First, some context on the situation: I used to be on a tiny team at a small company. “Small” as in just 9 full-time employees. The design team was just me and two other folks: another designer (like me), and our creative director. As a team of three that worked closely together day in and day out, our team dynamic was super important to us. Thankfully our personalities jived well and we understood each other's communication styles and work-habits. Our collaborative work directly impacted by how well (or not well) we're jiving. That wasn’t unique to my role or even the design industry; anyone who works in an office can probably relate to this. The fact is that it’s easier to produce good work when you like the folks you're working with. So when something happens that could impact those relationships, people often have emotional reactions that can lead them to say or do something weird, and then things can easily go awry. What kind of “something” could throw a wrench between tight teammates, you might ask?
...a surprise announcement during an all-staff meeting that your co-worker, the only other designer, is getting a title bump, which you were not only not expecting, but from the look on your creative director’s face, no one else was expecting it either.
That's what happened to us. I know for some people that's not an earth-shattering situation, but it really got to me in a way I wasn't expecting. Why? Because we didn’t even have an org chart. We had an attempted org chart, but it was never truly formalized. With only 9 employees, we spent the majority of our time on client work and the internal stuff was always on the back burner.
I wanted to be happy for my co-worker—he worked his ass off, and deserved recognition for continuously stepping up to the plate when we needed him; I wanted to be happy for him—but instead I felt half jealous, and also really confused. The crummiest part was feeling stupid for feeling jealous and confused. As I was telling a friend about the whole experience, she told me she had been navigating the same thing at her office too. Her solidarity helped, but I was still confused… if promotions happen all the time, at every job, and are considered a “normal” thing, how does anyone survive that weirdness that can follow it? What do we do with it?
Really. I'm writing about this because these google searches were getting me nowhere:
How to handle your co-worker getting promoted
How working relationships change after a title bump
Trying to be excited and happy for my co-worker's career advancement but actually feeling nervous and awkward help
Everything I clicked on was either telling me to suck it up because “that's just how business goes, people move up the ladder. Work hard and you will too!” (which wasn't the problem), or “just to accept that the dynamic will be inherently different because that's how hierarchy works” (which was also not the problem).
I didn’t want this to change how well he and I collaborated. A career advancement for anyone on our team shouldn't have meant we’d have to entirely reconfigure the way we worked together. It's good to always be working on your relationships, but forced change can be hard to handle. So the question then became “how am I going to handle this?” I figured reaching out to him directly was the best move. We went out for happy hour, and after talking through things with him it turned out he was worried about a lot of the same stuff I was.
Shortly after his title change was announced we had been DMing on Slack, both saying “I don't want this to get weird.” We decided to get drinks after work to go over all our worries, questions, and the unknowns. It was a chance for us to talk about our career goals, and what a title change meant to each of us. The amount of anxiety I let go of after having that conversation was enormous. I was thankful that we talked as soon as we did.
Something else that helped was sitting down with my boss to talk through some of the same things I had discussed with my coworker. We agreed that the announcement wasn't made in the most appropriate way (I should have been given more of a heads up, or at least more details about how this was going to impact the design team). It also gave me some of the business perspective behind the decision, which helped me connect dots that I wouldn’t have even thought of in the first place. I left that conversation with a better understanding of our different responsibilities. I was also starting to feel genuinely happy for my co-worker's promotion.
I originally told myself “I don't really care about my title, as long as I enjoy the work I'm doing!” Now I know that's bullshit. I do care about my title, and how it positions me against my coworkers. If we don’t know where the lanes are, we’re more prone to getting in accidents.
I also know that I've (unfortunately) internalized the competitive culture that tells us “There's not enough jobs and too many talented people! Designers have to learn to code! And run social media! And write copy! And also be accountants! And photographers! And illustrators! And marketing analysts! Also don’t forget about the robots!” That stuff is something I'm working on squashing too.
So the moral of the story is...?
Like literally any other human problem involving relationships and emotions: when things get weird, you just gotta talk to people. And be real about it.
I really liked that team. I wasn’t gonna let weirdness get in the way of us making good shit and having a fun time together.