Listening to the gut feeling

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It’s probably a weird hobby, but I tend to go to a lot of job interviews, even when I am not  actively searching for a job. Sure, I don’t apply for anything I wouldn’t want or for which I am not qualified (obviously I wouldn’t be invited to an interview without qualifications). I have probably written somewhere before that I think keeping the interview skills sharp is important, and even if I can’t claim to be brilliant at interviewing skills, despite my keeping my “hat in the ring”, I would be even worse if I weren’t actively practicing.

Because this is a common enough occurrence in my life, as a hobby, I give the process and the part of the process that involves gut feeling, a lot of thought. Possibly I am more interested in worklife/human resource linguistic anthropology than in getting jobs. I’ve written before about red flags and alarm bells experienced in interview situations. Sometimes, though, things are even more subtle. You get a sense for a company culture by the small things you see and observe. You might be wrong about the impression you get, but ultimately those impressions matter. You probably aren’t going to feel particularly comfortable in these places if you do get these inexplicable feelings or unusual observations.

I am thinking now about a few other examples. I had a great series of interviews with a company but to start with they rescheduled interviews multiple times throughout the process. I am flexible, so this was okay, especially when we were doing Skype calls and could be flexible. But then they invited me for some final interviews, which required moving around a lot of my schedule and traveling at the last minute. I flew to the city where the company was located. And late in the evening the night before the interview, they emailed to ask if I would mind postponing an entire day. Not just a few hours but an entire day. I already had my tickets to return home in the evening, after the originally scheduled interview. Looking back, maybe I should have said no. Instead I agreed to the change but told them that it was really inconvenient.

In the end, even though the interviews went well, I noticed as soon as I went to the offices that everyone I saw in the office except for a receptionist, everyone I talked to, everyone who was referred to as being a part of the global organization, was a man. And when they talked about their customers, they kept referring to the men who use these products and their wives. It may well be that the majority of their customers are men, but the framing was (unintentionally) gender imbalanced. And later, when they called to tell me it had been a hard decision, narrowed down to one other person and me, they ultimately hired the other person – a man. I don’t necessarily think that was conscious or had anything to do with it, but it was something that I clearly observed. The gender imbalance coupled with the multiple last-minute shifts in schedule led me to think that it was a good thing that things didn’t work out.

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

 

 

 

the soup and noodles of compassion

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How important is compassion? Or empathy? Can you “compassion” your way through life? Can you just as readily “compassion yourself out of” experiences and connections? Every time I meet a new person, and they ask me what traits are important or attractive in others, or even what drives me, I can only reply, “Compassion”. I think they are expecting a more glib or easy answer, and “compassion” often confounds the listener. It is almost as though they don’t know what it is or how to talk about it. As time goes by, though, I can’t think of another answer. There are other things that are important to me – empathy, learning – but compassion surpasses them all. And to see the looks on people’s faces when I voice this, you’d think I was speaking an alien language.

Strange, then, to see a number of articles pop up in business press emphasizing the importance of compassion and empathy in leaders (and in innovation). All such articles mention the fact that compassion is sorely and quite visibly absent in most corporate leaders and missions (certainly in practice if not in theory). Perhaps I have been ahead of the curve, even if my commitment to compassion, in practice and daily life, still sees me on the outside looking in. After all, the presence of these traits is rare, and these articles I cite only point to the need for compassion at an executive level, not necessarily the need for compassion in every interaction we have, every action we take. I, for example, shift myself into a place inside to find the compassion each time I am tempted to unleash my inner annoyance, frustration, judgment, crankiness, tiredness, boredom. It’s not that those feelings do not exist. They just need to take a backseat, belt themselves in and let humility and thoughtfulness take the wheel.

The intersection of compassion and corporate life, though, is something else. Something interesting, actually. Lately (as in the last few years), I find myself answering questions in job interviews and professional situations in the exact same way I do when I meet people in other, more social situations.

“What do you think the most important attribute in your arsenal is?”

“Compassion.”

I know I am expected in these moments to talk about a skill or experience that makes me suited for whatever role I’m discussing. But I return to, and ramble about, compassion. This always seems somewhat out of place in the moment, but I continue to push it because it is needed. The fact that interviewers or colleagues give me blank, deer-in-the-headlights stares proves to me that 1. compassion needs to be pushed, and 2. (in interview situations) I don’t want to work in that place anyway.

This idea – letting compassion guide and inform your choices – can make life harder. It’s something of a luxury to be able to choose or not choose with this one principle in mind. I consider, for example, that an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, in which power can accumulate unchecked, leads to corruption at the top, and a culture in which ethics are not valued, and trust becomes non-existent. Responsibility has no meaning. While most of what I have read that ties into my thinking focuses on looking at leaders/CEOs who have been blinded by power and the burdens of bottom-line decision-making, I’d argue that deeply corrupt or flawed leadership has trickle-down effects, and thus poisons an entire organization and its culture. (Hence my not wanting to work in environments in which someone looks at me strangely or rolls out the slow, “Okaaaayyyyy…”-style response to my comment. If the HR department or the hiring manager or future colleagues or current colleagues cannot intuitively understand the link between compassion and the good of/functioning of the company and its culture, I don’t necessarily want to be there to fight against that.)

From HBR.org:

“…the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and associate with others. David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

It is not that every leader lacks empathy; in fact, their leadership role and its responsibilities take a toll on the ability to empathize. The decision-making at the scale and pace at which people in power must do so apparently rewires the brain, making the consequences of these decisions more remote and less human. This rewiring does not have to happen and can be reversed, and compassion is the key:

“While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.”

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, was recently profiled in a Wharton article that focused largely on Nadella’s view that avoiding hubris, valuing learning and embodying empathy lead to success and innovation. Apart from the obvious nods to leadership-style change, i.e. Microsoft’s attempt to shift from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”, which is in itself a huge step toward understanding: you acknowledge that you don’t and can’t know everything but that you are always and voraciously willing to keep learning, Nadella credits empathy as a significant underpinning to real innovation:

“This is a quality one doesn’t typically see on a list of top CEO character traits. But in Nadella’s view, empathy is, among other things, a key source of business innovation. He said that although many regard it as a “soft skill,” not especially relevant to the “hard work of business,” it is a wellspring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”

I can get behind this with relative enthusiasm (I only have so much of it), but I was curious in reading about Nadella’s perspective as to how and why people can only seem to come to a place where they are willing to introduce and admit empathy (and compassion) into all aspects of their lives only after they have experienced their own personal adversity? And even then, do you only empathize with those certain things you can relate to? Moz former CEO Rand Fishkin, who recently departed Moz, posted a farewell-to-Moz, hello-to-SparkToro (his new company) letter, in which he cites empathy as one of the most important/best skills he developed – yes, developed – because, he writes, it does not come naturally.

Can empathy only be felt when you have experienced similar things (while, as the HBR article posits, compassion is more about the intent to contribute to the well-being of others, regardless of your ability to relate to or feel the feelings of others)? Perhaps this depends on how you define and interpret “compassion”, which I think folds thoughtfulness, patience, empathy and this ineffable ‘intent’ into one big fluffy ball. I don’t know that I buy it, and in some way, find it disappointing, if true, that people are only capable of empathy by learning to be empathetic through their own experiences.

Still, any and all empathy, no matter how and when it arrives, is better than none.

 

Image (c) 2018 Naomi/Paddy Litvak

the operating system of the job interview

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I think we’ve all had job interviews during which red flags were raised and alarm bells went off in our heads, cautioning us to take a step back and consider whether we really want to work with these people. I certainly have. By the same token, I have also had interviews with people who were immediately engaging, whose intelligence and vision made me immediately want to join forces.

I was thinking today about the former kind, the “this isn’t good”-gut-feeling interview. That is, the interviewer is late, is rushed and stressed, fiddles with their phone or email for a few minutes once the interview has begun, apologizing but nevertheless continuing.

I’m thinking: This is a first impression, dude. And it’s not going so well.

Then the discussion begins. I’m thrown off my game a bit because they have already created this atmosphere. The tone is set. They use words that only certain kinds of people use, “Anyone who works for me will tell you this.”

I’m thinking: In this day and age, who really says ‘works for me’, especially when they’ve been touting the flat, almost-non-existent hierarchy and lack of pretense? Yes, maybe I would be part of your team… but say instead “anyone who works in my team or anyone who works with me”… . The use of “works for me” immediately conveys a kind of (possibly unconscious) structure from within that person’s mind, which strives (again, possibly unconsciously) to establish a power dynamic. And yes, maybe that person would be my manager, but I don’t want a manager who chooses that particular language. I am at a stage in my career and life where I choose with whom to work, not for whom to work.

Once the discussion ends, 45 minutes into the appointed time, right on schedule in fact, they adopt a sarcastic and accusatory tone: “This conversation has gone well over time.”

I’m thinking: Oh, I think not.

And… it was okay for you to disrespect my time at the beginning of the interview but then to get an attitude when you mistakenly believe I have overrun your time?

I don’t love being a nitpicking asshole. I don’t love being overly sensitive. In this case, I don’t like being something of an analyst about minute word choice. I have found, however, that when I dismissed these concerns in the past and convinced myself I was being overly sensitive, I have ended up in some of the worst professional situations I’ve ever been in.

And no, I don’t need that.

Work: 2 key considerations about your future… or maybe I’m a renegade

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I think a lot about work. Every aspect of work. Not my specific job or career but the overall concept of work.

And I always have. Even when I was in high school/college, I was trying to wrap my head around the different aspects of work. Work life, labor policy, pay, equality, office life, teamwork, reconciling being a non-conformist introvert with the “rah rah” of corporate cheerleading, recruitment, innovation and automation in recruitment, the shift from “pounding the pavement” to targeted online search and the role of technology in hiring and working, the economics of hiring, maintaining a workforce, building small businesses and startups, fitting into a corporate culture (or not) and finding one’s professional niche. I have thought a lot about the past (the “job for life”), the present (freelance/for-hire/impermanent job culture) and the future. All of this can include everything from education and how people learn and enter the workforce to how individuals can find just the right career and balance that works for them. It’s no more cookie cutter than anything else in life, but often it feels like the whole concept of work life is a conveyer belt in a factory making millions of the same commoditized, non-differentiated product.

No, not every company or job is alike. Very different cultures, industries, expectations… but when it’s boiled down to, for example, the job ad – the hook that gets someone to apply in the first place – there is very little differentiation. Recruiters can ask for different approaches to applying (for example, “send us a video and tell us about yourself” – but that just lights up all the pseudo-legal, proto-litigious lights in my head, “And open myself up for blind discrimination because I’m a middle aged lady?”) and change things up, but even the fresh wording in job ads is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle coding. A lot like real estate ads that describe a dilapidated shithole as a place with a lot of potential, if you just think outside the box and will just use your imagination, elbow grease and a lot of energy to turn it into your dream home, many jobs turn out to be the same.

And maybe these limit us – all of us. For example, I might see a job description that mentions how “young” and “fresh” the company is – I am immediately thinking about how environments emphasizing youth, a. probably don’t want anyone over 30, b. no one over 30 and/or really experienced wants to be there, c. the company probably demands much more than they give back, d. it would not be a good fit. And maybe nine times out of ten, it wouldn’t be a good fit. BUT… what if the job description was written by just one person who had a bias or interpretation and that is not at all what the job or company was about? Or, what if, like Microsoft, every job ad spewed into the world, read like it was written by a computer?

Thinking about limitations, probably the biggest concern/lingering thought I have on work pertains to remote work and home offices. I have long felt that technology would enable employees and employers alike to have their pick of the right fit regardless of geography (this has not managed to bear out the way I expected on a large scale). I’ve become semi-activist in my firm belief in remote/distance/distributed work and flexibility in the workplace. I’ve run my own business from a home office for 19 years without a hitch, but somehow most regular jobs and companies aren’t up to speed with that unless they are working with freelancers/outside “renegades”. So maybe I’m a renegade.

The point of this is that work takes up a lot of our lives. And we can end up feeling pretty miserable just because we take on a job (and stay in it) when it’s not the right fit. I read an article today that highlighted five things you need to make sure you do before you sign the dotted line on any new job.

From this, I took away key two points as an extension of the writer’s points:

It’s so tempting to just take the offer and put the job search to rest — but your career, not to mention your health and sanity, are more important than a quick close!”

This statement is true – no job is worth your sanity or health. You might need a paycheck, and you might say yes to a job that won’t be your career to pay the bills. But looking long-term, you’ve got to look for a good fit. BUT (!) what struck me here is the statement that one puts the job search to rest.

In this day and age, in an uncertain and even unstable economic climate and with the ease/automation of the search, does anyone ever “put the job search to rest”? Aren’t you always kind of keeping your eyes and ears open, feelers out and antennae up? Am I just crazy that I regularly update my CV, I keep an eye on the job market and in-demand skills, that I take on occasional freelance and volunteer opportunities, sometimes apply and interview for jobs (if not to get the job to keep the interview skills intact?)? Maybe because I have obsessed about work all my life this restlessness is to be expected, but perhaps a less obsessive but certainly thoughtful and measured approach (always having the job search at least casually open to possibilities) would be advisable.

The second point:

It can take nerves of steel to pass on a job opportunity, but if you’ve ever had the wrong job, you’ll know why it’s important to have standards.

The wrong job can shorten your lifespan.”

I agree on the stress and shortened lifespan. I’ve had some wrong jobs, and I found myself tied in knots, stressed, unable to sleep… and so blinded by the need for a job that I could not even recognize the signs until I had moved on to a new/better situation. Stay clued in when your mind, body and heart are trying to tell you something. It, as the above states, requires nerves of steel to say no – but you are your own best – and sometimes only – advocate. You’ve got to have the guts to say no, back out or take yourself out of the running if the fit just isn’t there or if you have doubts. Or even sometimes when your own life circumstances change and might render you temporarily the wrong fit for a job or company. I have finally learned to do this – for the most part. Sometimes it’s complicated, and a job offer (or job) has a lot of contingencies sucking you in like eight octopus arms squeezing you. Even after some let go, others still tether you there. Recognizing those tethers and figuring out how to ease your way free of them can be a good strategy.

But… what most struck me with this statement is not just that you should say no to the job offer but also that you should think seriously about whether to even go through with the interview – or subsequent interviews in the case of multiple interviews. Sometimes you see a job that looks perfect on paper. You read the ad and you check all the boxes and are ready for or need a new challenge. You apply. You are asked to an interview, but something about the initial exchange leaves you ill at ease. I have learned that this too is a test of will. When I was young and freshly out of college, just getting interviews was a triumph. I went to a lot of painful interviews for things I did not remotely want to do. Back then I sort of had to – but that marked me and influenced this idea that I couldn’t say no, especially because I was the one who had initiated the application process. But you can and should say no if something feels “off” – while you may well have been interested in the first place, interest cools – and you will thank yourself later for not putting yourself in an awkward situation (and for not wasting your own or a potential employer’s time).

It’s your life, your work. You don’t have to be a renegade but you also don’t have to settle for anything that threatens to kill you. If the wrong job can shorten your lifespan, at least find a way to dominate and enjoy the lifespan you have.

The American way – a light extinguished

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus”

I like to ignore the realities of America now that I don’t live there, but it is true that what happens in the US does affect the world.

Brainwashing in the US begins early. Most people don’t think of it that way – and even rather anti-American people I meet in Europe sometimes think I am going too far when I describe the US system as a form of slavery (especially if one compares it to actual slavery, which of course is an entirely different, toxic and horrifying institution/monstrosity). It might be better to call it indentured servitude, with the indenture owed to student loan companies and increasingly inhumane workplaces. People are too brainwashed to know that that is the machine they are a part of – indoctrinated into the idea that they are would-be millionaires (as John Steinbeck said, ““Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) or that “anything is possible” if they work hard enough – and taught from an early age to value material goods over anything else, so that, unless they are actually hit by real hardship, an average American thinks he is prospering because he managed to buy … a new Jeep or something.

I often tell the disembodied and soulless story as one in which you are born and are told from the earliest time that you must get an education, so you go to public school (or whatever form you attend) and basically learn how not to think while a lot of nonsense is hammered into your head and creativity is systematically removed – stay in line, be quiet, color inside the lines, do what everyone else is doing, no that is not the right interpretation of this, there is only one right answer and only one way to get there). Then you are told you have to go to college or else you will not get a job. You go into great debt to do so. Naturally after that your hands are tied by the debt, so you take whatever job you can get rather than whatever job will make you happy – but you are also convinced that you will be happy if you buy the aforementioned Jeep. And of course unquestionably America is the greatest country in the world (and if you question it, get out because you’re no patriot!), so it does not matter that you don’t have the money or time to travel to see the world. You have a Jeep you can drive around with since you have cheap oil! And since you are stuck wherever you are anyway paying your student debt, you might as well do what everyone else does. Buy a house. Get married. You might start to question whether you are happy in your job, but you know you won’t find another one easily anyway … and now you have a kid or two, so you need to stay in your job to keep your healthcare. Then you play the tug-of-war with yourself about whether you can be a good parent, whether you have enough money for their daycare, whether one of the parents should leave their job (if there are two parents, of course) until you enroll your own kid into the same system that produced you just the way you are now and the same story repeats. And repeats and repeats.

This story, even if it differs from individual to individual, is somewhat amazing to incredulous Europeans, who actually don’t think of the details and intricacy of how this average American mind is formed/created. They often just imagine that “Americans are dumb” (broad strokes of generalization, of course) but fail to take the whole system into consideration. When I tell this story to the average American, it is equally amazing because the semi-awake one never thinks about the fact that each chain in the link of his life is some spot where he has been further handcuffed into the, shall we say, chain gang? University costs – mostly free in much of Europe – healthcare – largely free in Europe – daycare subsidized by the state – lots of vacation time and maternity/paternity leave … sure, taxes are slightly higher (but honestly not that much) – and most do not feel like they are enslaved by their jobs. You can leave any time without risking health coverage. These too are generalizations, especially in this era of steep austerity cuts and unemployment at unheard of rates in much of mainland Europe (Scandinavia is not quite in the same position).

The general theme here, though, is that there is a tremendous freedom to this and an impetus to then really think. But how could an average American be expected to think with that whole backstory forming and informing his life?

The American lifestyle and system creates a certain kind of constant fear. Fear of losing one’s job, fear of violence, fear of being sued, fear of in any way being out of step with the norm. I thought about this one night as I was driving my long-distance commute back home and saw a guy hitchhiking trying to get from a town called Bengtsfors to Årjäng (none of which will be familiar to or mean anything to anyone reading this). It may not be charitable of me not to have offered a ride since I was driving right through Årjäng. But hitchhiking is dangerous territory. I have no idea if this guy posed any danger, and maybe anywhere in the world, it would be foolish to chance it, but even if it were almost a guarantee that it would have been safe, I still would not have done it. You can take an American out of America but not shake the full American paranoia out of them. I have more than my share of this paranoia, assuming that everyone has bad or dangerous intentions and ulterior motives. Being American has taught me never to trust anything.

Maybe it is crazy and sounds like I am looking for the boogieman around every corner, particularly in the working world. Somewhere in me, I find it fun to search and apply for (and interview for, if called) jobs. It did not start as a fun hobby – it was more out of necessity when I searched like mad to find a job (as was always the case in my earlier life – applying for 100 jobs and getting maybe one interview or something). But eventually when I did not need to worry about it anymore and did not need a job, I decided it was partly fun, a bit of a game and one can always use interview practice (and potentially a free trip somewhere). But it was partly this paranoia showing its face – companies go under, companies downsize, industries change – you need to be ready and out there and know what the bloody hell is going on. Be ye ever ready, right? And I am.

Before the big crash of 2008, I was living in Iceland and actually went on a lot of interview trips around Europe… Dublin, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, London, a few times to Helsinki… cannot complain. While it is not always practical, it usually pays off. I have never once been blindsided. If you are paranoid (and/or American) enough, you will always see the writing on the wall and READ IT.

One of my freelance/side “careers” has ended up being job counselor/life coach/resume-and-interview consultant. Not that I ever wanted to do that. Europeans especially need a bit of coaching in this department because they have never experienced the dog-eat-dog American work culture (and I hope they never reach a point that they experience something quite like that). But Europeans are too soft, and there is no doubt that some things in Europe are slowly moving in a more American direction (although I don’t think it will ever go to the extremes). In my last job, there was a huge reorganization a few years ago, and something like one-third of the company was laid off. When this happens, employment laws offer considerable protection, and most decent employers extend protection and assistance beyond what the law requires. Despite the “helping hand” and the clear signs everywhere that change was afoot, those affected by this first reorg (which they euphemistically called “right sizing”) were completely blindsided because they have never been taught (how nice for them) to read the signs of what is coming. I think most aware Americans in a corporate environment are always paying attention to little things because paying just a bit of attention may pay dividends one way or another. Of course Europeans might be told pointblank that change is coming but never imagine that it will have any effect on them. Many of them were devastated in the first round of layoffs, even though they were poised to get at least half a year of pay (even if they got a new job the next day, they would still get the full pay). And the Norwegian economy was not affected much at all by the global economic downturn – so most people found jobs immediately. Their sense of panic was almost cute in its “working world naivete”. Not that I think it is great that I am so on my toes and ready for anything all the time.

It turned out for the best, of course, when I was sort of part of a later “right sizing” process. I was, as always, prepared. It was rather hilarious when my manager called me to give me the “bad news” – kept saying stuff about how I must feel so devastated and would feel it when the shock wore off. But all these strategies and acute situation awareness enabled an automatic prewarning. I was not shocked; I was not surprised. I was ready.

As we know (or should know), life is not defined by work – or should not be. Somehow, this is where American life and “ideals” derail. Increasingly, people work and work and don’t get anywhere and won’t be able to afford (in terms of time or money) some way out of the situation they are in (this is probably already the case, and I am just out of touch). When I consider that people who work in the service industry do not come close to earning living wages, I am appalled. But the system is set up this way – to glorify and maximize corporate profit, to supply consumer demand for impossibly cheaper and cheaper goods sold in stores staffed by people who cannot afford to eat.

Lovely. What a happy Thanksgiving, America.