WORKPLACE SUCCESS / 30 July 2019How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment
If it hasn’t happened yet, the day is going to come when your team member hands you a tough project with little or no direction on how to complete the task. Asking interns and new employees who lack experience to complete seemingly impossible quests is hardly the latest and greatest approach to management. Rather it is the oldest, most practiced, and most legendary management practice known to humankind: It is the King asking the knight to go all by his lonesome to slay the dragon and rescue his daughter; it is the Force compelling Luke to rescue Han and Leia from Jabba before he’s mastered his new green lightsaber; it is the drunk father throwing a small child into the deep end of the pool and watching to see if they will sink or swim.
Are these epic tasks a cruel joke? Is the entire universe watching you behind a glass mirror and laughing hysterically?
Whatever the reason your team member has for assigning you an epic project before you’re ready (and we’re not ruling out sadism as a reason), we’ve compiled four tips for not only surviving the epic sink-or-swim internship assignment, but turning the challenge into your opportunity to take the proverbial gold medal of internship awesomeness, win the affection of the entire universe, and live happily ever after in corporate bliss (or drudgery).
The First Step in Overcoming Challenges is to Take a Big Breath
First, you’ve got to center yourself. The initial anxiety that accompanies a sink-or-swim project can absolutely bury you; it can override your ability to problem-solve by hijacking your survival instincts: There is fight, there is flight, and there is freezing in place while a hungry Zombie eats your brains. So when you’re sitting in that boring boardroom meeting and your team member asks you nonchalantly to go into the wild and bring them back the head of a wild Uzbekistani boar, the first thing you have to do is get your ever-loving sh*t together.
We’re not psychologists (and even if we were, handing out prescription meds over the internet can be dicey), so we’re going to leave the specific details to you, but it is essential that you choose your favorite (healthy) coping methods for dealing with stress and practice them religiously whenever the anxiety hits. Our favorite methods to beat stress and get centered are intense bike rides, yoga, meditation, and screaming/barfing into a pillow. Whatever your thing is, get serious about it, and don’t feel like you’re wasting time by centering yourself before getting to work: It is critical to your success.
The Second Step to Overcoming Challenges is to Get a Move-On
Next, you’ve got to get moving. This whole “centering yourself” advice we’ve given in step one can quickly get out of hand. Most of us have mastered the art of procrastination by the time we are age five (I’ll pick up my toys tomorrow), so at some point you really do have to get moving and stop with the B.S. delay tactics and do some actual work. Once you truly center yourself you’re going to feel the natural urge to get working; but if you half-ass step one you’re actually going to waste some serious time “overcoming” anxiety.
Once you get your bearings and start moving on your project, however, you are going to have to abandon all pride. This is the part of the process where you start spluttering, choking, and flailing about like a complete fool in the deep end. If dad and his drunk buddies are watching from the side and laughing, this is also where you tell them to suck it. You’re going to have to trust that somehow you have all the skills, strength, and know-how to get through this, even if it’s a bit clumsy at first.
Start by doing some research on your assigned topic, even if it does seem aimless. Draw on the wisdom of colleagues, call a buddy, call your mommy, or call Google. Talk to anyone and everyone that might know something about your challenge. You don’t necessarily need all the pieces to be in place before you start working. You just need that one point of reference to get moving in any direction, even if it’s not the right direction. You’re going to waste a lot of energy at this point, but once you start moving you’re going to get a rhythm and figure out how to tread water and advance to the more efficient strokes.
The important point here is that you are developing actual muscles and actual techniques to move efficiently through a task. Don’t feel bad that you don’t start out with abs like Michael Phelps; the very nature of a sink-or-swim project precludes the possibility of training and preparation. Trust that you have just enough skills and know-how to git ‘er done, and recognize that your efforts now will build muscles for greater efficiency in the future.
The Third Step to Overcoming Challenges is to Use Your Oversized Brain
It’s time to solve problems. That huge noggin of yours did not evolve to its gargantuan stature just to be a food source for hungry zombies or nefarious brain-harvesting robots (or did it?!), so we’re guessing you have more experience and mental capacity than you give yourself credit for. After all, you did bag this awesome job, and someone besides your mom probably thinks your a genius. So start doing what separates you from the rest of the animal kingdom, and start problem-solving already! Figure out not just how to stay afloat in the water, but how to actually move more efficiently. This takes problem-solving, experimentation, and a lot of trial and error.
While following directions and completing specific tasks is, of course, an essential trait for good employees, higher-level problem-solving skills are very desirable to (most) employers. Truth be told, there is a pretty ample supply of worker-bees who will do what they are programmed to do and go where they are told. But there are far fewer people who have mastered the ability to approach difficult and open-ended problems time and time again—whether they solve the problem or not.
A sink-or-swim project may seem unfair in that it asks you to do the impossible with very little context or supervision, but this really is your chance to prove that you can be more than a drone. Even if all your efforts are coming up empty, at the very least you should keep a log or report to hand into your team member to show them that you know how to think through the issues, look for solutions, and recognize dead-ends.
Many times, a team member will give new recruits and interns ambiguous projects precisely because there are likely no good answers or solutions to the problem: They just need someone to go out and to confirm their suspicions. Think of it a bit like a scientist who needs to find not only the cure to a disease but also all the potential solutions that do not work. Your team member may send you out to double-check an unlikely lead because it is the most efficient use of resources to send you, the noob, while sending other more experienced researchers to do projects that are more likely to yield positive or more complex results.
Don’t feel left out here: Negative results and dead ends are an integral component to finding actual solutions and to bettering the body of research for innovative scientists, businesses, and inventors. These initial dead-ends may not immediately result in glory, but if you do your job well by tracking your progress and your results, then you are going to be a highly-valued member of any successful team. Never forget that you can be an integral part of the problem-solving process no matter what your results are, and no matter how far along your skills have come when compared to other team members. In other words, just because you aren’t sporting six-packs for abs, doesn’t mean you can’t, err, drink, err…a six-pack…know what I’m saying…(forget it, stupid attempt at humor, please move on to step four).
For Step Four in Overcoming Challenges: Spin Some Gold, Rumplestiltskin
Finally, you need to create value out of the situation. In step one, you got your $#*+ together like Buddha, in step two you learned to paddle like a three-legged dachshund, and in step three you started using your big noggin to solve problems; now it’s time for you to perform the miracle. In this epic moment, you get to pull the rabbit out of the hat, be a hero, and convert your sink-or-swim project into a gold medal opportunity. What we’re talking about here is value creation.
There’s a lot that goes into this idea of value creation, but keep in mind that every business lives or dies by the value it creates for its customers and shareholders, and ultimately it needs its best employees to determine where they can capture, stake out, and create value. If you can show your team members early on in the game that you can build on the foundation of even a difficult project, you are on your way to becoming an invaluable asset to the company, and they will dub you Intern Jesus: The intern who turns water into wine.
When you do this, it’s important you create the right kind of value for the situation at hand. Creativity helps with overall success of a business, yet some corporate cultures absolutely resist creativity and outside-the-box thinking unless done at the right time, in the right way, and in the right place. , Judge wisely, and don’t let your work going the extra mile take away from the basic tasks you’ve been assigned. In the end, you’re aiming not to be flashy or impress them with your skills. If you impress them, it’s only the side effect of giving them an insight or piece of information they actually need.
Practically speaking, the most common way to create value is likely to come in the form of your simple and humble recommendations, fresh ideas, and unique perspectives on the situation. You don’t necessarily have to fully flesh out the additional ideas you explore beyond the confines of your project. You might simply ask some important questions or mention some areas for further research. This doesn’t really have to take you that much more time, but it will require you to go the extra mile in not just doing and thinking about the project, but actually analyzing, interpreting, and questioning the implications of the work you are doing and how those observations fit in with the bigger picture.
The idea here is simply to point your team member in the direction of some other potential areas to explore that could be very valuable for the business, and then subtly, perhaps silently, connect the dots to you. There is no one quite like you; now don’t be afraid to show how your unique talents and gifts can be indispensable to the company. So make sure you don’t just raise good questions or shine a light on potential value: Show them just enough of your own passion and drive to seek out these potential gold-mines, and you can bet your life on earning high praise for your work, and receiving better and more important projects to explore further value creation.
So there you have it, our four tips to dominating the sink-or-swim work project. To quickly review, the tips are:
1. Center Yourself
2. Get Moving
3. Solve Problems
4. Create Value
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