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The politics of non-participation.

If you were to ask managers what they dislike about their jobs you would hear the expected litany: "The hours, the responsibility, the firing, dealing with the hierarchy or bureaucracy," etc.

For the last couple of years, however, we've heard another complaint that seems to bother managers more than any other. Some call it "crisis of nonparticipation." To wit: Although virtually everyone under 30 works hard, they rarely, if ever, offer ideas or suggestions, however fervently solicited. A manager in a marketing department said, "When I was a new hire I couldn't wait to throw out ideas I thought my boss would like but my direct reports are perfectly content to do whatever I ask, period. They seem to have no ideas, preferences, passions, or need to compete."

Older managers desire consensus and inclusion, that's why they value participation. They believe non-participation means you don't like what you do. For younger people--and increasingly older ones as well--feelings have no place on the job.

Many bosses also believe that involvement equals quality of work and commitment to the job. If you do the job perfectly but seldom participate in anything not absolutely required, many bosses will believe your work needs improvement. They have been brainwashed by too many team-building exercises; they can't change course now.

Attitudes toward work and by extension toward organizations are in flux. It is fruitless to make comparisons with the workplace of 30, or even 15, years ago. The latest numbers we've seen indicate that there is less than a 10% chance someone entering the labor force this year will retire from that organization in any capacity.

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Participation is a part of the political process. Workplace politics takes place among stakeholders, i.e., people who expect to build and maintain relationships with coworkers over the long term. What stake in an organization does a person have if he knows he won't be in the job a year or two from now (his choice or the organization's)? Why should he care what happens to the organization after he's gone? Even if he has wonderful ideas, why bother sharing them? Why pay attention to the grapevine, chat at the coffee pot, or play on the bowling team? As long as he does his job well, why should he care whether his coworkers and boss are miffed at his attitude?

Although most employees today believe all jobs are temporary, non-involvement is especially prevalent among younger workers. Doing the best job you can with minimal co-worker interaction has been their MO since high school. When working on a project, they seldom met face to face; they completed projects via round robin emails.

Managers tell us holding meetings as a way to generate ideas and build consensus is an exercise in futility--no one says anything. Even the most demanding boss can get discouraged by employees who don't contribute anything unless threatened.

A woman manager in an engineering firm described an episode with several new hires, all in their early 30s. On the first day she took them from department to department and introduced them to several dozen employees. Over lunch, she gave them some organizational history. During the afternoon break someone's birthday was celebrated and a brainstorming meeting followed. The next day, three of them mentioned how exhausting the previous day had been. One said, "I was so tired after yesterday I could barely get out of bed this morning." It turned out the stress of so much people contact had done them in.

If you truly don't plan to be in your job for more than a year or so, continue to keep a low profile. If there is even the slimmest chance you want to be there longer, throw out an occasional idea. You'll be remembered when layoff time comes.

Pleasing a boss matters. Even if you're too old to care what the boss thinks, you're putting your reference for the job after next at risk (unless you're retiring next week). Bosses remember and punish those who they see as passive resisters or quietly defiant. Isn't a glowing reference worth an idea or two offered? It's not as though outside-of-work effort were required.

If you can't bring yourself to engage in boss-pleasing games, consider greater participation as a learning experience. Suppose you offer a suggestion that's really helpful and people leap on it with cries of delight and thanks. For instance, you've thought of a quicker way to do something or have an idea that will make customers happier. There is value in learning to please others--especially if you long to be self-employed. If that's not motivation enough, consider this: Many people find that participation helps develop transferable skills. Isn't that in your own self-interest?
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Title Annotation:MANAGEMENT KEEPER #48
Author:Kennedy, Marilyn Moats
Publication:FOCUS: Journal for Respiratory Care & Sleep Medicine
Date:Sep 22, 2003
Words:787
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