“What does his dad do?” or “What does your husband do?” are common initial questions you might ask a son about a friend or a neighbor about her husband. Some folks disguise the intent more gracefully but just about everyone seems to search for this critical data point when discussing others.
Far more than makes some comfortable our profession becomes our identity. What we do shapes how others perceive us, irrespective of how it molds our affect, our conduct. All of us deploy sociology and make assumptions about others. Except maybe people with always-arched eyebrows. They look surprised by everything.
Mason, Smith, Taylor, Painter, Carpenter, Farmer. Are these names or what the family did? Before capitalism took root, people were not only locked into the same social strata, they had few career options.
Today, once you penetrate a career angle, you will typically advance your pay enough within several years that it becomes difficult to break into another industry without a concurrent reduction in pay. This dynamic reinforces the likelihood of staying in one swim lane, one general industry.
People who go into the private sector will usually work from their early twenties into their sixties, so they can easily put in 40-45 years in the workforce. Indeed, the years your kids are in the house are dwarfed by the number of years you work. A big part of why your job title so identifies you.
I should note that there is one group of professional folks who planned a little better than that. Public service employees, feeding from the public trough, can put in 20 or 25 years and retire with a nice monthly check. Take a River Cruise on the Danube and you will find the ship is full of retired youngish school teachers. What a gig! They get summers off, a couple weeks off several times a year, and just try driving by the parking lot of a school at 4:30 and see how many cars are still there. And don’t get started on the political power of their union. I think we have quadrupled the money into public education since I went to school (granted, that was around the time the earth cooled). Catholic schools are amazing. Low cost and they kill it academically. In all sorts of neighborhoods.
So back to the topic, which is that we are what we do. It is part of our definition. So, unless your mantra is “Bro, I’m not just my business card” then there is great personal value in being good at what you do. Being good at it, being positive about it, being positive about your employer and in having a positive effect on your colleagues.
Treat your job respectfully. In conversation, treat your role as important.
Root for your company. A healthy employer, making money, reaching its goals, is a much safer environment if security is your game, and an environment likely to provide upward mobility options if career enhancement or a more responsible role is the play.
The best teammates make others around them better. You can do that by telling colleagues you respect their work, no matter how mundane. But only when they do it really well. Not okay. Telling someone they did a great job, when it was okay, makes you look a fool and reduces the standards of success to mediocre. You take mediocre and rebrand it as excellent.
But when someone does a job well, and you comment, you have much potential for impact. First, this colleague is now in a position to live up to the good name you applied. They will not want to disappoint or have you think you made a mistake in judgement. When you are in the vicinity, they will step up their game.
Secondly, it reinforces to this colleague that what they do matters. And to matter is a critical part of every successful teammate. Can you imagine how detached teammates must feel if they think the team would do just as well without them?
Stream of Consciousness alert- this topic of how much you matter at work makes me go back to the public sector. Because I don’t think there are many people in private industry who are doing jobs that don’t matter. Keeping the loading dock clean or working in accounts payable or painting the stripes in the parking lot. All needed. But how about the suits in the Department of Energy or the Department of Commerce? Can you imagine how cool it would be if the entire Department of Education just disappeared? Is here a local school district who would give a hoot? I moved to the D.C. area a couple years ago and doing business in this town, learning how issues are dealt with, gives you that shiver in your liver.
If you matter at work and if others know you matter, then powerful incentives exist to foster teamwork. A group of folks working together toward a shared purpose is a dynamic sensation. People like that. They can get stoked.
I know, I know, it is hard for you to imagine your workplace as stoked. Maybe I went too far for some, but a trip of a thousand miles starts with one step.
Will you take that step? Be the one in your office who speaks well of the company, talks supportively about the annual goals, tells colleagues when they do really well, asks someone a bit about her role?
Leadership is not bound by position power. Personal power plays a role. People don’t fall in line behind a leader, they join a leader.