office politics as a term doesn’t exist for nothing.
The above we can rationalise given a realisation that your boss’ personal goals are frequently more important to your boss than your organisation’s corporate ones. Goals like not getting fired, being promoted, or even avoiding uncomfortable situations. Some of these goals are even noble, or the right kind of goals given specific social contexts — like putting family first.
So as a freelancer exposed to the corporate environment, I started noticing that happy employee-boss relationships have very limited relation to the employee doing good work that brings in business value.
I need to rephrase.
The above is only true given the situation where your boss’ personal goals are not aligned with your organisation’s corporate ones.
In contrast, if you work in an organisation where your boss’ personal goals are perfectly aligned with corporate goals, the above problem ceases to exist. This is because achieving said corporate goals becomes a way to fulfil your boss’ personal goals.
In such a situation, an environment has been created where the actual ability to do good work — by the organisation’s standards — is favoured. The cool thing is that in such a organisation, political skill might even be perceived as a negative trait to have.
The only unfortunate thing is that personal and corporate goals are usually not aligned. I acquire this perspective not merely from experience, but from conversations with colleagues and friends working in other corporate environments.
Disclaimer: notice how I used the word perfectly when I talk about alignment. Admittedly, such an ideal is likely near impossible to achieve. Many reasons exist for this, for example the fact that people always have their own private interests, many of which they cannot be faulted for having, like caring more about an ill daughter than the company’s bottomline (though notably, in some organisations this kind of priority might actually be encouraged).
Great, so how does knowing all this help me?
It all depends on your personal objectives. Do you just want to keep your job? Do you desperately want to get promoted? Do you just want a better standard of living, which includes a healthy work environment?
Without going into the pros and cons of each, there are 4 generalised possibilities:
Become good at optimising for your boss’ preferences. I frown at this, but I realise as well that this might be inevitable in some situations. If you have 5 mouths to feed, a mortgage to pay off, and a whole industry of thousands counting on you to keep their jobs, putting up with such a situation might be the best course of action.
Continue to do the hard work without expecting the recognition. If the recognition happens, good for you, but if it doesn’t you have to be happy to live with it. To be very clear, this is a perfectly respectable course of action. Being honest and diligent, even when without the recognition, can be a good way to sleep with a good conscience every night.
Find a different boss to work for, preferably one whose personal goals align more closely with the corporate one, and the value that you personally can provide. This might be a boss in a different part of the organisation, or even in a different organisation altogether.
Work for yourself. Freelance. Start your own business. In this situation, the corporate goal will exactly be your personal goal. If you are your own boss, you set the corporate direction, and execute on it. And this frequently also means directly helping your client or customers to achieve their goals. And in the event that the work your client wants you to do bothers your conscience, the option exists (with minor exceptions if you are starving) to gracefully turn down the work and find something else.
To be clear, each of these approaches bring with them their own rewards and challenges. But it is important to at least be aware that options exist.
And when making such decisions, I just like to remember that the choices we make and the paths we choose to follow ultimately feed into a sense of the kind of world that we wish to participate in, that we wish to build, and even the kind of person that we want to become.