Note: Debashis is writing a series of letters to his infant daughter, Anjuli.
This is the fourth of this series.
The Political And The Personal At Work – The Middle “P”
This will be the fourth and final piece in the series “The Personal and the Political at Work.” Let’s review a little.
The first article focussed on keeping the political and the personal separate at work. Ten suggestions were offered as a vehicle to mediate this separateness:
Avoid nasty situations
Listen to others
Be honest about your intentions
Do not talk negatively of others
Respect the dignity and humanity of others
Do not take things personally
No one is out to get you
Keep things in perspective
The second article was written out of a conundrum of sorts. I realized that in implementing the ten steps above, one could take them to extremes and become quite isolated from the self in the process of separating the personal and the political at work. So, to ensure that this doesn’t happen, we looked at one of Wayne’s screensavers – “Plunge ahead slowly.” In other words, be political but not too political by being very aware of how your work impacts you and how you impact your work.
Article number three looked at how the feminist adage “the personal is the political” could be applied at work. It found that the political was informed by the personal and through this, unions and management would engage in “a personal problem-solving process within an adversarial political environment.” We explored political power vs. personal power and found that collective activities in the workplace would increase the cumulative power of workers – which would, in turn, increase the political power of the union (to ensure that worker rights were maintained by management.) However, in all this, there was a risk of the loss of personal power. Although the political is critical in the workplace, a suggestion was made: decrease the political by being more aware of the personal.
In all this political / personal separateness /but-not-too-separate at work, I feel like there is something missing. I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about being aware, being cautious, maintaining a balance between personal and political power. In all this, the two extremes continue to unfold.
On the one hand, the person gets lost in the political landscape of the workplace. When you’re dealing with politics all the time, trying to make place for yourself at work, you try to not get involved in a lot of things, and yet, to remain political, you end up getting dragged into something. In all this meandering, the personal becomes lost.
On the other hand, the reverse applies: the political can get lost if we are too personal. Imagine, if everyone did “the personal” at work: well, actually, in utopia, that would be cool. There would be honesty, openness, intimacy, closeness, productiveness, etc. BUT LET’S GET REAL!!!! Most workplace environments do not work that way at all. In most workplaces, if we are too personal, the political is lost and little tangible work gets accomplished. Take, for instance, any conflict-of-interest situation or dual-relationship problem. These situations are identified when the personal gets in the way of the political. In other words, someone’s own personal interest gets in the way of getting the work done.
So, where is the balance? Where is the balance between the political and the personal in the workplace? How do you ensure that you don’t lose your personhood in your work? How do you ensure that your “personal” doesn’t get in the way of getting the job done?
A possible balance
In keeping with the political, the personal, the powerful, I have another p-word that I forgot about until now – which may help to reconcile some of the personal-political stuff at work. PROFESSIONAL.
Sounds so new, yet it’s not so new, is it? Here’s what I’m thinking. There is a split between the personal and the political at work. It’s like having to wear two different hats, two identities, two entirely different roles. Add to this the environmental structure and practices and protocols and culture of your workplace and the personal-political chasm becomes even more larger. So, there needs to be a mediating factor or a role that balances the personal and the political at work. To me, that’s “the professional.”
Now at first, the word “professional” elicits more of a political feel to it than a personal flavour. And I think that in much of the work world (at least in my profession of social work,) we use “professional” to be political. Do you find this a similar phenomenon in what you do?
My proposal is that the professional is a part of you, one that balances the personal parts of you and the political parts of you. It sits in middle. On one side, the “professional you” ensures that your personhood is always maintained in your work (which is why the heck you got into your job in the first place, I hope!!!!!). And on the other side, the “professional you” ensures that you are aware of working around the political environment of work.
Specific to the political, the professional in you ensures that you do the work you need to keep a job, to earn a living, to get a good reference, to learn some skills, to make sure your superiors are pleased with you, to get a promotion or a raise, have a good reputation with your colleagues, etc. Specific to the personal, the professional in you ensures that there is a little part of you in everything you do, that you take parts of your work and become a stronger person, that you learn from your work and build character, that you take what you learn as a person and bring these lessons to other jobs or other areas in your life.
I want to suggest that the professional is something that is created over time, depending on the role, work environment and your personal interest in whatever work you do. The political aspect of your professionalism is imposed upon you from your work environment and its own idiosyncrasies. And the personal aspect of your professionalism arises out of who you are and your own idiosyncrasies. And you then create what you want to be as a professional.
I’ll use me as an example. I’m only going to use strengths for now. BUT NOTE THERE IS SIGNIFICANT VALIDITY IN LOOKING AT LIABILITIES (WEAKNESSES) AS WELL!!!!!!!!!
I am a professional social worker. Here’s the politics of what I am. I belong to a professional regulatory body that makes sure I am competent in what I do. I have to take a certain number of training hours each year to ensure I can actually continue to use the title “social worker.” I am an employee of a child welfare agency. As such, I am particularly involved in child abuse and neglect issues and the role of child welfare in my community and in society. Specifically, I work in recruiting, training and assessing foster families. So, I am trained in various assessment methods to properly assess foster parent(s), who are going to work with foster children and with professionals in the child welfare system. I also come from a family preservation background and have some specialties in group work. So, I am very much in tune with disadvantaged families and I make noise about oppressive government policies. I have worked in numerous organizations in a number of capacities and bring with me a great wealth of knowledge and experience in how to work in an agency.
I am a professional social worker. Here’s the personal of what I am. I am genuinely interested in not only people’s problems, but also the paths they take to resolve their issues. I am warm, caring encouraging, gentle and nurturing. Most people feel comfortable with me as a therapist, social worker, group worker, and colleague – whatever role I take at work. I find myself to be a generally approachable person and can make most people feel at some ease with me, so they let down their walls and can share openly with me. I use my self in my work when I think it is helpful in the help giving that I do. I very honestly appreciate and respect the struggles people endure and enjoy watching the growth that occurs as a result of their learning and making healthier choices. I have worked with literally hundreds of people and bring with me a great wealth of knowledge and experience in learning from their growth.
So, the professional part of me is really a combination of what my workplace wants me to be and who I am. I am the one, as a professional, who determines what parts of my person will interact with my political work and what parts of my political work will interact with my personhood. Sometimes, it is helpful and sometimes it is critical to seek supervision or some personal coaching through my wife, family and friends to make sure that the professional part of me is, indeed, balancing the political and personal parts of me.
So, what about you? Who and what are you as a professional? What experiences from your work have impacted you as a person? What parts of your personhood impact you as a professional? What are the goods and the not so goods about you (both politically and personally) that make you the professional that you are? What do you want to do in order to become a better professional? Who can you talk with or get guidance from to help you to maintain balance?
We’ve spent four articles looking at the personal and the political at work – how to separate them, how to make sure you’re not too separated, how to maintain personal power while still remaining political and taking more responsibility in being the professional – the real link between the personal and the political. My wish for folks who have meandered through this journey with me is for you to have a more aware, balanced and empowered perspective at work….