Dear Carolyn: I am not the man my wife, family, and friends think I am. Not at work, anyway. I can admit to you anonymously that I’ve been coasting for years. I’ve become really good at faking it and getting someone else to do the hard work, and I really know how to snow upper management. What I don’t know is how to change this — not after almost 20 years of operating this way.
My wife has asked me to stay at my present job — I’ve been here over three years and she is sick of relocating and we have a toddler, so this is a reasonable request on the surface but impossible for me. I can’t tell her the truth. I would be mortified if she ever found out what I’m really like at work. How do I even start to fix this? I’m not used to working hard, I’m not even that good at what I do, and if I don’t get out of here soon, I really fear I’ll be found out. What do I do now?
I’m a fraud: Before you ask how to treat the symptom, you need to diagnose the disease. Do you know why you coast? How and when you learned to do so? What satisfaction you get out of it? If coasting is your main concern, are you avoiding something even more important, like transparent communication with your wife?
Think about “what if” scenarios. What if you told your wife the truth, asked for her input and started getting an outside opinion of your behavior? What if you found the courage to make changes and become the co-worker, son, husband, father, and friend you could respect, whom others could love on his own merits? What if you found a job you could excel in and made the effort to do so?
Perhaps you can’t tackle every aspect of your situation simultaneously, but think about your priorities and work on the most important. If an income to support your family is the top of the list, look into that — but not alone. Your wife, a close friend, a therapist, can all help support you on your quest.
Starting tomorrow, commit to no longer putting hard work on someone else or “snowing” upper management. Do YOUR job. This sounds easy but is going to take small decisions every day to start actually doing work. Block time on your calendar at the end of each day to assess how well you’ve done, and if you find yourself putting things on other people, address it immediately, the same day. It will take a lot of humility on your part to say to your colleagues, “I see I’m putting this on you and I should really be doing X. I appreciate your help, but I’m taking X back because it’s really my responsibility.”
This is why that calendar reminder matters — at the end of each day, assess what needs to be done to make actual progress on your own work. Don’t allow yourself to put work on others, and commit to doing it. I’d also caution you in thinking that people don’t know that you’ve been doing this — most people catch on pretty quickly to others who like to shirk their work. But this also means that if you make a real effort to own it and change your behavior, you’re likely to have a lot of support from those watching you make the effort to change.
I’m a fraud: Are you like this at home, too? I feel like such a personality couldn’t be hidden all of the time. Do you help around the house, take joint responsibility for your child, communicate openly with your spouse about any issues, make sure bills are paid, etc.? If so, it sounds as if this is specifically a work issue. I would say you probably aren’t in the right field and should change. However, if this happens in your personal life, too, it sounds as if you need a good therapist to help you sort these issues and their causes out.
I’m a fraud: I know you. I’ve reported to you. You’ve delegated your responsibilities to me and taken credit for my ideas. You took the adulation, promotions and raises and left me to clean up your messes. You fired me because of problems you created. I have zero sympathy for your 100 percent self-induced tale of woe.
But you asked for advice, so here goes. I presume you are now in a high-paying job of heavy responsibility that may be well beyond your skills. So, roll up your sleeves. Dig in. Start doing the hard work. If you don’t know an answer, ask. Pull together a team of people with different skill sets to help you accomplish projects. Work WITH them. Take responsibility for mistakes. Set goals and work toward them. Mark achievements with everyone. Give credit where credit is due. Celebrate each member of your team. Give them raises and promotions. Help them further their careers. If you do this, you will build trust and earn their respect. You may even learn something in the process.
Or you can continue on as you have, putting up a facade, cashing the checks you haven’t earned and jumping ship whenever things get tough. But the truth will catch up to you. The sterling reputation you believe you have sounds as if it is already pretty tarnished.
Something’s going to change now, whether you want it to or not, and only you can decide how it will change. Your wife is sick of moving. You get that it’s unfair to keep doing it anyway, and you (seem to?) feel guilty about the problems left in your wake for ex-co-workers. You know that she’s eventually going to leave if you keep forcing her to shuttle around, right? All the cliches have arrived: The rubber meets the road, you’re backed into a corner of your own making, etc.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot you can do to move forward other than to own the truth, and it starts with your wife. Clearly you have some true talents. It’ll probably take some serious therapy to excavate those and figure out how to use them — and, yes, you have to be honest with a therapist if you sincerely want to make changes. Do you?