Is It Just Me, Or Is It a Structure Problem?
Updated: Aug 17
This is not likely a question you find yourself asking very often, but I’ve heard it come up a lot in both my coaching and organizational capacity-building work.
This confusion can create a lot of uncertainty and pain for individuals, and for organizations and their leaders.
So for this, my first blog from Facilitating Change, I wanted to explore it from both of those angles.
Let me start with a specific example.
I was talking with a coaching client recently, who had transitioned into an exciting job in a new organization, about six weeks prior.
“My new organization has a great culture of shout-outs and appreciation. They happen a lot on team calls, out loud and in chats, and sometimes by email, but I’m not getting them, and I don’t know what that means.”
As a coach, my work here was to help the person in front of me sort this out. So we started with what they were experiencing in this situation.
My client’s internal dialogue included:
“Am I doing ok at this new job?” “Do people not like my work?”
“I don’t do well if I’m not getting regular feedback – without it, I’m not sure I’m doing what they want me to be doing and I lose confidence and energy. Am I just being too needy?”
“Are other folks wanting to take credit for my work, or is there something else happening here - something unintentional?”
“I don’t know how to raise this; I don’t want to be complaining…”
Reflection #1: You need what you need. If you can’t get your needs met in a job (or relationship, or…), it’s not because your needs are “wrong.”
Far too often we fall into the story that there is something wrong with us in situations like this; that we are “too needy” or “too pushy” or “not doing this right.”
You may choose to stay at a job where some of your needs are not met, because you feel like you don’t have a choice, or because you decide you can get those needs met elsewhere and manage at work without that experience.
And, that still does not make the needs wrong.
In these situations, we may also fall into blaming individuals inside the organization for not appreciating us, not being good at their job, etc.
While there are certainly situations where the match is not good, or where some more careful and intentional communication is needed, we often miss the possibility that the problem is built into the structures the organization is using.
As I started asking more questions of this client, a number of useful pieces of information surfaced:
The shout outs were informal – that is, there was no structure in these meetings for offering celebrations and appreciations, it was just “part of the culture.”
It was still super early in my client’s relationship with everyone in the organization, and the position they were in had just been created; much of the work they were doing had been done only informally, usually within the teams, before their hiring.
The organization had grown dramatically in the last year or so - more than doubling in size.
The shout-outs and appreciations seem to go mostly to the folks who are interfacing directly with the clients. “Yay to Jeannie; we got great feedback on that course you presented to…”
My client’s work is all behind the scenes, supporting teams who then interface with clients, and so is seen by the client only as part of the larger package. And there were likely other people in that situation.
Reflection #2: Sometimes, what feels like a personal thing is, in fact, a structural problem.
Often, when we have unmet needs at work, and especially if there are others having those same unmet needs, it may not be about us at all; it may be a structural problem. (It could also be a larger values mis-match, which requires different strategies.)
Reflection #3: This is a major problem for organizations, not just for individual employees.
I’m going to focus on identifying and addressing structure problems from both the individual and organizational perspective for the rest of this article, but first, here are a few other examples of how this confusion might show up.
Some Other Ways It Can Look
“Our new mid-level hires keep leaving. They usually say it’s for new opportunities, or family reasons, or wanting less stress, but it seems like they just don’t want to do what it takes to succeed here. Why can’t we find more folks like us (or like we were when we were in those positions)?”
“They tell us they want our input, but when I offer feedback or ideas, nothing changes. It’s so frustrating. Now I vacillate between not saying anything and, apparently, bugging them too much about my ideas, and I never feel like I’m handling it ‘right.’ I don’t know what to do.”
“We ask our staff for input in meetings, and do surveys, but they don’t say anything, and then they complain later about what we decided; it’s so frustrating!”
“I have no idea who to talk with about the problem…”
“I suppose it would be good if we could talk about it at our team meeting, but I’m not in charge of those meetings, and I don’t want to be pushy.”
“We have team meetings once a week, but often I don’t find out about problems until they either blow up, or somebody happens to mention them outside the meeting!”
These are just a few examples of experiences at work where:
As I noted above, as an employee, you are feeling like something is not working for you, and you can’t really tell if it’s “just me” – that is, if your need for something to change is “legitimate” and, therefore, if it’s ok to ask for what you need.
As a leader, you are seeing patterns where people leave, underperform, behave in not-so-useful ways, or complain a lot, and you can’t really sort out what the problem is. Sometimes you find yourself asking “is this just ‘how people are today’?”
These dynamics can create deep frustration, damage trust, and reduce the willingness of all involved to invest time and energy in the relationships and processes needed to have work go well – for the organization and the individual.
Now sometimes there is truly a significant mismatch between what the employee and the organization need; in that case, the solution is likely to part ways (as gracefully as possible).
And sometimes, an individual simply needs some time and support to sort out how best to get their needs met in a given work environment.
But, far more often than we might think, the problem is that the structures in place to facilitate communication, collaboration, and accountability are not working.
Many of the formal and informal systems that govern how organizations actually function have grown up over time, been tweaked as needs evolved and environments changed, and are now used without careful thought about how well they are meeting the current needs of the organization and the people in it.
I see a lot of organizations using systems that were put in place when they were far smaller, and the communication, collaboration and accountability could easily happen fairly informally. Those systems may be wholly inadequate in a much larger entity.
I see groups struggling with what I call “legacy structures” – that is, structures that were put in place years ago, based on a particular set of circumstances or personalities, that reward particular behaviors or tasks more than others because that was useful at the time, but may now be working counter to the current needs of the organization and the people in it (i.e. highly rewarding sales/money-generating tasks while under-rewarding excellent people management, or community-relationship building, or…).
And I see organizations not taking the time to consider whether the structures they are using are helping or hindering the work they want to accomplish and the dynamics they want to have among the people doing that work.
So How Do We Know If It’s a Structure Problem?
This requires backing up to the 5000 foot level; away from the personality dynamics, our own self-doubts and pet peeves, and the immediacy of individual experience, so we can look for patterns.
Here are some questions that might help with that:
Are multiple people having the same/similar experience(s), or is it just me, or just that employee?
Is the problem limited to a particular, short-term, situation, or is it more on-going?
What do (a) I, or (b) the folks complaining, want? As opposed to what am I/are they unhappy about? (This can require some discernment to look below the presenting complaint. You’ll find an overview of a process for Moving From Complaints to Collaboration, and two related worksheets in the Tools for Facilitation and Team Building folder on the Resources page of FacilitatingChange.net.).
Is that want “reasonable?” – that is:
Is it something I’d advocate for other people having in a job setting? and
Would the organization work better if folks were getting this?
What factors are/might be creating or contributing to this experience? (List as many as you can think of, then ask “what else?” and keep going. If you are pondering experiences others are having, remember that you are just guessing and sort out how to check those assumptions with the folks having the experience.)
Back to my example: In the case of the example I started with, odds are good that there are multiple things going on.
One is just my client’s newness; there may not have been time for folks to get clear about their value and articulate it back to them.
But, given that the organization says it values active acts of appreciation, and my client is, in fact, seeing this happening, I begin to look for what kinds of structural problems might exist.
The most obvious, in this situation, is that the informal ways that such appreciation is happening does not create a structure to help ensure that the folks working behind the scenes get their work acknowledged.
This is a super common problem, and will be more acute in a situation like this, where rapid growth means that there are more people inside of teams than there used to be, and folks don’t all know each other.
If You Suspect It’s a Structure Problem, Then What?
If you are the employee:
Get Curious, and Ground-Check It: Check in with other folks to see what their experience is; ask about how “it’s supposed to work” and reflect on whether that matches what you’re seeing.
Share Your Experience and Ask for What You Need: The people you work with won’t know what you are experiencing, or what you need, unless you tell them. Be specific, use “I” statements rather than generalizing, and focus on what you want, not “the problem (complaint).”
Remember That What You Need Is Not “Wrong” regardless of whether this organization/team can provide it; having needs is NOT a reflection of your value (or lack of value).
Be Willing to Help Create Solutions
If you are the leader:
Ask the person who seems unhappy/is complaining or requesting change about what they are experiencing and what they need.
Ask other folks to see what their experience is.
Think (or ask) about how “it’s supposed to work” and reflect on whether that matches what you’re seeing.
Think About How The Structure Came to Be:
When was it developed, and under what circumstances?
What assumptions is it rooted in? How might things have changed since then?
What were/are the goals of the structure and do they still align with what you want as an organization, or what your employees need?
Consider Making Changes:
Collaborate with the folks most impacted (all of them) to think about how to shift the structures/systems/processes to make them work better.
You will likely discover some commonalities and some tensions as you explore what people are experiencing, and what they need. This is normal.
The best ideas emerge when you can keep everybody curious about what might be possible if we looked for solutions that will work for everyone.
(There are tools that work to do that. Yes, even when there are already tensions and mistrust.)
Try Something New, Reflect on Results, Tweak as Needed: This needs to be an iterative process to be successful.
You will need to create structures to help you keep checking back in to discern the impacts – intended and unintended – and make whatever additional changes are needed.
Want Support Sorting This Out?
Coaching: If you are interested in exploring how I might support you in discerning “just me” problems from structure problems, and to find ways to address the challenges, whatever category they fall into, you will find more information about my coaching work on the FacilitatingChange.net website.
Organizational Capacity-Building: If you are interested in exploring how I might help your organization identify and address structure problems, or other challenges, you’ll find more information about my diagnosis and capacity building work on my website, FacilitatingChange.net.