The Shadow Job: what is it, and why is it important?

Many people think of their job as the thing they were ostensibly hired to do: the specific work set out in their job description.

But there's another job that these people have: the Shadow Job. That's the job of keeping their job . . . making sure they're allowed to do their job . . . setting the stage for their own advancement . . . shaping how others perceive them. In other words, the job of working on their interactions with others -- a lot.

Some would argue that the Shadow Job is the real job. And to the degree that the Shadow Job affects everything in the workplace, that is true. To the extent that the Shadow Job is neglected, things go poorly -- we disregard the Shadow Job at our peril.

Some people dismiss the Shadow Job as "politics" and opt out, implying that they are above such things. The term "politics" is unfortunate. It evokes images of manipulation and unmerited promotions.

When carried out with integrity, the Shadow Job can lift work life to a higher level. It's challenging to deal well with other humans, but it's a mistake to think we can ignore them. They're all around us, and every day they make decisions that affect us. We owe it to ourselves, our employers, and the people around us to be a full participant.

One thing is certain. No one will do the Shadow Job for us. We have to do it ourselves.

There are several key factors in doing the Shadow Job well.

- Objective attention. Once you start observing the interactions between you and the people around you without leaping to conclusions, you'll have a lot more data to work with and your insight will deepen. Whatever your own feelings, decide you will set them aside. Simply observe. Getting better at the Shadow Job takes practice.

- Study. Your observations will have more context if you become a student of human behavior and work dynamics. Books like Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence are a good starting point. Once you acknowledge the importance of the Shadow Job and start looking into it, you'll probably become fascinated by it.

- Communicate constructively. Constructive communication calls for framing things objectively and, to every extent possible, positively. Communicating constructively is a discipline. It takes work over time. It's worth the effort, because if you communicate constructively as a matter of routine, people will come to see you as reliable -- a critical and overlooked aspect of leadership. In order to communicate constructively, you will have to relinquish gossiping and complaining, a decision that will absolutely improve your life.

- Make friends with your boss. Contempt for managers is a corrosive aspect of American work life. If that's your attitude, it's best to just say "no" to it. Accept that many corporate decisions don't make sense and that life in companies can be difficult. Take an objective look at what your boss needs and do your best to be perceived as an ally. It will help your career, and it's the right thing to do. This isn't about being a schmoozer or an operator; it's about having enough regard for your boss as a human being to take the trouble to be nice to him or her -- and having enough smarts not to leave him or her out of the equation.

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