Silos, at School and Work

When my son was in the 6th grade I met with his math teacher, because he had said he “hated math”.  I said, your students are learning about ancient Egypt in Social Studies, which he really enjoys.  Couldn’t the students learn about Egyptian mathematics and how the ancient Egyptians may have discovered these concepts?  This suggestion fell on deaf ears.  Education is conducted in silos.  When I first started at the Pretty Big School District, my new boss said that one of his goals was to break down the silos. Departments operating in isolation is apparently a common continuation of the classroom practice of drawing boxes around subject areas.  At least in the business environment there is a recognition that this practice is sub-optimal.

I suggest that this kind of thinking might account for the lack of success in individual job advancement as well.  In the classroom we learn that if we learn the specific material and pass the test, we will advance to the next level.  On the job I have been frustrated by employees who are doing a decent enough job currently and feel entitled to move to the next level and are embittered and disillusioned when they don’t.  I struggled to explain to Jane why she does not get promoted into management.  I have said to her outright – you cannot be a manager if you don’t start acting like a manager now.  You cannot withhold your skills and say give me the job and then I’ll apply my talents when you pay me to do that level of work.  I need to see some evidence of your management skills now.  My heart-to-hearts with Jane never had the desired effect, and I am now just starting to understand that siloed thinking may be the cause.  I think that she sees a natural career progression from clerical to skilled technical to management.  For her, it is a career path in the same way that Algebra, Geometry and Calculus are course progressions in high school. I am starting to see that Jane is thinking somewhat along the following lines: “If I do well in Algebra I’ll go on to do Geometry. In the Geometry class I’ll be taught all I need to know about Geometry. Studying Geometry on my own while enrolled in an Algebra class would be self-defeating, since that won’t be on the test.”  In the same way, she seems to think that now that she has learned her skilled technical job, she has earned the right to move to the next level, management. At that point we’ll teach her all there is to know about that job.

I think I am finally starting to understand the disconnection between Jane’s thinking and organizational hiring practices.  I think Jane’s confusion is exacerbated by the term “career path”, as though it is something that you just walk along and, with the passage of time, you naturally end up at your destination. I ran into Jane recently, and (ever curious) I asked about some changes at our old district, and in particular, how a new funding source was being spent.  I don’t know, she said, and I don’t want to ask, in case they try to make it my job.  As Dan Rockwell says in his blog Leadership Freak “Don’t tell me what you hope to do.  Tell me what you are doing.”  If what you are doing is displaying no curiosity about the organization and you are avoiding learning opportunities then you will not be viewed as management material. Gone are the days when you were tapped on the shoulder for promotion because you have been in your position a long time and are doing it well.  The Daily Muse lists seven reasons that people don’t get promoted.

  • You lack the necessary job skills
  • You lack the necessary soft skills
  • You don’t take feedback
  • You lack professionalism
  • You don’t take initiative
  • You think like an employee, not a manager
  • You expect it (based on length of service)

I believe that there can be an 8th reason, which is, yes, that you work for a destructive, dysfunctional, abusive organization. The problem is that people who are not self-aware jump immediately to this external explanation as the cause of their unhappiness.  Think about how unlikely this actually is.  Organizations span the spectrum from highly effective to woefully ineffective.  Completely ineffective organizations go out of business (or in the case of school districts are taken over by the state).  Think about the likelihood that you have ended up in an organization that is truly dreadful, but still open for business.  More likely there are some dysfunctional aspects to your organization, and it needs you.  Don’t moan.  Step up.  Your career depends on it.

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