The other day, my colleague of 21 years and I went to lunch. We started talking about what it was like to work so long for one organization. My colleague said that for many years she has set yearly goals about what she could do to be the best possible employee. For her, that meant finding satisfaction and growing in the same job she has done for 21 years. It also meant being true to herself about what work meant to her and what it did not.
I have thought a lot about that conversation. This is a time when employee dissatisfaction is at an all-time high: Nearly 60 percent of employees report dissatisfaction with their work, and annual nonprofit pay raises are projected at only1.5 percent. During such times, how does each of us as employees commit ourselves to our workplaces? How do we realize that, beyond being glad “we have a job,” we welcome our chance to be good followers? There are a proliferation of articles, books and seminars on being a great leader, yet we don’t often hear about the need for all of us, at times, to be good followers.
No matter where we fall in an organization’s hierarchy, we all follow. The nonprofit executive director follows the direction of the board, managers follow the executive director, staffs follow their managers and board members follow the by-laws. How do we know when it is right to be a good follower, and what does it mean to be a good follower?
When we choose work in a nonprofit organization, we implicitly or explicitly agree to follow the mission/vision. This means we submit to the mission and vision of the organization. We willingly become employees who live the mission, vision and values of the organization. My organization has a strong value and commitment towards exceeding customer expectations. To me, that means if a colleague needs me to answer a call from a member when she can’t, I do. If my manager says that he needs a task done quickly, then I support the request wholeheartedly and do the task. And, I do what he asks without complaining to others. Now, there are days when I feel grumpy and a little put out about these kinds of requests but, in the end, part of my service to the organization is to follow the lead of others.
Being a good follower means being self aware
What do I expect at work, and how do I go about getting it? If I like a lot of attention, do I get it by being really good at my job and supporting others to do their job well, or do I get attention by creating drama or critiquing others so that I look good? Being a good follower means I ask myself reflective questions. Am I happy with other parts of my life? Do I expect work to make me happy, or do I know that happiness occurs when I choose to be satisfied? One of the lessons from my colleague of 21 years is that she places a premium on a good family life, engaging hobbies and a great glass of wine. She knows that work keeps her mind engaged, so she can have the other parts of her life complete.
Work is just plain hard some times. The nonprofit world is stretched too much by increased need with decreased dollars. On top of that reality, life happens to our co-workers. Kids get sick, and family stress shows up in the work place. All of us have the choice to step up and ask how we can help. When we are able to be authentic in our desire to serve and help others, we are doing what we wanted to do when we went to work for a nonprofit.
Communication with those who manage us is an important part of following. Ask your manager what you can do to make his or her life easier or the organization run smoother. It is good to periodically check with your manager about your job role to make sure you are adding value to your work place. Being a good follower is a difficult concept. Work is not set up to reward those who follow well. Yet sometimes when we lean into follower-ship, the best work gets done.
Down the street from me is the tailor who hems my pants (because I must be a foot shorter than other women my size.) When I go to collect my hemmed pants, he always bows to me. I take this as a sign that he is thanking me for my business and the opportunity to serve. His approach to work is one to remember.
By Deborah Brackney, vice president of the Mountain States Employers Council (MSEC), Inc., a resource for employers in employment law, human resources consulting, training and surveys www.msec.org