Professional "Dead-Zone"

Dear Management Doctor:

I'd like to hear your quick comments, if you have time. I'm 54 years old, and have worked in the same county planning department for almost 25 years. I've always taken pride in doing quality work, I don't draw attention to myself, and I stay away from office politics. I have not been promoted for 22 years, although I prepare thoroughly for each interview. Job promotions are going to young workers (to encourage them), and to socially established older workers (who don't apply themselves seriously to work).

I'm in "professional hell." I need the income to support my family, and finding work elsewhere means losing a good retirement package. There's no motivation to keep working hard. All the wisdom in the department's strategic plan about the value of motivating and developing good staff seems to be ignored. Any ideas?

Thanks !

Dear Dead Zone,

WOW! Unfortunately I see your situation in too many planning departments. You present a difficult challenge and I may need more information to be of great help. I would be happy to have a confidential telephone conversation with you to brain storm some ideas. In the meantime:

  1. Read two of my current favored books that could help.
    a. How to Be a Star at Work
    b. It's Called Work for a Reason
  2. Read my prior article on Dead People Working Syndrome, April 2008
  3. I'm not going to suggest you get involved in office politics, but when you said "socially established older workers" it set off a possible alarm. I have had staff that refuse to share at the office anything going on in their personal life. I have also had staff that never attended any office holiday parties or the occasional after work beer. While not part of your official job descriptions, that's how organizations work. The old saying about it's not what you know but who you know is alive and well. Another new saying, you hire people for what they know - you fire people for who they are. None of this may apply to you but it could be something for you to think about.
  4. Not knowing you or your background it is hard to be specific. Maybe 22 years ago you rose to your appropriate level in your organization.
  5. Your unwillingness to move to another organization reduces your options. Recent studies show that the reason most people leave their organization is that they can't stand their boss or can't stand the organization.
  6. Try to have a candid conversation with your boss about what you would need to do to be considered for promotion. However, that is not likely to be successful. Talk to a couple of other employees over a beer or at a social occasion and see if they can give you some candid feedback. In my management course for Planning Directors I offer free 30 minute consultation sessions. Many of these are with planners who want to be directors but keep getting passed over. In a 30 minute conversation, I can already see that they are not good candidates for such positions and should find where their strengths are and go in a different direction.
  7. If you are a manager or supervisor, volunteer to go through what is called a 360 degree evaluation with an outside evaluator.
  8. Shake up yourself and the organization. Ask to be transferred to a different Division, a new Supervisor, and different assignments. Show that you can be just as aggressive and creative as those new young planners.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

Great advice as usual. I hope it helps this person advance and find satisfaction in their work. Keep up the good work.

Marty Scott
(alumni of the Director program - Madison, WI 2006)

What I have experienced is the adverse influence of an "office clique."

When I was hired by a planning department about 25 years ago I was a new employee, with good experience and a determination to do well. At the department that I joined was a new "female planners clique" that was starting to assert itself. It included men who were viewed as "not a threat." This clique was supported by a planning director who enjoyed women's company, and was attracted to a certain new female employee who was hired at the same time that I was. It also had the support of an aggressive female supervisor, who used a frantic "put out the fires" approach to office work. The result was an endless series of fires handled by a determined supervisor and a "clique" that she relied on carry out her orders. They pampered her ego and put themselves before other employees.

Many other employees also worked hard, but were unnoticed. The current planning director brought with him a more organized approach to case management, and he ended "favoritism" in the job evaluation process. But favoritism still lingers in the job interview & promotion process.

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