Working Wounded: When Work Was a Calling


I remember the moment I first became intrigued with organizational dysfunction. It was 25 years ago, and I was sitting in my car after my boss had raked me over the coals for exceeding the performance goals that had been established for my position. Yes, I had gone above and beyond the call of duty at my job, and I was being put down for it.

My car stereo was blasting Bruce Springsteen's song "Badlands" ("Talking about a dream, trying to make it real. You wake up in the night, your fear is so real. You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come"). The frustration boiled over, and I remember hitting my steering wheel with my fist. It was at that moment that I decided I had to come up with a better way to handle work, because I didn't want 40 years of this.

After a decade of studying, speaking and writing about workplace topics, you'd think that by now I'd have it all figured out -- that I'd have a whole theory about why the workplace is so bad for so many of us and what we can do to turn it positive. But I was firing blanks until a few weeks ago, when I visited a local shopping mall. Yes, a shopping mall, and that's not even the most embarrassing part. The embarrassing part is that I realize now that the answer was always right in front of me, but I never saw it.

OK, enough riddles. Let me explain. I was killing some time at a shopping mall when I came across one of those kiosks that feature family crests and research on the meaning of your family name.

I looked up my last name -- "Rosner," and I discovered something remarkable. In German my family name means "rose merchant." Apparently an ancestor of mine was so into the flower trade that we literally took our name from it.

Compare this to today. Do you have so much pride in your profession that you'd be willing to have your last name be "Go-fer," "Assistant to the Deputy" or "Multi-Level-Marketer." Probably not, right?

Doctors and politicians proudly attach a work-related reference next to their names. But for the rest of us, work often seems like the last thing that we'd like to be called.

Personally, I'd like to see us return to the time when people were proud enough of what they did that they actually told the world about it -- where people felt a sense of pride that their work was their contribution to the world.

But these days our work lives are often so overwhelmed with office politics, and the type of backward thinking that led my boss to chastise me for overperforming, that most people leave their work identities behind as soon as they leave their offices. A job is the last thing we want to define us.

I fear that until management and employees can figure out a new way to collaborate, work will remain badlands for far too many of us.

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