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Just tell me what to do!

“I’m committed to this organization, but I don’t understand what they want anymore. I wish they would just tell me what to do!”

The manager overhearing this conversation on the other side of a cubicle shrugs with frustration and thinks, “I’ve told them. They just don’t get it!”

What is the mystery that underlies this exchange? Managers spend time communicating goals, listening to concerns, and seeking to move the organization toward a shared vision and mission. Employees try to meet expectations and be a part of the team. But there is an unspoken agenda in many workplaces that can undermine the best intentions of managers and employees.

Hours are committed to writing accurate job descriptions. Some employers even develop replicable hiring criteria. Research shows that employees are so stressed by annual performance reviews that productivity suffers for weeks before and after the review. Yet few consider what is the most wished for workplace attribute: that people take on personal responsibility for their work and the organization — that people act as if they are self-employed at work.

Here are some of the unwritten attributes that define the self-employed at work phenomenon:

  • Be creative and inventive – see your work as owned by yourself, not by your employer or supervisor.
  • Be self-initiating and self-evaluating – identify problems and issues and evaluate what is working and what isn’t, suggest and initiate potential solutions. Don’t wait for others to do it for you.
  • Take responsibility – see yourself as an actor that participates in creating the internal and external work environment, you are as responsible for what happens in the organization as the next person, including your supervisor.
  • Be professional – master and author your work role and career. Don’t be an apprentice forever, continually imitate others, or only mimic the company line.
  • See the system as a whole – look beyond your own role and part to see the whole, your relationship to the whole, and how the parts work together.

While most of us were hired for a specific position and may not actually be self-employed, I would invite consideration of the idea that employers biggest, unwritten wish is that people take ownership of their job, that they become self-employed at work. Robert Kegan and his team continue to do research on this issue as well as on the idea of immunity to change. I recommend his book, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, which looks at the question of what is really being demanded of us not only in the workplace, but in life.

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