People in the Wrong Job

In my wanderings through the land I hear a lot of complaints about somebody’s unreasonable behaviour, normally from a person at their work. It can take the form of angry outbursts, inconsistency, micromanagement, pettiness and a host of others, but the complaints are always the same: why the hell is this person behaving like this? It’s making my life a misery!

Why indeed? I decided to start asking some questions each time I heard this, and most of the time the person in question was in a job they were wholly unsuited for. Their knowledge, experience, or – more often – their character, personality, and temperament was completely inadequate for the position they were in. That’s not to say they were stupid or useless, simply that they were in the wrong job.

Let’s suppose you are suddenly plonked into the captain’s seat of a Boeing 777 stood on the tarmac at Heathrow and ordered to take off and fly safely to New York. Unless you’re a trained pilot, we’re going to observe some pretty wild behaviour from you over the next few minutes, most unbecoming of a captain. Being put in a strange environment and asked to perform unfamiliar tasks is highly stressful, and will induce behaviour in people which can seem very odd.

The plane example is absurd, but millions of people find themselves in a similar situation in their day-to-day jobs. The stakes might not be so great, but the expectation levels are higher: nobody will ask an untrained person to fly a plane, but people routinely find themselves in a position they are manifestly unsuited to, yet are expected to perform. Most of the time they’re in a culture – either corporate or national – which frowns upon failure, but with an endless tolerance for muddling through.

If ever I find myself faced with strange or unreasonable behaviour, I step back and try to work out what’s causing it. It’s tempting to say that a person is simply insane or an arse, but that’s a lazy approach. Instead, I look at the situation they’re in and what they’re being asked to do, and see if that matches their competence and character. You know what? It never does. If it did, you’d see different behaviours. People who are in a comfortable position act like they are. Look at the confident swagger of a champion boxer on his way to the ring. It’s because he knows he’s good.

Maybe I’m getting soft in my middle-age, but nowadays I’m less inclined to think people are complete idiots, nasty, or they have something wrong with them. Most of the time they’re simply in the wrong job, and hence under too much stress. Feeling a little sorry for people is easier than getting mad at them.

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20 thoughts on “People in the Wrong Job

  1. You are getting soft in your middle age.

    (Although I completely agree with your approach of taking time to think through possible causes)

    My journey has been completely the opposite. I spent so long working with, through and around other folks’ shortcomings, I eventually came to the conclusion that laziness, insanity and being an arse were all more likely than something that could be addressed easily, like being in the wrong job.

    Meanness of spirit and/or ‘office politics’ survive Occam’s razor consistently, other apparent causes, less often.

  2. ‘office politics’

    That’s included in expectations and stress, though. They’re put in a job and told they need to do X, but meanwhile they’re being judged on Y and Z. They might excel at Y and Z but be shit at X, and vice versa.

  3. I take your point, but I’m more referring to the entirely optional politics that people enter into as a result of insanity (etc.)

    You may have been blessed in this respect, as you do a proper job, but the public sector (and academia) is rotten with this kind of behaviour.

  4. You may have been blessed in this respect, as you do a proper job

    I reckon so. Engineers are in the main okay, and most want to do the job properly, but have been mangled by their environment. You do get some absolute c*nts, but generally they’re not bad people.

  5. Reminds of something a colleague said to me once. “When I was a young man,” he began, in a calm and reasonable voice, “I though most people were bastards. Now I have the wisdom and serenity of age, I realise they all are.”

  6. Slightly more on topic, when I was a young man I worked on a project whose leader was a bit difficult to say the least. He would regularly attend client progress meetings and come back visibly shaken and become even more difficult. Eventualy he decided he’d had enought and left, leaving me holding the baby, so to speak.

    I approached my first client meeting expecting to face a snarling dragon across the table. Instead to my amazement the client was one of the most reasonable chaps it’s ever been been my pleasure to work with. We worked out a set of perfectly reasonable compromises and the project was completed on time to everyone’s satisfaction. Pity they didn’t all go like that.

  7. Most people don’t ask “why?” enough times about the work they are doing. Try it with something that’s frustrated you in your work life recently. Keep going with the whys like an annoying toddler.

    Eventually you’ll get to an answer like “make a profit” or “stop injuring people” or some such fundamental positive value.

    I reckon the people who are most frustrated and acting wildly would find a logical inconsistency somewhere in that chain of whys between what it is they are doing relative to the reason they are doing it.

    They’re also the people most likely to be suffering from Dunning Kruger Syndrome though, so don’t hold your breath.

  8. You are perhaps too kind. My experience working in Ancient Universities revealed various sorts of arsey behaviour, beyond the phenomenon you described so well of being the proverbial round peg in the square hole. As follows:

    (i) A tenured lecturer fired: booze. A court case had proved necessary. (Was he boozy because he was a round peg? I doubt it; his reputation was high until he started lecturing drunk, or simply failing to turn up.)

    (ii) A professorial Head of Department pushed aside and eventually “ill-health retired” (spuriously): he was probably going mad, he had certainly committed theft, he had repeatedly broken his contract, he had bullied and blackmailed colleagues, he had supervised one of his research students by exchange of letters between their solicitors, and he had run his lab taking great risks with the health of his colleagues. I don’t think he was a round peg; he was mainly just a turd sliding towards insanity.

    (iii) A professorial Head of Department removed from his post and shifted into a newly-created department that consisted solely of himself and his wife. What brought the matter to a head was his attempt to rig the Finals results of his son, by methods that included an attempt to blackmail a Dean of Faculty. This case too resulted in a court case.

    (iv) A professorial Head of Department having his department transferred away beneath him, leaving him and his wife as sole academic members of the old department. Eventually he got the message and moved off to a (much) lesser university.

    And that list excludes all the minor cases of misbehaviour I saw or heard about, the worst (in my view) being picking on the most vulnerable people in academic life, namely research students.

    Insofar as I can see any lesson in these events, it is to distrust HoDs who arrange to have family members on their staff or amongst their students. Older colleagues of mine could remember an era where such family ties were simply forbidden. It became clear to me that there was a fair bit of wisdom in that proscription.

    I have worked in firms where sons of old hands were pretty conspicuous: maybe the firms simply had the sense to keep them well apart within the company.

  9. I think the lessons from the comments thus far are:

    1) Be more cynical;
    2) Avoid academia like the plague!

  10. I’ve found myself in a few jobs where I was a fish out of water.

    It didn’t make me start acting like a complete arsehole though.

  11. Engineers are in the main okay, and most want to do the job properly

    I started out in traditional engineering before moving to software engineering; one of the primary reasons I left the trad engineering field was the complete and utter cuntitude of the engineering students and much of the faculty.

    I’ve since had the misfortune to perform software and IT services for two separate (chemical/environmental and electronic/mechanical) engineering firms for several years each. They were overwhelmingly the most dysfunctional, abusive, unprofessional and irresponsible workplaces I have ever had the displeasure of working in (and I should point out that I once worked in a software company where two of the developers would resolve their differences over design patterns with fistfights in the corridors).

    I don’t mean to insult our host, even obliquely; two of my best friends are chemical engineers and very pleasant, hardworking people. But in this country at least, there is a real problem with the “society” of engineers.

    With that rant off my chest, I am also less charitable than Tim is on this issue; how one behaves when thrust into a situation one is manifestly unqualified for speaks to one’s character and self-awareness. I suspect a great many square pegs simply do not realize they are unqualified for their jobs a la the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the cognitive dissonance between what they think is supposed to happen and what actually is happening is what causes the bizarre behaviour. The amygdala gets triggered, ego defense kicks in, and off you go.

    we’re going to observe some pretty wild behaviour from you over the next few minutes, most unbecoming of a captain

    Any normal, reasonable person is going to respond with “I am not a pilot, I cannot even fathom where the ignition switch is, and if you make me do this, hundreds of people are going to die. No.”

    At the aforementioned engineering firms I was routinely asked to do things that were not just outside my bailiwick, but actually physically impossible. The only reasonable response is to register one’s objections succinctly, ask for the request in writing on company letterhead, and have a good lawyer on speed dial.

  12. At my level they are normally offered a parachute of sorts before we push them off the side. Marginal ones, get no pay rise, no bonus and start to take a back seat whilst we encourage their reports to rise up and take over them and adopt the leader role and then they sort of slip out of the fast lane with their dignity intact. Its tempting not to torment them at meetings or in discussions but as long as they are withdrawing properly and never ever get uppity then I will let them bow out with grace.

  13. I agree with the “square peg in a round hole” bit.

    However, I have another, alternative theory. People are not irrational. You observe their behaviour and think “They are mad” but …

    I worked for a boss that would not spend money. “Make things better but don’t change anything and don’t spend money” was always the mission brief. I pointed out that we needed to buy software and training for my staff but no, he blocked all reasonable arguments (and quite a few unreasonable ones too). It made the job borderline impossible and definitely affected the running of the place.

    Now, I learned from another department head that all departments were allocated a budget and if the budget was NOT spent, the head got a percentage of the savings as a bonus. You think that he was going to give away “his” money? He WAS being rational. It was just that I did not see the reason for his behaviour

  14. Blimey, it appears most of my readers worked for the Gestapo at some point in their lives! For the first time in years I feel I’ve led a sheltered life!

  15. I don’t mean to insult our host, even obliquely; two of my best friends are chemical engineers and very pleasant, hardworking people. But in this country at least, there is a real problem with the “society” of engineers.

    Far from being insulted, I would probably agree!

  16. Some people are good at what they do but get promoted out of their comfort zone into an area of work they know little about.

    When I was promoted once and faced learning a whole set of new procedures I went to see our HR manager for guidance. He sort of curled his lip at me and said, “you’re a manager. Deal with it.” So I dealt with it, made some mistakes, made some enemies, generally got the hang of it. But a little guidance in this new realm may have avoided some trouble and wasted effort.

    But then the HR manager had been promoted into his job from somewhere else, so maybe he was the wrong person to ask.

  17. But then the HR manager had been promoted into his job from somewhere else, so maybe he was the wrong person to ask.

    If he was in HR he’d have been shoved in there to get him well away from everything else. People don’t move to HR, they *end up* in HR.

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