A Lit Review: Workplace

If you asked my twenty-something-year-old self if I would be reading books and articles on leadership management, or company culture, or racial equity in the workplace with the same voracious appetite I once devoured the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Junot Diaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – I’d say, “you’re fucking crazy, and you don’t know me at all.” If you told me that I’d be spending my precious down-time hours, reading books like Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life & Business or robust articles titled, "Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity" – as a creative, I’d think you were making a derogatory comment about my artistic temperament – but seeing that the book was just published on March 8, 2016 and I’m already a third way through it, and that I’ve used that article to guide recruitment practices within my volunteer program at work – never, say never.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

I’ve been a little obsessed with leadership and workplace dynamics lately because 1) I’ve been planning a Racial Equity Think Tank with a small group; 2) I co-run a niche business-passion-project with two friends; 3) my entire professional history has been at bureaucratic companies that claimed to care about their employees but did little to prove it; and, having left those, I’ve finally found myself at a job I love.

Outdated management models continue to persist despite scientific studies on how people actually work. Workplaces are often inefficiently hierarchal, guided more by ideas of professionalism and appropriateness. Too often misunderstanding of the relationship between time-management and productivity, or prone to unreasonable separations of the personal from the person, these oppressive modes of management seem to be the norm, perpetuating power dynamics that are unrealistic and inequitable, even arguably nonproductive. I myself have felt guilty, with certain managers, when asking for time off. I have seen coworkers turn on each other, feel jealous when someone takes time for themselves or their families. I’ve seen workplaces trumped up on power. And this one is my favorite kind of workplace offense: DUPLICITY, which can simply be defined as the organization’s lip-service values versus their actual practiced values.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

I worked at a place with a bunch of high-functioning star players at a fast-growing, high-profile organization. We had an incredible reputation, fun events, and an impressive budget – we were incredibly shiny. I really liked my E.D., and respected them even more. I was in the “cool kids club,” simply, by being employed there, despite an entry-level position. People developed crushes on me simply because I was there, the same way painfully hopeful customers get infatuated with the barista at (insert any hipster) coffeeshop. But all of this notoriety came at an incredible high human cost. Professionalism was set on a pedestal, as was perfectionism. I was reminded on multiple occasions by my direct supervisor that I was always representing the organization no matter where I was. I wondered: when was I supposed to be Jenny?

Without getting into too much detail, looking back, I was set-up for feeling like a failure. I had a job that required a lot of undisturbed time (grants), but I was constantly being peppered with little requests and disturbances from multiple sources (life of an assistant and front desk clerk). A New York Times article on distraction, referencing a University of California Irvine study, found “a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after interruption.” I was scattered and always anxious, and I snuck in too many extra hours to make up for it for what I thought was my simple inability and inadequacy to do the work.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

The E.D., like many bosses, said they valued work/life balance, transparency and equal feedback from their employees. The open-air look of the office, perhaps taking a page from tech, might have suggested the same sort of collaborative and innovative environment. I believed their good intentions, until they gave me a reason not to.

The reason came near the end of my tenure. After 2.5 years, though I loved the org and its mission, I knew I needed to supplement my position with more fulfilling work. I did my research. I requested one-on-one meetings with the other program directors to see how they would feel about me cross-training with the program assistant. I checked in with the program assistant to make sure I wasn’t stepping on her toes. I wasn’t sneaky about meeting, yet when my direct supervisor learned about this, I was pulled into a closed-door conference room and told very clearly that I had “stepped out of line, and that my actions were inappropriate.” I felt penalized, but ultimately felt a rational anger that if we weren’t suppose to talk to each other in the office, then why the façade of an open-air workspace? Why weren’t we just all in cubicles?