Not long ago, I was venting with my sister about work. I complained about the brutal travel schedule, the frequent logistical hiccups, and the frustration of unnecessary teamwork. But mostly, I bemoaned the increasing lack of meaning and fulfillment. Despite being steeped in a field dedicated to developing people, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence not only that my colleagues and I made no meaningful difference, but that what my clients really needed was deeper and more important than what we provided.
“It’s like all I do for a living is put glitter on shit!” I shouted into the phone. “Yep,” replied my wise sister, knowingly. “And you’re not really a glitter girl anyway.”
Indeed! And I’m not alone. All humans have a basic need for purpose and meaning — those who look like they don’t had that natural drive beat out of them in a family, classroom, or office. The lack of purpose and meaning is rampant in the workplace, which is one reason up to 85% of us are “disengaged.” We know that much of what we do all day is bullshit.
“Putting glitter on sh*t” means trying to make pretty something that is rotten and toxic. It’s dishonest. It’s dismissive. It’s a waste of time and money. It gets us nowhere. And people see right through it.
I believe most of the time, the glitter-wielders mean well. I certainly did! Putting glitter on sh*t is quick, easy, and often cheap in the short term. Glitter makes it look like something was done. It allows us to move on to another item in our inhumane mountain of tasks. But sh*t doesn’t go away on its own. It lays there, festering, until it seeps through the glitter and once again can’t be ignored.
The sh*t is the system, the big picture. It’s the wider context and environment around what’s happening in front of us, and it’s what drives individual behaviors and larger patterns. It’s the true source of most problems, and therefore the true source of most solutions. However, it can be harder to see and is more daunting to tackle. Shovels and bulldozers are heavier and more difficult to operate than jars of glitter.
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The workplace is riddled with examples of leaders and organizations putting glitter on sh*t, and if recent national events have taught us anything, it’s that most of us can’t take it anymore! Here are a few of my “favorite” examples:
- Trying to get more out of people while giving them less, or the same. You expect more volume or better results in the same number of hours at the same pay.
- Talking endlessly instead of taking action. For instance, spending weeks, months, or years bickering over what to call an initiative, office, or program – or over what words are OK and not OK — instead of getting to work on changing inequitable and dysfunctional systems, policies, and processes.
- Privileging language over action. For instance, creating beautiful values, mission, and vision statements while your behaviors and systems contradict or undermine them.
- Endlessly (or repeatedly) gathering information instead of acting on what you already know. AKA Analysis Paralysis.
- Hiring external consultants instead of listening to what your people have been telling you all along.
- Offering great health benefits or starting a wellness program instead of discovering why your culture is making people sick, exhausted, and mentally ill.
- Rolling out training instead of healing your toxic culture. For instance, providing training on trust, speaking up, and taking initiative instead of finding out why your people don’t trust, speak up, or take initiative.
- Creating a program instead of repairing your broken culture. For instance, starting a diversity initiative to attract more “minorities” instead of learning why they avoid your organization or flee once they arrive.
- Tolerating bad behavior and sending “problem people” to training or transferring them, instead of holding everyone rigorously accountable.
- Trying to fix employees instead of fixing or firing the ineffective bosses they report to.
- Constantly shifting unmanageable deadlines instead of either identifying why projects are always rushed or pushing back on a false sense of urgency.
- Looking for new or different data when numbers don’t hold the answer.
- Adjusting target numbers, when targets themselves neither provide meaningful value nor solve an important problem.
I gained a greater sense of purpose once I put the glitter down. Now what I do for a living is help folks get a shovel and get to work. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with the sh*t:
- Stop working more than 40 hours a week, on evenings, weekends, and vacations. Stop rewarding people who do. Stop celebrating stress level as an indicator of productivity and personal worth.
- Provide everyone with a humane workload, doable to an acceptable level of quality by one competent human being in 40 hours per week. Create a humane workplace that allows, even requires, people to do lots of not-working.
- Pay people a living wage. Eve-ry-one. Anyone working 40 hours per week should be able to support themselves and their families living decently in the same community where they work.
- Stop policing language and start dismantling systems of oppression and inequity. Take a day or two to decide what to call stuff, then move on to doing the actual work of creating more excellence, equity, and respect.
- Get in integrity. Make damn sure your actions and your culture align with your vision, mission, and values – or change those statements to be more honest. People believe what you do.
- Shut up, and take action on what you already know is important and true. Stop stalling with more information gathering.
- Stop hiring external consultants to do what your people can do, and already are. Listen to them; they are the experts.
- Fix your toxic, broken culture. Develop an allergy to incompetence, inefficiency, overwork, power hoarding, abuse, lack of integrity, perfectionism, drama, and bullshit.
- Stop paying for trainings and starting programs — do your job as a leader! If you’re a leader, learn how to lead people and ensure that is your only job.
- Only promote and hire leaders who are skilled at leadership and want to lead. Leadership is a skill set that’s not a fit for everyone and shouldn’t be the only way a person can earn money and respect.
- Stop tolerating bad behavior. When there is rupture, recalibrate, and repair — or remove!
- Ensure deadlines are sane and governed by the laws of physics, not pushed by a false sense of urgency that’s imaginary or impossible.
- Rely on stories, feelings, history, culture, and traditions as much as numbers.
- Question whether your numerical targets are the right measure of whether you are fulfilling your purpose and meeting your goals or not. Are targets even necessary?
If you’ve been sprinkling glitter on sh*t, you’re not bad, stupid, or alone! And what happens next is up to you. What’s the glitter jar you’re holding right now? What’s the sh*t that’s piling up around you? We all need to do our part to create a world that works better for more of us. It’s time to pick up a shovel.