The Person, Not the Position

By: Nan S. Russell


Taking time off from graduate school to earn enough money to continue, I was fortunate to find a teller position in a local Credit Union. I got more than a year's tuition from the experience. I also got a lesson in expectations.

I was the same person behind the counter as I was attending classes weeks earlier. Yet the position affected how people saw me, as if the work I was doing changed who I was. No longer a book carrying, jeans-wearing campus student who might be the next scientist, supreme court justice, or corporate CEO, my brown-bag lunch, thrift-shop attire with hair in a twist, left no doubts I was employed in a "regular" job. It also left no doubts to their emerging assumptions.

Waiting on community members, university students, administrators and professors in my new found role was as good as any official psychology experiment for this psych major. Just like positive traits are sometimes unconsciously attributed to better looking, more athletically fit individuals, I experienced people who attached greater importance to ideas, suggestions and input based on position. My observation: to most people I was the position, not the person who held it.

That observation was confirmed years later as a young mother working nights at a department store to make ends meet. And again as a new manager surprised to notice it was position level, not the merit of the idea, that swayed many brainstorming groups.

Too often we value ourselves and others by titles held, not contributions made. We mix up a person's abilities, talents and worth with their occupation or position. We forget a job is something you do, not who you are. Hearing a senior management friend tell stories about a star performer, I queried further expecting a rising star from the executive training program only to hear the star was someone working in the stockroom. No filters blocked her vision of talent.

If you want to be winning at working, manage your expectations and biases about positions and titles. That includes your own. It's not the job you're in; it's the job you do while you're in it. That's true of everyone at every level. Often we get what we expect. Expect ideas and contributions from everyone and you'll get them. Engage the person, not the position.

© 2004 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved. Sign up to receive Nan's free biweekly eColumn at www.winningatworking.com.

Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. She has held leadership positions in Human Resource Development, Communication, Marketing and line Management. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. Currently working on her first book, Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared, Nan is a writer, columnist, small business owner, and on-line instructor. Visit www.nanrussell.com or contact Nan at nan@nanrussell.com.