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Before everyone comments "just find a new job lol" I'll say that I did just that over a small immovable issue and I'm still having this problem at my new job, so that's not a solution in my book.

Occasionally I run into something I'd like to change about my workplace, but whoever is in charge refuses to do it. I'd like some advice on how to go about resolving this without making it a "fix this or I leave" situation.

Here are some examples:

  1. at job #1, we were given these disgusting used keyboards to use. Imagine one with years of finger oil coating the keys, yellow dry skin between the keycaps, fingernail fragments and crumbs from years ago beneath the keys. I told my boss on my first day as soon as I saw it that I can't work on it and it's a health hazard. He said "well we're not due to get new ones for xxx months, and besides mine isn't like that. You can clean it anyway." I brought in my own keyboard the next day and it kicked off a squabble with the boss that lasted the rest of my tenure at that job - "you shouldn't have done that, I won't know how to use your keyboard if I have to, you're being too dramatic" (etc). I left this job as a result after a few months.
  2. I'm now at a different job, for about a year. Since day one my boss has insisted that the software engineers "show enthusiasm" all the time. He gets annoyed when he comes in for an update and we don't greet him with a smile and a joke. At our six month reviews, he made that a point for each of us, while saying that each of us had excellent technical performance. None of us are customer-facing in any way, this is just for him. I've tried to say that it's hard to switch from "in the zone" working to a casual attitude but just like my old boss, he says "well I can do it so you can too".

I believe resolving issues instead of running from them is an important life skill, but I'm having trouble here. What are some good ways to negotiate without making it a "big deal"?

  • 1
    Things are only an ultimatum if you make it one. – Gregory Currie Mar 19 at 4:42
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    " I'd like some advice on how to go about resolving this without making it a "fix this or I leave" situation." Why are you making every issue a "fix this or I leave" situation? – sf02 Mar 19 at 12:32
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    I would say that each of these situations would actually make great Workplace questions here on their own. Just make sure that when you present the question, you explicitly say that you want to improve the situation, but it's not worth quitting your job over. – David K Mar 19 at 12:33
  • I second what @DavidK said. Great questions. – Gregory Currie Mar 19 at 14:07
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    What sorts of resolutions are you interested in? As written, it seems that you're interested in getting 100% of your preferences in these situations, and you would just rather go about getting it in some way other than an ultimatum. Are you open to any degree of compromise, or is this primarily about asserting yourself? – Upper_Case Mar 19 at 14:10
7

As hard as it sounds: You´ll have to learn to live with it! (do a certain degree) I would not even recommend to "find another job" because you will have some other problem there - there always is something.

  1. Organisations are basically "totalitarian" systems. As much as we have developed as open and democratic society, most companies are a organized in a clear hierarchic fashion. You don´t have an equal say. If someone higher up comes along, you´ll have to follow the orders, even if you don´t like how things are done. Only opt-out you have is to leave and start your own thing.

  2. Even if you where in a completely democratically organized company, you´d still have to bow to the will of the majority. If the majority decides to keep the old keyboards around for some time you are overruled. Though luck.

So how can you cope with it, and where can you possibly change something anyways.

  • Of course there are legal boundaries what a superior can and can not demand from you. For example, I can´t see your current superior getting anywhere with his demands for a smile and a joke - as long as you do good work and are polite and correct in your communication to him. Know your rights and your boundaries, and make it clear when they are crossed!

  • Communicate and be ready to compromise. For example, with the keyboard-issue, asking if you could bring your own beforehand would probably have gone a long way.

  • Pick your fights. You probably have more than one thing that you´d like to change. Concentrate on the things that are really important to you. If you are known to complain about anything and everything, no one will listen to you.

  • Keep your arguments factual and concentrate on the benefit for the organisation. Always offer solutions, don´t just complain. Be open to alternatives. I´m more productive with my own special keyboard, is it ok if I bring my own? or If we switch from brain-work to joke-mode, we take about 20 minutes each to reload your brains and get back to the zone afterwards. Is it really so important to you that we have to loose 2 man-hours every time you enter?

  • Have patience. Organisations are slow. Really slow! The bigger, the slower. Think big ocean liner - slow. It can take weeks or years to actually implement a change, even if everyone is already committed to it.

For bigger issues, you may have to go up the ranks or slowly work on an issue by planting ideas in the heads of your superiors. There are books written about this topic. "Leading from below" is the catch-phrase. It can be done, with patience, time and practice!

5

Pick your battles...

The sad truth is that at any company, there will be something that doesn't quite fit with the way you want to work or live your life. While I have enormous sympathy for you in both the examples you give (why on earth would there be a problem with you bringing in your own keyboard? Why are you expected to act like a comedian when you're employed in a technical role?), I'd be amazed if there's a job on Earth that has absolutely no silly requirements, office politics, or petty squabbles. If you're employed, that implies you're working for another human being, and no human being is perfect.

Whether a disagreement like that will become an ultimatum or not is entirely up to you. You can either conform as requested, (threaten to) walk away, or seek an uncomfortable middle ground where you don't conform but don't leave and end up constantly arguing about it. Which of those approaches is most appropriate will depend on the situation, and on you. Typical advice would be: don't compromise on your morals, but don't sweat the small stuff. You decide what's "small stuff" or not.

...or work for yourself.

While you have asked people not to say "just quit lol", you mention that that's because you've already moved on after such a dispute once, and now realize that if you were to move on again, there'd likely be something else similar at another company too. True (and as above: decide for yourself whether that "something else" is worthy of an ultimatum or not) - unless you don't work for or with anyone; in other words, become self-employed. It's very hard (though perhaps not impossible...!?) to get into disputes with co-workers or managers when you're working on your own!

Of course - even when self-employed, you are likely to need to work with customers. Whether similar disputes are more or less likely with customers is open to question!

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The second type of problem where your boss wants some behaviour from you is pretty easy to deal with. He doesn't get it. Period. It's then his decision whether he wants to invest the money to find a developer that can smile all day or whether he's fine with the ones he got that do their development tasks and don't always smile. Yes there is a risk you will be let go, but it's rather tiny.

You shouldn't throw a temper tantrum, but you can professionally tell him that smiling is not your focus and entertainment with jokes not part of your professional skill set. That's why he is the boss and you're the developer.

For such requests you need to develop a bit of a cold shoulder. I'd personally suggest he hires a comedian / secretary who will sit in your office and takes care of the jokes once he arrives. (I mean he said he wants jokes, right?).

  • +1 But I don't think OP should suggest anything that is 100% aligned with manager's words, but 0% aligned with manager's intentions. A good text I'd suggest is Hey, it's not a sitcom, I am at work here. It worked wonders with very pushy managers, although my positions usually called for a slightly different variant Hey, it's not a discussion club, ... – kubanczyk Mar 20 at 21:36

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