We are all just passing through…

February 23, 2019

This article may sound like I’m a bit pissed-off, but I’m really not. You might read it as a rant against an unfeeling machine, but I would prefer you to read it as a sense-check of your individual power to influence and to make decisions that are good for you and your families. So, here goes…

You do not work for a brand, or a corporation, or an institution. These things do not live and breathe, think, direct, bully, reflect or encourage.

You do not work for something that is a building, or a product or a service. You do not act in the name of a thing that is no more than a Trade Mark registration, or an address on Google Maps.

You are not a better person for being associated with a hip-as-shit brand with a rock star CEO, or a poorer human for working in a collapsed bank run by a sociopathic CEO who made millions of customers miserable.

You have simply contracted to offer your skills, values and experience for a temporary, uncertain period, to work with some people who, for an equally temporary and uncertain period, have done the same as you. The essence of all our working lives is no more, and no less, than the in-the-moment voluntary collaboration with a bunch of folks similarly engaged as ourselves.

We are all just passing through…

If you ask yourself who cares where you reporting line goes? Who cares if your contract is “permanent” or not? Who cares if you are over-looked for promotion? The answer, probably, is that you care, but equally the answer is that your business, definitely, does not. A place of work will not care for you, however much you care for it. The primary activity in any workplace is that undertaken by individuals who are negotiating their needs. To do this they will of course sometimes collaborate and sometimes care, but they will always negotiate.

Add to the complex mix of needs, the needs of individuals working in shareholder businesses, and individuals in suppliers, etc, and the answer to the question “who cares about you at work?” is therefore, right now, a very small number of people. You can count them on the fingers of one hand (if you are lucky).

I don’t say this to be unkind, or to depress us, but as a “note to self” that nobody can care very much until they have negotiated their owns needs. Even then they must behave in ways that defend the positions they have negotiated, and so the negotiation continues, and caring is secondary. When the environment is right and there are interests in common, the world around us seems to care more. This is why leadership is so vital to help create such environments. However, even in the most successful places to work, it is worth reflecting that it is a temporary alignment of collective needs that are being fulfilled for now by a common pursuit. It is still fragile.

This may all sound rather Dystopian and selfish, and I am of course slanting the argument to make a point, but we deceive ourselves more if we cloak the likely reality of work in the myths, fairy tales and management hokum of work as a place resembling some sort of Waltons-esque, chocolate-box idyll.

You are not the company’s greatest asset.

You are a depreciating and expensive overhead. We can all be made redundant in a moment if a few people who we do not care about either, sit around their polished table, and decide our number is up.

You do not work for a company with great values.

While I am delighted if it feels like this, in reality, you work with a group of people who for now have somehow (by accident or design) created an environment in which most people can get on with their busy lives and still feel appreciated at work.

You do not have a career path.

You just have to try to make a difference today, to be thoughtful about your needs today, to be kind to others today and to learn something about yourself and others today. The path is what you see looking back. Looking forward is what you have today, not a path or even a map, but your skills, values and experience, and what you decide to do with them today.

We are all just passing through…

The existential crisis of confidence that can come with redundancy, a missed promotion, a bullying culture, a poorer than hoped for bonus or review, is not a permanent marker pen commentary on your forehead about you as a person, on your skills or value. It is a moment-in-time manifestation of a reality that somewhere else, someone else has negotiated their needs more successfully than you.

At work we must be careful not to care about the wrong things. We should care less to be popular, to be chosen, to be promoted, to be paid more, to win. We should, however, care to learn more, to reflect more, to make a difference, to support, to be kind and to leave work with time enough to honour our friends and family who truly do care for us and who cherish their time with us.

We are all just passing through.

As the great and ancient philosophers might have said if only they had had access to Twitter, FOR FUCK’S SAKE PEOPLE, please do not think that work matters more than your health, your family and your integrity. By all means, please negotiate your needs. Do so with generosity, thoughtfulness and care, but be open to the needs of others too.

If we share, learn and grow together; if we are truly a team, you never know, we might even find that we have helped to make a workplace that is worth staying in, with activity that is worth doing, for people we enjoy helping.

…even if we are all just passing through.

Take care


PS with thanks to Lawrence Smith and Ciaran Fenton for their constant inspiration around these themes.

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