22 February 2011

How to keep your job and your sanity in the nonprofit sector.

Why should I confine my advice to young people who come in search of it? Well, because the most appropriate recipient is someone who has asked for it.

You, dear reader, have not asked for suggestions about how to conduct your professional life, but I find that I have a surplus of sagacity to share. If you're not in the mood to have gratuitous wisdom inflicted on you today, then skip this and go to Chat Roulette, Time Kill Central, or some other more entertaining web site.

But if you're curious about what I think every first-time nonprofit professional should learn but isn't taught, then read on.

These are guidelines for preserving your self-respect and building a reputation as a good colleague. Most of if then aren't about the nonprofit sector at all; they're about behaving well, recognizing where the boundaries lie, finding ways to make a useful contribution, and taking good care of yourself.

I hereby offer these suggestions in the humble spirit of homage to whoever first uttered the immortal words, "Take my advice - I'm not using it!"

  • If you have just graduated from school and are now in your first full-time job in the nonprofit sector, you probably have well-developed, even compleat, ideas about the nature of Truth, Virtue, Beauty, and Justice. Unless you are specifically invited to give a lecture, don't treat your workplace as a podium for expounding those ideas. Your coworkers may have already come to the same conclusions about these eternal topics, or come to very different conclusions. They also have work to do. Don't cultivate a reputation as a smug, pedantic, garrulous bore. And don't set yourself up to be teased at your retirement party about opinions that you declared to be axiomatic when you were 22 years old.
  • Learn to distinguish between warm collegial relationships and lifelong friendships. Sometimes they overlap, but don't undervalue the former or insist on making them serve the purpose of the latter.
  • Develop interests and friendships far outside the workplace.

  • If you have a foul disposition like mine, find a way to vent your spleen that is not harmful to yourself or others. Such as an anonymous blog. (Well, duh.)
  • Express respect and appreciation whenever you can. The people around you like hearing details about why their work is praiseworthy. However, some compliments are patronizing ("I think it's so brave of you to try to live a normal life even though you're paraplegic") or too personal ("You have beautiful eyes; are those contact lenses?").
  • Learn to distinguish between problems and drama in the workplace. Don't create drama, and don't add to other people's drama.

  • If you enjoy drama for its own sake, join an amateur theater group. But keep it out of the workplace. (Of course, if you're employed by a nonprofit performing arts organization, you may need to adjust this advice to suit your circumstances.)

  • Identify problems that you can solve, and that are legitimately your business to solve. Don't waste energy on the others. (Special note to card-carrying adults: if a child is being abused, it is your ethical obligation to speak up, even if that's not in your job description. However, much of what you will see in the workplace will be adults making choices and living with the consequences thereof. Let them.)

  • When your organization's stakeholders ask you for something, they don't need to hear a closely reasoned argument about why it's not your responsibility. They want their needs met. Find them someone who can do it. If you fail to help them or to refer them to the right person, a brief apology rather than an elaborate defense is in order. They are people with needs, not your sworn enemies.

  • If your nonprofit workplace is a small office, this means that you'll be spending many consecutive hours and days at a time in close proximity with people who are not there primarily because they love your company. Don't crowd them. I mean this in the most literal physical sense - e.g., don't loom over them, don't block traffic in the corridors, don't use up more than your share of amenities. But also tone it down in terms of sounds, sights, and smells - you may think it's charming to hum or whistle all day, to give office mates the opportunity to watch you grope your significant other when she visits, or to wear a lot of cologne. Meanwhile, your coworkers may be feeling like hostages to your allegedly dazzling personal style, and leading lives of quiet desperation.

  • You already know that it's a terrible idea to date your boss or your subordinate. But dating anyone in your workplace is a potential disaster, because both the infatuation and the break-up stages are so disruptive to your coworkers. If the two of you were already married to each other when you were hired, then you are tolerated or even cherished under a marital grandfather clause. However, if you split up, it will be even more disruptive than the break up of a casual dating relationship, so I suggest that you and your spouse just learn to put up with each other.

  • In professional settings, be modest about both your good fortune and your bad fortune. There's always someone who is suffering more or suffering less than you are.

  • Avoid arguing with other people about their feelings and experiences; by the time you hear about them, these things are already a done deal. Of course, if you find a colleague who also thinks that this is an amusing pastime, by all means get together and do this after work. Consenting adults are entitled to their pointless hobbies, but should not inflict them on fellow workers who have not signed up for it. Come to think of it, this principle applies to many workplace conversations, and not just to the futile activity of trying to convince people that what they felt and experienced should be superseded by what you think they should have felt and experienced.

  • Hold the highest possible ethical standards for yourself, but don't expect everyone to share them or live up to them. Those who share your principles will not always live up to them, and those who live up to their principles will not always share yours.

  • Never assume that people have crucial information, if it hasn't been explicitly disclosed to them. It's always possible that they don't know that you hate the sound of chewing gum being snapped. While you're seething with rage, make a decision to find a way tell them diplomatically, or to resign yourself to silence and acceptance. By the way, this principle applies to more than gum snapping. If something falls under the category of "the way we do things around here" or "the things that are unacceptable here," and you haven't explained them to the person who is out of line, then don't blame him for not knowing.

  • Sentences that start with "Why do you always...?" and "Why don't you ever...?" are accusations, not questions. If you use them in the workplace, you're not setting up that conversation for success.

  • Operate on the assumption that everyone is reading what you post to Twitter, Facebook, and your blog. This includes your current and future bosses. If you don't want them to know what you're thinking, doing, and saying - then don't post it publicly with your real name attached to it.

  • Actively promote the careers of colleagues who are sane, productive, smart, and considerate. It's the right thing to do in itself, but it's also self-interested. If we all do this, we could end up working in a sector where power is in the hands of good people.

  • Make a strategic plan, but resign yourself to the inevitable emergence of completely unanticipated factors.

  • Be punctual for meetings. If you can't be punctual, a brief and straightforward apology is appropriate. You've already inconvenienced someone by being late; don't take up more time. This is not an opportunity to boast about how busy and important you are.

  • Accept the fact that you have to make the best judgement call that you can, with the options, information, and abilities that you have at the moment of decision. Moreover, even the best possible choice may cause pain and regret. That's not just a fact of working life; that's the human condition.

  • Act as if you've been deputized (by God, your executive director, or Emily Post - your choice) to help other people feel welcomed by your organization. Greet people, make eye contact, provide introductions if it's appropriate, ask them if they need anything. Do it in a quiet, low-key manner - but do it. Even if they end up despising your organization, they'll probably remember you favorably.

  • Recognize that many people project their family dynamics into the workplace, and refrain from doing it. Always remember that your boss is not your parent, and your colleagues are not your rival siblings. And if someone starts behaving irrationally toward you, consider the possibility that he doesn't even know you're there. Perhaps he's re-fighting a conflict with his mother - one that occurred 30 years ago.

  • I recognize that many of my rants have two underlying messages: stop whining, and learn to deal with it. However, there are definite limits to stoicism. If you're being bullied or exploited in the workplace, quit.


Anonymous said...

Thnak you! And this doesn't just apply in the nonprofit sector.

Anonymous said...

Your article manages to highlight a lot of the stupid and pointless conversations that my colleagues and I have in the workplace. Is the upshot here that I should just keep my mouth shut?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for articulating all the things that can make any workplace tough, annoying and intolerable. To me the gist of it comes down to self-responsibility and being respectful of others while doing the job you were hired to do. Thanks for sharing.