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Everyone at Work Is Your Customer, and You Are Theirs

Eight hard truths we have to deal with in the new workplace.

Collaboration is the latest revolution sweeping across the workplace. It is called by many names, some newfangled:

  • Interdependency
  • Lateral cooperation
  • Self-managed project teams
  • Cross-functional coordination
  • Dotted-line reporting
  • Matrixed management

Of course, collaboration itself is not revolutionary. Collaboration is as old as human civilization. As long as people have been working together, it has always made sense for people on the same team to back each other up and help each other out.

Fauxels/Pexels
Collaboration at work means managing relationships is more important than ever.
Source: Fauxels/Pexels

When people can draw on each other’s expertise and experience, they tend to come up with smarter, faster, and better solutions together. That was true when ancient humans were hunting gazelles and wildebeest, and it’s been true, for the most part, ever since.

In today’s context, the “collaboration revolution” is just a fancy way of describing the need for more and more people to work more and more closely together, more and more regularly, at all levels, in support of each other.

Some say all this new collaboration is nothing more than good old-fashioned teamwork—at a much-heightened scope, frequency, and intensity—brought about by technology, globalization, and decades of restructuring and reengineering.

There’s a lot to love about the collaboration revolution. So why is working this way driving everybody crazy?

You are inundated by more and more requests. You are drowning, more or less, in a cascade of “asks” from internal customers.

Meanwhile, you’re forced to rely more and more on people you cannot hold accountable. When your colleagues drop the ball and don’t deliver for you, this leads to delays and missed steps in your work.

Everything is my job (EIMJ). In one organization I know of, when the challenges of interdependency resulted in a high level of frustration, with lots of people manifesting very negative attitudes, the CEO tried to repair the situation by mandating positive attitudes for all. He initiated a companywide campaign around the slogan, “It is my job!”

Suddenly, there were signs and coffee mugs and pens and other paraphernalia emblazoned with IIMJ. Very quickly, the slogan became the office joke, and a more cynical version began to circulate: EIMJ—“Everything is my job.”

In my work with companies, I see a lot of people who might as well be wearing a cape with EIMJ emblazoned on it. These are would-be go-to people in the extreme who epitomize what I call the “superhero complex.” The superhero at work wants to be positive and hardworking beyond the powers of mortal humans. The superhero wants to serve and impress everybody and disappoint nobody by doing everything to the double, triple, and quadruple extent.

No assignment is too much. No load is too heavy. They figure they will defy gravity.

Sadly, even the best attitude and most diligent work ethic aren’t enough to keep overcommitment syndrome at bay. Nobody can work enough hours with a big enough smile to do everything for everybody all the time.

Inundation + no accountability + EIMJ = overcommitment syndrome. Too often, you’re waiting to proceed on a project because Ms. Delay hasn’t given you a critical piece of the puzzle. And too often you are Ms. Delay. Or you’re waiting to complete a task because Mr. Mistake has to redo his part and get it back to you. And too often, you are Mr. Mistake.

The trouble is, you still need to rely on people you cannot hold accountable, and you are still inundated with requests. If you try to hide, it starts to look as if you can’t handle the workload, or you have a bad attitude, or both.

If you start to project siege mentality, people won’t want to work with you, give you the best projects, accommodate you, give you the benefit of the doubt, expect the best from you, or even give you their best efforts. They’ll work with you only when they have no other options.

So how do you make others want to work with you and want you to want to work with them? How do you make others want to make good use of your time and deliver for you? How do you build that kind of real influence with your colleagues?

The first step is dealing with these eight hard truths:

1. Positive attitude, hard work, personal responsibility, and being great at your job are just table stakes.

2. No matter how creative and tenacious you may be, you still have to do things by the book and follow orders.

3. You cannot ever do everything for everybody. Overpromising may please people upfront, but if you fail to deliver, that’s all they will remember.

4. You must make choices about what you are not going to do, so you get the right things done. Making no choice is still a choice, and no choice is almost as bad as a bad choice.

5. To make good choices, you must do your due diligence—the sooner, the better—every step of the way.

6. You can’t be great at everything, so you need to build a repertoire of things you are known for consistently doing very well and very fast.

7. You only get credit for the results you deliver. You get a lot more credit when you deliver on time and on spec.

8. People are your number-one asset, but they are also very high maintenance, so managing relationships is mission-critical.

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