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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Outdated management models continue to persist despite scientific studies on how people actually work.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?

When I requested a meeting with the E.D., they punted back via email, “I’d be happy to, but can you please talk to your supervisor first?” I went into the meeting incredibly nervous, and knew, simply by the look on their face, that they’d made their mind. I proposed, inarticulately, having sensed the odds stacked against me, a job redesign, to cross-train with the program assistant so we could have some professional development opportunities within the organization – all in all, it was a reasonable request.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

Their response was, “Jenny, I’m always going to do what’s best for the organization.”

They thought I was asking them to put my interests at the expense of the org, but that’s not what I was asking them to do at all. I was asking them to work with me within the existing structure – though their vision didn’t allow for this kind of flexibility. The organization was structured and managed like a high-powered machine, and we were scarce for human resources. The staff – like machine parts – had to perform as efficiently and perfectly in their singular roles for the organization to run with it’s ever growing needs and demands – call it manifest destiny. This structure left no room (i.e. no time) for individual growth. There was barely time for the staff to talk to each other like people.

There’s a very deliberate reason why I haven’t used the word “team” or “teamwork” to describe the dynamics at this organization. The implicit value of “teamwork,” and explicit value of “collaboration,” was only ever put into practice externally with agency partners, funders, and donors.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

Not surprisingly, these types of organizational cultures perpetuate power inequalities, which also feed and exasperate racial and gender inequities. It’s easy to disregard an assistant’s request when she’s the one with the least amount of power in the organization. Structures normalize that kind of behavior. I failed to mention that our staff and board at the time was going through our first inklings of diversity and inclusion training. Was it a coincidence that I was the only person of color on staff? That I left in the middle of diversity and inclusion training? At the time, all I had were my feelings – poorly simplified as a rough square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

It became clear to me that it was a question of structure and culture, and a much deeper question about values. The binary, it’s either my staff or the success of my organization, is a false dichotomy.

In the New York Times Magazine’s recent “Work Issue,” Charles Duhigg writes about Google’s search for the perfect team and for the dynamics that make for the most productive collaborations. After researching over a 100 teams over the course of a year, they found that group norms were the key to a team's success.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

Duhigg references a Carnegie Mellon M.I.T. psychology study conducted in 2008 on collective I.Q. that emerges within a team, which is distinct from single-member intelligence. What they found were many different iterations of working norms: for example some teams divided responsibilities equally, while some utilized the strengths of individual members; yet ultimately not all good teams appeared to behave in the same way. The study found that the two behaviors that all good teams generally shared were: “members spoke roughly in the same proportion” and members were “skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.” For teams where an individual or a small segment of the group dominated the conversation, the collective intelligence declined. These two indicators equated to higher group intelligence, and are aspects of Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s term for “psychological safety.”

In Duhigg's book Smarter, Faster, Better, he explores more deeply these sorts of dynamics, including a very entertaining section crediting "psychological safety" for the long-run success of Saturday Night Live amidst the booze, drugs, and writer/comedian feuds. "Psychological safety,” as defined by Edmonson is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking...a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up…it describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Looking back, all my internalized feelings of failure and frustration, have been contextualized through lots and lots of research.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu 2008

It’s also a constant proof that my current place of work is more than special, that it is rare. I feel grateful everyday for the people on my team. We respect and regard each other’s feelings. We never ever, minimize (directly or indirectly) each other’s humanity or contributions, for the sake of executing a task or goal. My current E.D. is a real-life example of the kind of leader I want to be.

I do not write this lightly, but I love what I do, who I do it with, and who I do it for. Sure, there’s a lot of people that can reason that they’ve received great professional development from their previous jobs as a reason for putting up with bad work dynamics – I know I probably received 5 years of professional development in the 2.5 years from my last gig – but how many people can say that their current place of employment has made them a better human being? Who doesn’t just feel obligated to an organization because they’re getting paid, but is truly committed and invested to the vision and their team? The right kind of culture and environment with an inspired leader at the helm can cultivate just that.

There’s a current movement, called Under their manifesto, in response to constantly shifting markets (those can be defined as tech, consumer, nonprofit/social sector) and the overwhelming information we receive:

Responsive Organizations are built to learn and respond rapidly through the open flow of information; encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles; and organizing as a network of employees, customers, and partners motivated by shared purpose.

Photo Credit: Jenny Chu, 2008

Several successful companies, including Google, Medium, Mic, Zappos and others are shifting their modes and ways of working. There are also kinks and problems that come from radically flattening out management structures, including this fascinating New Republic article on Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh’s radical implementation of holacracy. Or this fairly entertaining, if not infuriating, New York Times profile piece titled “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?” – with anecdotes of interns eating tuna fish sandwiches at 10 am meetings with senior execs present.

There is a right balance somewhere. calls for a more horizontal management structure, which has proven gains for productivity as well as personal, professional, and organizational outcomes. To read more about the incredible effectiveness of self-management with clearly outlined expectations and deadlines, go to this New York Times Magazine article “Rethinking the Work Life Equation.”

For you Portlanders who work, and are more curious about, there is a Meet-Up being hosted at Corraggio on April 13, 2016 at 6 pm. Click on the link to RSVP.

With all of this, I’ve learned that human capital is the most important resource in a workplace, and the how we express this value is equally as influential to our success. It may be true that there’s never a clearly wrong way or right way to do things, but there are always better methodologies.

Stay Backwords,

Jenny M. Chu

P.S. The photo shoot was done at work -- when it wasn't suppose to be. If I knew then, what I know now, instead of "office work" scrawled onto its forehead, it would have said "inequitable work environment + extreme boredom."

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