During my freshman year of college, I landed an entry-level job at a local geotechnical engineering consulting company. The job was very focused on making copies and assembling reports. I also spent a lot of time researching and pulling together information for the reports or combing through listings of known environmental problems looking for potential addresses that could impact a specific site. It was the type of job that is likely obsolete today with the internet and computers.
One day, my boss was unexpectedly put into the hospital. Our department was very small and there really wasn’t anyone else to step in to do the work. I had a choice.
The safe path was to do nothing different. I could have just worked on the work I had in front of me and stayed the course. Nobody would have blamed me as nobody told me to do anything any differently. However, I knew that our company would miss some deadlines.
The riskier path was for me to take on parts of my boss’s role. She might be offended or upset at me for spending company time on something that wasn’t my place. I didn’t have deep knowledge of what I was doing, but I had countless other examples of reports we had written and I had become comfortable with the process and decision-making process.
I took the risk. I found similar reports and studied the wording. I started writing. Nobody in the company was aware I was doing it and my boss was out of commission enough where I couldn’t get her permission. Over the course of a week, I generated 3 different client reports. I was smart enough to know to stop there. When she was able to see visitors, I went to the hospital and delivered the drafts of the reports for her review.
She had been worried about the deadlines and had been hoping I would do something to get them done, but she had expected someone else in the company to step in. When I told her that I had written them, she was more than skeptical. She started reading through them and I could see the tension on her face dissolve. She asked for a pen and made a few edits. Then she repeated the process for the other reports. In the end, she asked me to make the edits and bring her the final versions for her signature.
The story could have ended up very differently, but this story had a happy ending. As my boss recovered, she gave me more autonomy as a result of my initiative. She had started trusting me and my abilities, and I was starting to gain confidence. I had become more engaged in my work and was more productive.
However, it doesn’t always have a happy ending.
Years later when I was an engineer, I was working in my office when a maintenance guy stopped by. He told me about a vacuum pump that had somehow pressurized ejecting a small steel panel across the room like a projectile narrowly missing the operator in the room. The process needed to run, so the plant engineer instructed maintenance to fix it, without determining the cause for the over-pressurization.
This was a clear safety issue. If the panel had hit the operator, he could have been injured or even killed. Something serious had caused this to happen and making no attempt to figure it out could result in a more significant incident. The maintenance guy clearly felt the same way which is why he came to me. I had a choice to make.
The safe choice was to tell the maintenance guy to do what the plant engineer (who outranked both of us) told him to do. I didn’t have any jurisdiction over maintenance or the process in question. If something did happen after that, it really wasn’t my fault.
The riskier choice was to investigate. This would start by me overriding the plant engineer by applying my personal lock on the vacuum pump. Common lockout procedures involve placing locks on power sources for equipment that needs to be worked on. Once a lock is put on, they cannot be taken off, per OSHA practices. I knew that putting my lock on the pump would upset several people, but I also knew there was a chance that people would applaud my initiative.
I decided to act. I went out to the production area and asked the operators to delay starting up the equipment until we could figure out what had happened. I then spoke to the plant engineer and told him about my concerns and asked him a few questions about what had happened. The response back was very clear. I was supposed to stay out of it.
I spoke to the safety manager who had been notified of the incident but had declined to investigate it. I told him my concerns and offered to stay all night until we figured out the root cause of the problem. He walked me back to the plant engineer who was now furious at me for stepping in. They both admitted that they hadn’t investigated the cause, but argued that bolting down the panel would protect the operator and prevent the incident from occurring again. They reminded me that production was behind schedule and that this wasn’t my process.
At this point, I had another choice to make. I had surely done my due diligence at this point and could walk away. Yet, I knew that something was seriously wrong with the pump. It didn’t make any sense that pressure would build in the pump, especially enough pressure to shoot a piece of metal across the room.
So I acted again. I put my personal lock on the breaker for the vacuum pump and start to assemble people for an investigation. I notified my boss in St. Paul, who reluctantly agreed that I needed to take action but added the warning “be careful”. I notified the plant engineer and safety manager that I had put my lock on the equipment and was prepared to lead the investigation or participate in the investigation led by others. The plant engineer instructed one of the maintenance people to cut my lock off the breaker and he refused. The plant engineer threatened to do it himself and I reminded him that if he cut my lock off, he would be breaking a company rule that had the penalty of immediate termination. As you can imagine he was furious with me. The safety manager was furious. The plant manager was furious.
I started the investigation and within 8 hours discovered the source of the problem. To get it fixed, the total delay was only a day or 2.
I felt good about what I did, but the incident clearly damaged my reputation with plant management. When my next performance appraisal came in, I was labeled as a “bull in a china shop”. I received low scores from the plant engineer and safety manager. Clearly, I had “lost” for making this decision.
The effect on me was substantial. The incident was energizing and engaging, but when I saw the company not support my engagement, I became frustrated. I became more toxic. I started badmouthing management and expecting them to make bad decisions. It became me against them. Ultimately, several of these specific managers moved on, but the damage left a scar that kept me from becoming more engaged with the company.
I tell these 2 stories to let you know that engaging in your job carries some risks. Sometimes you will receive support from your employer and feel incredibly engaged. Sometimes you will get pushback from your employer and feel toxic. However, getting engaged was worth it in both scenarios.
My advice is to roll the dice; go all in! This doesn’t mean pushing your own agenda over the agenda of the team as that will surely end badly. However, don’t be afraid to apply your own strengths and experiences to the team. The best possible experiences are with teams who thrive when everyone’s strengths are combined to produce something extraordinary. While there is a risk that you will be rejected, it is worth learning what kind of team you are working with.