Context? What Context?
Here’s a word. A word I’m nearly certain will make you roll your eyes. Ready?
Was I right? Did you think, ugh? What now, lady?
Cause, that’s exactly how my kids would respond. Actually, one of them would even say “Stop, just stop.” My habit of breaking every thing down exhausts them sometimes.
So, why would I choose to say something I know you’ll find exhausting? Cause context matters. Context is everything. And, it’s notoriously absent from so much of what you’ll be asked to do as you start adulting.
Especially at work.
You know. The place we keep telling you is so important. That we’re getting you ready for.
Yeah, that place. That place is filled with projects and tasks that are completely void of context. On-the-job training is so lacking that you’ll find yourself stumbling through assignments just hoping that you’re not gonna lose your job.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But, sadly, it is. It’s one of those things we adults all seem to know, but rarely ever talk about.
So, of course, I’m gonna talk about it. Tell you how to navigate around the black hole that is context at work.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is context and why does it matter?
Context, by definition, is a thing’s surroundings. The stuff that gives a thing deeper meaning. You likely learned about context in Language Arts. To help understand a word or phrase, you look at other words around it. The relationship of the other words help enlighten you about the meaning intended by the author.
Or, sometimes, when you’re telling your friends a story, you can see by their faces they’re not following along. Somewhere, you likely missed a fact or two they need. The story lacked context.
Your teachers work hard to not only teach you about context, but give you context. They understand that your ability to learn and comprehend is enhanced by context. But, work is different. Most bosses are nothing like your teachers. They don’t see a need to give you much training. So, context, is an idea that’s completely lost upon them.
Imagine, going to work and being told to draft an email for your boss to send to all employees. An email that announces installation of vape detectors in the bathrooms. And, that’s all you get. You’re told nothing more. And, you’ve worked there all of 3 weeks.
It would seem, would it not, based solely upon the request, that you could simply write a one sentence email that says: “Dear Employees, in the very near future, there will be vape detectors installed in the bathrooms. Sincerely, [name of your boss].”
When you present this draft to your boss, you’ll very likely get a response like, “Well, if that’s all it took, I would have done it myself.”
And, just like that, you feel like you failed. But yet, you have no idea why.
What’s missing? Context.
You’ve not been at this job long enough to know the reason for installing vape detectors. Nor do you know how the other employees will react to the news. Will most be grateful? Or offended? Will this news be controversial or welcomed? You also don’t know what will happen if a detector is triggered. Do all people in the bathroom get investigated? Could people get disciplined or fired for mere suspicion?
See, context matters.
I know, this seems so obvious to you. I get it. But, here’s the thing. There is likely someone at work right now who’s been given just this type of assignment. Seriously. This is work. In 2019.
I don’t know that it’s ever intentional. Or at least it’s not always intentional. It’s just the nature of work in the 21st Century. There’s an expectation that humans come to a job fully functional. That skills and knowledge and context get uploaded to our brains as if we are the robots.
So, what do you do? How do you handle instructions that are presented to you as so obvious, you feel like asking questions is prohibited?
Well, start by taking the assignment and asking yourself questions. Like, what can I do to put this assignment in context? Are there other people I could talk to who could help? Or, is there research I could do? What’s the goal of the assignment? Start gathering facts that create context. And, then start the assignment.
You may need to follow up with your boss. But, it’s a lot easier to follow up by asking relevant, targeted questions than simply saying, “I don’t understand what you mean.” And, it will be easier for your boss to clarify the original instructions when you are providing some of the context. Even if you get some of it wrong.
Again, I get it. This sounds ridiculous. You’re wondering why wouldn’t the boss just give you the context. It would be so much more efficient.
I don’t have a clear answer for that. And, an answer doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you understand that work today asks a lot of you. And, one of the things that falls on your shoulders is generating context for the work you are assigned. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Maybe, someday, work will get better. And, things like training and context won’t be pushed to the side. But, until then, we all gotta eat. So, we all gotta work.
The key to success, find the context. If not all, start with some. And, know that this is not your fault. It’s just one more glitch in the system.