Jan Scruggs
Memorial founder

Jan Scruggs

Founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.


Pitfalls and opportunities

Q: Can you disagree with your boss's ideas and still wind up being successful at work? Describe a time when you were dragged kicking and screaming into a project you thought was a big waste of time, only to have it turn out to be a great success. Or not.

You can surely succeed in a work environment where you disagree with the means employed to reach an objective. You cannot succeed where you do not agree with the overall philosophy or mission in the workplace. It will drive you nearly insane.

This is the basic theory of cognitive dissonance -- people will have two contradictory emotions or beliefs, yet find a way to rationalize their behavior. A person needs to keep a positive view of himself so he/she will come up with something to keep equilibrium.

The point is that humans need to live and work in a manner consistent with their views of themselves and their morals. A pacifist cannot, therefore, take a job as a police sniper. He may try to rationalize the behavior, but the equilibrium will ultimately collapse.

So let me show you where I am going with all of this.

There are seemingly lame-brained bosses who indeed drag employees into projects kicking and screaming that become stunning successes. I have never had such a boss. I have been one -- I suppose -- with more vision than my employees have sometimes grasped. Of course, I may be selectively remembering. I sure would not want to create any of that cognitive dissonance!

I once had an employee who was whining relentlessly about his role in putting together a trip to Asia. The job put him into daily contact with leaders of large American corporations. He felt like a travel agent or, metaphorically, like a bartender waiting on patrons with far greater stature than he.

I explained to him that this trip would be a chance to interact and travel with high-status people. The result: He ended up getting a great job in the corporate world from one of the CEOs who he was helping.

The point of The Washington Post's "On Success" is to provide some guidance to people who are working hard to move up in their lives and careers. My suggestion to younger workers is not to be afraid to ask the whys behind an assignment and to give any feedback that makes rational sense to the mission being served.

But remember: You are not the boss -- he or she has given you an assignment. Good luck with it!

By Jan Scruggs  |  July 1, 2010; 5:20 PM ET  | Category:  Careers and success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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ombudsman1 is pretty solid with his remarks. A boss who knows what he is doing will be tolerant of your remarks to an extent. A boss who is insecure will just fire you because they are unsure of their path and thus not as tolerant of dissent.

Posted by: ihatethisplace | July 6, 2010 10:05 AM
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Collect the check and give up that idea that your job is some kind of fulfillment. If the money's right, put up and shut up. Your weekends and you holidays are you real life.

Posted by: js_edit | July 5, 2010 6:32 PM
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Do what I do. Point out very professionally what you think is wrong with your bosses's ideas before you start along with suggestions for improvement. If he/she ignores your suggestions work as hard as you can to implement his idea and if it works great, if not, you've already said your piece, no need to say "I told you so".

If you do that 2 or 3 times, your boss will either start listening to you or will fire you. But if you work with somebody so thin-skinned, then you might as well get fired for doing the right thing, because you're going to get fired anyway.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | July 5, 2010 2:43 PM
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