One Word Can Sabotage Your Career

Upset Business Woman“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”~Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives         

So, how shall you and I build a new and better career future?

I’d like us to start with our vocabulary, the way we think and talk about our career and professional lives. One particular word, used within the context of career, has made my skin crawl and made me want to pull out my hair in frustration for years.

Can you guess what that word might be? It’s a simple four letter word with the potential to have a titanic impact on your career…

The winner of the award for the one word that can sabotage your career goes to [drum roll, please…]

…B-O-S-S (Boss). Ick.

How Did We Get to Boss?

It’s very telling that “boss” seems to have it’s own dreadful companion word. Can you guess that simple three letter word too? [DUN…DUN…DUUUUN…]

…B-A-D (Bad). As in, “bad boss.”

Most people are exceedingly grateful to think and say that they have a “good” boss. But, what if the fact that you allow the notion of a boss to exist in your mind and career experience is the real problem?

Old BookFrequently, I visit the Online Etymology Dictionary because sometimes when a word comes out of my mouth or I hear other people speak it, I wonder about its root and from wence it came.

And, I realized, in the past week, that I had never looked up boss’ origins! I think my mind prefers to ignore its existence, but ignoring it doesn’t make it better.

Here’s some excerpted text from a search on “boss:”

bossy (n.2) Meaning “domineering, fond of ordering people about” is recorded 1882

boss (n.1) “overseer,” 1640s, American English, from Dutch baas “a master.” The word’s popularity in U.S. may reflect egalitarian avoidance of master (n.) as well as the need to distinguish slave from free labor.

Hmmmm… Domineering, master, labor. Ick.

Why “Boss” No Longer Serves You

The way we think about work is broken,” a 2014 TED Talk, presented by Barry Schwartz, an American Psychologist and speaker, will help you gain wisdom about how we got to the present culture of work (a worthwhile 8 minute presentation). Barry talks about how one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith, was convinced that human beings were by their very natures lazy and therefore primarily motivated by money to do work.

Man with question mark headThis belief about human nature also fuels the notion that you and I need bosses to tell us what to do. But, the work landscape has changed drastically with the rise of the information revolution and knowledge workers like you and I.

The rapid pace of technology has made a lot of things obsolete. I believe that you and I need to add the use of “boss” in the traditional sense to the obsolescence list because it’s more likely that you’ll work on and with teams led by someone who:

  • Has no or less competency and experience in your expertise/specialty area
  • Has less professional knowledge and skills in general
  • Has spent less time working within your business/organization or industry/service area

…and the list goes on….

And, in your own mind, you may question what real authority and credibility does a person with less skills or experience than you have to tell you what to do or to make the best decisions for the team.

Because some folks are still so focused on (or consumed by) the idea of being a “boss” (i.e., being in a perceived position of power, authority, and control), they will fail to see and act consistent with the new role of a leader in the information age, which involves facilitating teams, building a sense of loyalty and collaboration, getting resources, removing obstacles, and staying out of the way of the work getting done, etc.

Choose to Leave Boss Behind

Imagine that the notion of “a boss” is gone in your mind and in the reality of most business and organizations.

In my vision, leaders would actually be held accountable and seek and be required to have ongoing training in essentials skills of empowering work in the 21st century: facilitation, communication, adapting working styles, collaboration, and resource allocation, etc.

People placed in positions of “authority” would be required to develop self-awareness and self-knowledge so that they are aware of how their own background and relational dynamics contribute to unpleasant career incidents and work environments that people choose to leave.

One of the biggest challenges is that the word boss just rolls off the tongue so easily. It only has one syllable! I stopped referring to people, who lead divisions I’m in, as “boss” years ago. But, saying “the person who leads the division I’m in” is clunky!

Ladder out of darkness into open skyI’ve settled on using the word “supervisor” [as in the supervisor of my team] or sup to give it that one syllable edge. But, I don’t really like that word either because it doesn’t always fit.

In its most elevated state, I think of “supervisor” as the word to indicate a leader who truly has a vision aligned with organizational objectives, communicates it effectively, and rallies and facilitates a team in executing toward that vision.

We make up words all of the time. So, I’ve also tried inventing some new labels like Twirt (To Whom I Report To). Not sure if that one will catch on though! If you have any ideas/suggestions, please let me know (seriously). 🙂

The more important step is to recognize that the paradigm of boss is dubious and may be crazy-making for you (as it has been for me) in the information economy.

And, “boss” isn’t alone in its ability to sabotage you and your fellow colleagues. I advocate staying clear of words like “subordinate” and “assistant” too. Words like these don’t recognize the dignity, skill, and contribution professionals make whatever role they play within an organization/team.

Think about it this way, you can express your appreciation for others performing the work that you don’t want to do or don’t have the personality or willingness to do by choosing to use terms like junior colleague or team member.

(Hope you liked the dramatic sound effects)
Would love to read and respond to your comments!

Images courtesy of num_skyman (upset business woman), koratmember (old pale book), pakorn (man with question head), and Stuart Miles (break free and aspirations).

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