Are You Playing on the Wrong Career Field?

Pete Ross

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Do you have someone working in your office that you think is hopeless? Of course you do. You go to them for a simple task and they either ignore that you’ve sent it, leave it until the last minute or try to push it off to someone else. It’s something that’s so freaking simple that an intern could do it, but they just won’t listen to you or get it done.

When you ask other coworkers about this person, let’s call her Susan, some of them agree. She’s hopeless, she’s a flake, she just can’t be cooperative and get the work done. How the hell is she still at the company? It’s so much worse though. Not only is Susan still at the company, she’s valued. She’s valued so much that she regularly gets adulation and awards by senior management. What the hell? It’s like she has some kind of reality distortion field.

You look at Susan with her inability to get the most simple things done for you and start to feel like Mugatu at the end of Zoolander. “I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!”

If you’re nodding your head vigorously as you’ve been reading through, I have something to tell you that you’re not going to like. The problem isn’t with Susan, it’s actually with you. That’s not to say you’re a bad person or anything, not at all. You're probably not at all wrong about Susan's abilities either. After all, other people are having the same experience you are. But there’s something that’s been going on that you haven’t realised yet, which will change your entire career at the company if you can swallow it:

You may have been playing on the wrong field this whole time.

You’ve been looking at Susan through an egocentric lens, which is why you think she’s terrible at her job and shouldn’t be working for the company. You’re looking at it only through your own eyes and what she needs to be doing for you, rather than what the company really pays her for.

Management at the company aren’t looking through your eyes, and that’s a good thing. They’re looking at Susan in terms of her benefit to the company, and they’re not going to give awards and promotions out just because they like her. Susan is probably in an important or highly visible team that makes the company a lot of money. As long as that continues, management doesn’t care if she isn’t doing the work you want her to do.

This is what I mean when I talk about playing on the wrong field. See, you believe that everyone in the company is playing on the same football field. You’re pulling off plays that should be making the highlight reel, but no one seems to be cheering. That’s because you’re not actually playing on the same field. You’re over in the field where there isn’t even a crowd — it doesn’t matter that your work is awesome, because it’s not important or visible enough that anyone else has come to the stadium to watch.

Susan, on the other hand, is the one playing at the stadium filled with cheering crowds. It doesn’t matter that she isn’t as awesome as you want her to be - or even that she's utterly incompetent at most simple things you ask her to do. She’s on the field and playing the game where it matters. You aren’t.

So if you’re finding yourself frustrated at your lack of mobility in comparison to others who you deem to be mediocre at best, you need to investigate what the business actually values. There’s a good chance that the reason you’re not getting promoted or noticed is that the business sees your role as one of those annoying little necessities that they have to pay for, but don’t feel like they get much return from.

The bottom line is, if you’re making or saving any company a lot of money, people are going to take notice. In terms of management, you’re helping them keep the figures where they should be for the annual report. The value proposition is clear. On the other hand, if you’re in one of those jobs where the value is more opaque and you can’t easily explain it, then guess what? People aren’t going to pay attention to it, especially management.

The truth is that Susan may very well be mediocre at her job. That doesn’t matter though, because the team that she is in makes or saves the company a lot of money. As long as that continues, no one is going to ask any questions and Susan will continue to gain accolades. You can call it an injustice and it probably is, but it’s just reality. You can’t fight reality.

So what should you do about all of this? You have 3 options:

  • Suck it up and do nothing. Maybe you really like the company you’re at and the pay and benefits you receive. Maybe it’s just a small irritation that in the grand scheme of your life doesn’t matter that much.
  • Find another company. If you really like your job and want to continue doing it, you need to find another company that values it more than your current company does.
  • Find another role. If you aren’t wedded to what you do and your eyes are on the prize of moving up the career ladder, find what the business values and orchestrate your move there. It’s going to take some relationship building and long term planning to get there, both of which will help you in the long run.

Whatever you do, don’t be the cynical, sarcastic person we all know at the office who knows the lay of the land but bitches about it anyway. You aren’t doing yourself any favours and you’re actually making your life considerably worse. If you don’t like something, change it. If you can bear it then do so, but don’t bitch and whine about it.

However you make your bed, you have to lie in it.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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