Apathy – The Unappreciated Dejection

Part five of the Apathy series focuses on those times when you work hard but receive little, or no appreciation for what you do (or even worse, someone else gets the credit).

Doing your job is all about taking home that paycheck so that you can keep a roof over your head, but it is something that frequently needs to be more than that, especially if you put forth a lot of effort to do things. Many of us go above and beyond what the job entails, some of us just get done the job that’s in front of us. Both of those are valid ways to go. Difficulty can easily arise if we get little to no recognition for that work.

For the sake of brevity in this post I will use unappreciated, but all of this can also apply to feeling under appreciated, they are two sides of the same apathetic coin.

Appreciation

Symptoms of feeling unappreciated

There isn’t a one stop shop for that feeling of not being appreciated at work. It can come from different avenues:

  • Your boss not acknowledging that you put in an 80 hour week to complete that critical infrastructure project
  • The developer who did not thank you after you fixed up the code they just wrote that wouldn’t scale
  • A team-mate who doesn’t say thanks after you just covered them for 3 hours of on-call so they could go see Star Wars
  • The business analyst who doesn’t respond after you spend 4 hours gathering data for them that you’ve had to try and figure out from their terrible business requirements
  • Everyone but you has been employee of the month, including an inanimate carbon rod

You could probably list half a dozen times in the last week alone that you did not get the recognition that felt you deserved for something. That happens, but it really becomes a problem when that lack of appreciation is a consistent pattern of behavior.

 

Attacking that feeling of not being appreciated

If you are the kind of person that needs some level of acknowledgement for the work that you do (and let’s be fair, isn’t that really all of us to some degree?) then first you need to sit down and figure out the who, how, and when of what it is going to take to make you feel like you matter.

 

Who do you need to make you feel appreciated?

Depending on where you work you may have a very flat organizational structure. Above you is a single manager, and then a C-level executive. You are surrounded by a large group of peers, many of which do a similar job to you. There are not many silos and you are a very close knit team.

Alternatively, you could work five layers deep in the organization. The VP over you doesn’t even know your name, let alone that CTO who sits in the corner office two floors above you. There are a lot of silo’s in your company, you work with a small team, and have a supervisor, who reports to a manager. There isn’t much communication between the silo’s and everything is setup to force all work to go through a ticketing system that does not lead to much in the way of being able to step outside of the tight boundaries of the position.

Most people work somewhere in between these two organizational setups. It is within this area that we need to take a look at who matters to us. As a general rule it is going to be the people that we respect most, or that matter most in our roles that will give us the feeling of whether or not we matter.

Your peers

You have a team around you, be it large or small. Depending on your feelings about that team it is going to either matter to you a great deal that they give you a level of acknowledgement for the work you do, or you just don’t care what they think, and any platitudes that they may send your way will be ignored anyway.

Within a team there are always going to be stronger, and weaker members. This is just a simple fact of life. Your position in this group may well dictate your feelings about the things they credit you with.

Julia is a developer with 20 years of experience, and has worked with the .NET stack since its first inception. Steve is a couple of years out of college, where he earned his Liberal Arts major, and is a self taught programmer who is still increasing his skill set.

In a comment on your most recent pull request Julia gave you a credit for coming up with an elegant solution to a race condition caused by weaknesses in the .NET threading model.

You commented on Steve’s pull request and gave him some advice on how he could improve the applications performance by performing a sort in memory on the mid-tier server, rather than have the database do it. Steve gives you enormous thanks for this and tells everyone what you did to make things go better.

Which one of these matters most to you?

That is really going to depend on the kind of person that you are. The mentor type might feel better for Steve’s comments. The analytic type of person could feel better that Julia acknowledged that they had done something cool. It could also come down to where you feel you are in the pecking order. If you really look up to Julia and respect her greatly, then her opinion might well carry a great deal of weight. Conversely, you might really like Steve and feel that he’s where you were a couple of years ago, and that his recognizing you as being someone he respects holds a lot of sway.

Everyone is different.

Now let’s change that around slightly.

Instead of giving you credit for your solution Julia just states that the code looks good and merges the pull request. Steve ignores your performance advice and the code gets merged as the performance is good enough.

Now how do you feel? Not so great I’m sure.

Depending on the kind of person that you are this situation will bother you to a greater or lesser extent. The more emphasis your psychological profile puts on your peers the more it will bother you.

Your manager

Getting recognized by your manager can be an important thing. It can lead to things like promotions, money, interesting projects. It can also be a situation that is very frustrating if you don’t get the acknowledgement you feel you deserve.

You just completed a multi-month project where you had to completely redesign the server architecture. With that design you also had to work with finance to purchase the hardware, with the sysadmins to get it deployed, and with the other DBAs to get everything migrated over to these new shiny boxes. Over the course of those months you’ve put in a lot of late evenings, more than a few long weekends, and have had to really up your level of knowledge around many things to ensure its completeness. All in all you are pretty proud of yourself for getting this done, and doing it all without impacting the business in a negative way. Your peers have congratulated you for the smooth transition and then you walk in to your next one on one with your manager.

With the server migration project out of the way it’s time to move on to the next thing. We need you to sit with the business analysts for a couple of weeks and teach them how to write select statements.

Ouch.

You just spent months making major changes for the company and it’s not even brought up what you did and how you did it. There’s no mention of the hard work, or the leveling up you have had to do to get it done. There’s nothing. And even worse, it feels like you have to suffer this penance of teaching SQL basics to the analysts. You sit there wondering what you must have done wrong to get in this situation. Maybe there is something you missed and aren’t aware of. It would be nice if you at least got some feedback about it. You feel you did a great job, why doesn’t your boss?

What if the one on one had gone slightly differently?

I have to say Cheryl you did amazing work on that project. I’ve let the upper management know this was all you, and I’m trying to get you a bonus out of this. I know that this has been really taxing on you, so I thought that maybe you’d want to take it easy for a couple of weeks. Maybe teaching the BAs how to do select statements would be a good wind down?

Now you have had that recognition from your boss that you did a good job, and working with the analysts isn’t a penance, it’s an acknowledgement of all the effort that you put in. And your boss is even trying to get you some money as well. This is great. You’d walk out of that meeting feeling pretty good about yourself.

You may not care too much what your manager thinks, but bear in mind that they have the most significant impact on your life at work. Getting the level of appreciation from them that your work deserves is very important. I’ll talk lots more about managers in the Bad Management post in this series.

The company at large

A great deal of the time IT staff like to try and fly under the radar somewhat. Generally people only get to learn the name of a sysadmin, DBA, developer, NOC tech, network engineer, etc, when something goes wrong. At which point the question comes up why can’t these people just do their jobs? Let’s be fair, if you don’t work in IT then the chances are that you have no idea how difficult a job it is to do. Not only do you have to do the work, but you have to try and keep your skills current so that you can move on the latest and greatest technology that the CTO wants to implement a year from now.

Some folks that live in the IT realm do not like to have that level of anonymity. There are those that like people to know who they are, and have their name held up in front of the company so that people can recognize that they deliver benefit to the people that work there. It’s most certainly a great way to get yourself progressing along your career ladder at a company, and it can feel great to get that wider spread recognition.

Most companies have frequent all hands types of meetings where either the whole company, or a single larger organization will get together and things will be talked about. You know the stuff, how well the company is doing, what sales numbers are like, how amazing your products are. Basically the whole cheerleading thing.

At a great many companies these meetings will also include recognition awards for people that have gone above and beyond in their work (usually loosely based around some random company values that are in place for customer is number one, or focus on the awesomeness of our brand). For some people that work in IT this level of acknowledgement is something that really resonates with them deep down. They want everyone at the company to know, and appreciate the work that they are doing.

Other people eschew this sort of thing and see it as a crass effort in putting people above one another. A lot of the time these awards are handed out as much due to the political savvy of people as it is the actual work that they have performed. Tack on to that the fact that nobody truly works alone in the workplace and you could take a converse view that this is in fact a demotivational tool for many people (including those that tried hard to get on that list of award winners, but didn’t). Upper echelons of management frequently don’t see it this way, but then those folks generally did not come up through the IT ranks, and have that sales focus type mentality which leads them to believe that this is a good thing for everyone.

The toffs

Upper management, or the toffs as I like to call them, are people that can help to make or break your career. Depending on your aspirations, Director, VP, or even CTO, they can help to drive you upwards, or hinder your progress. Given this, is it really not a surprise that many people look to them for acknowledgement and appreciation for their work. These toffs are those folks that reside at least two levels above you in the management chain. Depending on the size of your company could be a director, or a vice-president, and will extend all the way up to the C-level executives (you know, the ones that have their own wash room, and the nice view).

These are people that you would not generally interact with on any given day, and as a consequence might have this air of mystery, or awesomeness about them (or it could be just them putting on toffs deodorant every morning, it’s a bit like the stuff we wear, but smells richer). Because we rarely interact with these folks, and due to the positions that they hold, it is quite common for us to want to impress them in some way. Given their roles, and how often we get to talk to them, it is easiest to garner a level of respect from the toffs using the work that we do.

This is not super easy as it requires the help of your management to get you working on those high visibility projects that will bubble up to those higher levels. After all, important is it may be, the chances are that your Senior Vice President of technology is not going to hear about the project you just spent 3 months on, in which you completely revamped the way that backups are taken from your databases. They will, however, hear about the project you worked on for a week which implemented a piece of functionality into the company software that they wanted.

Getting any kind of recognition from the toffs really comes a lot at the behest of your direct line of management, and them either giving you the high profile projects, or ensuring that your name gets brought up at the right times to the right people. Either that or you need to have a lot of political savvy (and who has time for that?) in order to get yourself out there and in front of that upper echelon. If you really want to get recognition from these people be aware that you are really going to have to work at it, as to them you are just another worker in the hive that is your office (no matter what they tell you at all hands meetings).

Community

Getting recognition doesn’t stop at work. Many technology specialists surround themselves, either virtually, or physically, with like minded others in their given disciplines. When they do so they want to show off what they know, have learned recently, or a cool idea that they had.

When you share things like, oh I don’t know posts like this, a person wants to have a certain level of acknowledgement, or recognition for what they have done. A little bit of kudos from the people you respect in your given community goes a long way.  It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been writing books for 20 years on a given subject, or have just written two blog posts. You want people to read what you write, and you want to get feedback to know that you did a good job (or even if you didn’t).

Likewise, when people go to conferences and present they are looking for that same kind of recognition. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local user group, a regional one day conference, or a large multiday conference with attendees from all over the globe. When someone stands up on stage, in front of an audience they are looking to get validation of their knowledge.

Most conferences provide a way to give feedback to presenters, be it through online forms, or even paper ones. Sticking a one or a five on that feedback is somewhat useful, but the gold is when someone takes the time to write something in about what they’ve just seen. Or it is when someone has written a comment on a blog post that says something about the subject matter they’ve just read.

Is this stuff important? Many companies, like Microsoft, Oracle, and VMWare have created programs dedicated to providing a level of recognition to people that are not employees of the companies, but are evangelists of the products that they produce. Given that these programs cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain, then I would say that there is a strong probability that it is important for those companies. But is it important for the individual? I would argue yes, as this provides that level of recognition around their efforts, and frequently garners them the admiration, or even adoration, of others in their given community.

How does any of this matter for you at work though? It may seems like a bit of a stretch, but being able to find the time to write, or present is something that cannot be undervalued. Or you might work for a company that does not want you writing posts about anything as they would be concerned that some kind of proprietary information is getting out (because backup commands are SUPER secret). They could also worry that you could say something controversial, which would come back and bite them in some fashion. Sure, you could write anonymously, but isn’t the point that you want the recognition for what you do? And you certainly would have a lot of trouble presenting anonymously at a conference.

As IT folks, it can be really difficult to find an outlet which allows us to show off. Working in a company, can easily lead us to becoming insular and not sharing information which would be super valuable to others. This is particularly true if we are not seen as being the subject matter expert in our roles. Finding that voice and recognition for what you know outside of the company can be a really valuable thing.

 

When do you need to feel appreciated?

The answer to this is every day, right? At work this is probably not the case for the majority of people. We really only need that acknowledgement and appreciation when we’ve done something to deserve it. Or rather, when we feel that we have done something to deserve it.

Appreciation for appreciations sake is a pretty meaningless thing. If you feel that you should get appreciation for getting out of bed on a Monday morning and getting to work, unless you have a disability, then you should probably seek out some therapy somewhere. If you think that you deserve a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum of your job then you should probably take a long hard look at yourself and figure out what’s missing from the rest of your life that you need this.

Appreciation, and recognition should only be given at work when warranted. These are things that you should work and earn. If, once earned, you don’t receive them, then there is something about work that you might want to look at and try to resolve. This kind of recognition might only come along once a week, or even once a month, where someone takes notice of the things that you are doing and acknowledges you are working hard, or that you’ve done something impressive, or even just giving you thanks for getting up in the middle of the night and resolving the production issue that was occurring.

 

Types of appreciation

Over the last few years a book, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, has become quite the go to for those seeking relationship help. The book describes how different people express, and acknowledge love in different ways. It explains how the varying emphasis on things in a relationship can cause one partner to maybe not recognize, or appreciate, the love that the other partner is trying to show.

This concept translates very well into appreciation at work and how each of us have a slightly different interpretation of how we want to be acknowledged for the things that we do. Let’s take a look at these key ways:

Gifts

You’ve worked on a project long and hard, and at the end of it you are given something. This could be in the form of a

  • cash bonus
  • gift card
  • gift basket
  • some other material item

No matter the person you are, I’m sure that you would appreciate getting something. After all who wouldn’t like a little extra money in their pocket, or to be given an iPad.

The downside to gifts

While it seems great, for some people this can be considered really cheap. Money? Cheap? Yes, it all depends upon what value you place on monetary, and material items. If you are earning a decent wage, have money in the bank, savings, money for retirement, and a comfortable home, what difference is that extra money going to make for you? What level of meaning does it have? If you grew up with little, or are in a poor financial situation, it would likely have a great deal more significance to you (but not necessarily).

Studies have shown that once someone has reached a certain income level then more money doesn’t really help with happiness. That being the case would it really make you feel happier at work to be recognized with a check? Maybe. Do not make the assumption that this is the case though. In particular, you managers out there, do not presume that this is going to be the primary driver for people that work for you.

Extra PTO

Having paid time off, away from work is precious to the vast majority of people. Giving someone a couple of days extra away from the office can be a great way to recognize effort. It could give you some time to relax, hang out and see friends and loved ones, and just generally get away from it all. This is a very healthy thing.

The downside to PTO offerings

Not everyone (believe it or not) enjoys PTO. Some people can be in difficult living situations, and actually use work as a release from stress at home. Or they could be overly concerned with how things are at the office and not able to relax. The gift of time can be wonderful to some, but not to all. And you have to figure out where it sits in your personal hierarchy of wants when it comes to being appreciated.

Private thanks

Your boss comes to you and tells you how much they appreciate what you are doing at the office, and that you make their life a lot easier. They don’t know how the group would survive without you, and they are just glad that you are on the team.

For a great many people this is just the thing that they need. It is not a grandiose statement that is out there for all to see, for which we may feel awkward and uncomfortable. Although there is a good chance that we could feel that way anyway. This comes across as a more heartfelt thing, one with potentially less cynicism attached to it than the offer of money. This is something that doesn’t cost a thing, but when it is genuine, and heartfelt (and you can tell when it isn’t) then it can mean the world.

Just a few simple words, spoken in private, or sent in email, can really change your outlook on the week. This certainly might not be the only thing that you need recognition wise, but it’s the easiest to receive, and can make a huge difference in how you feel.

The downside to private thanks

For some people this private appreciation of accomplishment can feel as if it is somewhat flippant, and may not be received in the manner in which it was intended. Some people can perceive that because the acknowledgement is not public that it is a form of glad-handing and just intended in an attempt to placate the other person. After all managers always want to have their team members on their side, and peers want to make themselves look good to the rest of the team so that any more public praise helps to reflect well on them.

Public thanks

There’s nothing quite like garnering the adoration of millions. This is what public thanks gives you. Well, not quite to that extent, but certainly on a smaller scale. It can make you feel like you are important, and that your efforts truly do matter to more than just your boss.

Public thanks gives you recognition from a larger group of people. Folks that you may not even know will come up to you and congratulate you on what you’ve done for the company, and how great it is that you’ve made a difference. This puts your head up in the clouds and makes you feel that everything is going awesomely. This is the kind of thing that you want repeated and so work even harder to try and get that level of recognition again. It’s a wonderful motivational tool.

The downside to public thanks

Do you really want all the sales people and account reps to know who you are? Once they have your name they are going to start bothering you for things, and prevent you from being able to do the job that you are actually tasked at.

What about if you are uncomfortable with that level of acknowledgement. You don’t like to be the center of attention for anything, and are quite happy working behind the scenes to get things done. This kind of public showing just brings out all of your insecurities and awkwardness. You aren’t in sales, you don’t want to be up front and center. Let’s face it, IT people are well known for being nerdy and introverted, what would make anyone think that we would want to get up in front of the company and get a plaque?

This is one of those things that is very different for people. Some desire this publicity, others shy away from it. Managers, know your people here. It could actually cause someone to leave a job because they no longer feel comfortable in their role. Think about this publicity and who it’s really for.

Choice

Getting all this recognition for the work you’ve put in is great and stuff, but that last project was nothing but a bear. It was fixing all the technical debt that the company has built up for the last few years. That debt is now gone a little more under control and so there are many more interesting things on the horizon.

Being able to get your pick of things for your next project could be just the pick up you were looking for. That way you get to work on something cool and interesting, rather than try to figure out a GFS rotation scheme for the backup tapes that get sent offsite every day (well unless tape backups are the thing you get a huge kick out of). Alternatively it could be something low key that gives you the chance to adjust back to a slightly less crazy schedule.

Often at work we are not left with choices as to what things we get to spend our time doing, and so end up being forced to work on stuff that we would otherwise try to avoid. Being given the opportunity to make a choice can feel immensely rewarding.

The downside to choice

Some people just do not want the level of responsibility that can come along with choosing a project. If you are working on something you’ve been given, then it is possible that there’s a reasonable expectation that you might now know everything required, and have to learn new things. As a consequence of that it could take longer to complete, giving a little more leeway than would otherwise be expected.

Other folks have confidence concerns and don’t want to run the risk of taking on a project that they are really interested in just because they have a fear of failure. If handed the project they would happily work on it all day and night, but in this case that fear and uncertainty could cause them to pick something else, that they really do not want to undertake.

 

Final Word

Everyone is different in the way that they want to be acknowledged for the work that they do, the important thing is that it happens. Spend some time and figure out who you want to have recognize your accomplishments, and work to make them aware of the things that you have done. Additionally, figure out what kind of recognition that you would like to receive. Once you know this, have a chat with your boss and tell them that you wouldn’t want to get [pick a type of recognition] for doing something because it would make you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or cheap.

Your manager will do their best to try and give you what you need in this situation (unless you have a bad manager), but you need to help them out in understanding you as a person, and what makes you tick.

One other thing to remember is that recognition is a two-way street. You should be recognizing those around you for the things that they do. This simple thing will also help you to find out what kinds of recognition they like, and will help guide you in figuring out yours.

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