Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires, by Robert Sheie
Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires.  Photo courtesy of Robert Sheie.

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

It took me considerable time and effort to come up with that clever calculation. And it makes sense for me.  Is it right to prescribe rules for others in terms of how they should organize their workplace clothing?  Especially when the math is clever?

In an April 2018 article at Quartz at Work, Leah Fessler describes the new dress code at General Motors.  It was cut down from 10 pages to two words: “dress appropriately.”  Mary Barra, the CEO at GM, had to work directly against GM’s bureaucratic corporate culture – including her own human resources department – to bring this simplified code into place.  One senior leader emailed her to object to the new rule.  That manager received a phone call from the CEO, after which they worked things out. (The rule remains in place) Barra found that first-level managers needed to learn how to develop their own in-house opinions of what constituted “appropriate,” and they each asserted some localized interpretations.  She thinks this practice helps develop first-level managers.

When I apply my own judgment as a human resources analyst, I sometimes think I have the capacity to create comprehensive rules-based systems that are best for everyone.  My first concern is, how many dress shirts should I own?  Based on the best advice, I have chosen to hang my shirts one inch apart, so they don’t wrinkle in the crush.  I have space in my closet for 24 shirts.  I can go four weeks before I have to do laundry, giving me lots of flexibility.

I replace shirts when they are three years old.  Over three years there are almost 160 weeks.  If I wear each shirt once every four weeks, I will wear each shirt 40 times.  At this pace my shirts wear-out at the same pace that they go out of style.  There are subtle shifts in patterns, colour, and cut, such that after three years a garment looks dated.  Those 40 wears cause them to get threadbare at the cuffs and shiny at the collar.

If I’m granted the authority to assert rules about clothing, I have a high likelihood of advancing my own strengths in clever mathematical calculations.  For example, if you replace shirts once every three years, and there are 24 shirts, this means that you are replacing eight shirts per year, or two shirts per season.  I make a ritual out of it, noticing the passing of the seasons and the fact that it’s okay to buy two shirts when I pass through a favorite store or find a deal.  It’s a ward against impulse buying because I know if I’m allowed to buy shirts right now.  And at any point in time, one-third of my shirts have been purchased in the past year.

It’s a great calculation and I recommend it to everyone.  If I’m ever given the authority to do so, I might just impose this calculation on others.  After all, I have put a lot more thought into this than others, and the math makes a lot of sense.  Do you work at an organization where one person did a bunch of calculations and obliged everyone else to follow rules that comply with the formula?  It’s pretty common, when you think about it.

In an April 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor compares the outcomes of businesses that have rules-based systems against those that are largely discretionary.  On United Flight 3411, when a doctor of Asian ethnicity was bloodied by security to clear space for an overbooking, the viral video and its after-effects erased $1.4 billion from the company’s stock value.  Taylor cites an in-depth analysis (which is behind a paywall) that found that “The problem wasn’t with United’s employees, but with a ‘rules-based culture’ in which 85,000 people are ‘reluctant to make choices’…”

By contrast, I am not reluctant to make choices.  I have been granted significant freedom to advance workforce analytics in the manner I think is best.  And if you gave me a shot at it, I could save employees an awful lot of money.

If I spend $80 per shirt, with 40 wears this adds up to $2.00 per wear in purchase cost.  Ironing it yourself can save money, but I spend about $2.50 to have it ironed for me.  The combined purchase and ironing cost adds up to $4.50 per wear.  My wardrobe is carefully designed such that my cost-per-wear for office attire is $10 per day.  If you haven’t done cost-per-wear calculations, you may want to give it a try.  You may be surprised.  A $400 leather jacket might be worn 400 times, which is $1.00 per wear.  That’s a bargain.  Good leather-soled shoes have a similar calculation.  By contrast I only wear suits twice per year, and men shouldn’t keep a suit beyond ten years.  In one decade I’ll never get more than 20 wears out of all suits combined.  It costs me well over $25 to walk out the door wearing a suit, which is an unjustifiable luxury for me.  Hence I am not tempted to buy suits.  By contrast, if I wear a sports coat every day I get a large number of wears, bringing down that garment’s cost.  And I can wear each dress shirt twice, halving the cost-per-wear of my dress shirts.  Walking out the door in a nice crisp shirt is an obsession for me, so getting this right every morning really sets me up with a good start.

I particularly like the shirts that I bought at the department store Nordstrom.  Nordstrom has a single rule for customer service, which states “Use best judgment in all situations.  There will be no additional rules.”  Nordstrom has the highest sales per square foot in the retail industry.  In Bill Taylor’s article he cites research by business theorist Mark White who finds that organizations that grant employees more discretion, out-perform rules-based organizations in “service, empathy, and capacity to do the right things in difficult situations.”

It may be that judgment is a skill that is best learned with practice, and rules inhibit the ability to practice this skill.

We must choose between culture and efficiency, but strangely, pushing the power to the local level is a boon for both the bottom line as well as culture and workplace wellbeing.

You have two options if you want to be just like me.  You can make your own calculations and your own decisions about what works best for your own wardrobe.  Or you can feel the addictive influences of power and slowly impose your personal judgment calls upon others.  The irony is that the boundary between these two ways of living is not clearly marked.  You will only discover it by experience, through mistakes, and some kind of internal personal discovery.

Can you recognize that moment when you figured out what’s best, and then made a separate judgment call on whether to impose your views?  Can you remember a time when you did not make the distinction?  What did you learn about yourself?  Because that’s what employers are really struggling with these days.

Your Ideal Self Will Assign You Meaningful Work

girl-1186895_1280 cc Pixabay

I have a confession to make.  I love mundane errands.  Do you ever wonder what it takes to blaze through tedious tasks with enthusiasm?  Or how you could get others to have this enthusiasm?

In my life, this involves getting the laundry done, packing lunches in the freezer, and keeping my car washed and gassed.  My purpose in life, my why statement as it were, is to step out the door on Monday morning living a motto that I’m here for the adventure.  To achieve this, I must toil away on the weekend making sure everything is “just so”.  It turns out I’ve been doing it right.

Tucked away in the research I summarized on crafting your own job, I saw a reference to a paper on making mundane tasks meaningful.  The paper is “Self-Regulation and Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals”, by Oettingen, Pak, and Schnetter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 80, No. 5, p 736-753.

Overcome a Deficient Reality in the Pursuit of an Ideal State

The authors describe that the ideal state (i.e. the “fantasy”) must be achievable and envisioned first.  Then people need to look at their current state (i.e. the “reality”) and perceive flaws in their reality that are obstacles to achieving the fantasy.  When done in this sequence, people set tactical goals that allow them to overcome the deficient current state, and they perform those boring tactical goals extremely well.  By contrast, the results are inferior when the thought process is reversed (i.e. reality then fantasy), or the fantasy is not achievable, or if people dwell exclusively on the present or future.

The authors, writing in 2001, prided themselves on breaking new ground in assessing how goals are created.  Prior research was mostly about how goals are achieved.  It’s funny when you think about it, that researchers and business leaders had previously thought that goals are equal in viability, desirability, and meaning.  But not all goals are equal.  For me, that seven-second first-impression moment when I meet a new colleague is the opening of infinite possibilities.  Therefore, it is meaningful for me to shine my shoes on the weekend to prepare for this unknown co-adventurer.

Pointless Work is Destroying Wellbeing and Workplace Engagement

Not everyone thinks this way about mundane work.  David Grauber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics gave us a sneak preview of the content of his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.  In a Globe and Mail article he tells us there is an epidemic of meaningless work in the modern workforce.  He found that 37% of surveyed employees in the UK think that their jobs are meaningless and make no contribution to the world.

If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.

I’m not entirely convinced that people are accurate in the assessment that their jobs are meaningless.  Business leaders spend significant time making work more efficient. They also ensure alignment with strategic goals. The issues that speak to this malaise of meaninglessness is that the work is entirely for the benefit of someone at the top, that those leaders think they are fabulous, they do not care about the thoughts of their juniors and can’t fathom why they should explain how the work relates to a higher purpose.

People are frustrated with elites because the elites don’t care if the people are frustrated.  This apathy and frustration kills employee engagement.

Grauber found that work environments that are meaningless have a higher incidence of stress and bullying.  Other people reported ailments such as anxiety and depression “…that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.”  He suggests that people actually want to perform meaningful work but our workplaces are depriving us of this nourishment.  Grauber notes that in prisons the vast majority of convicts will take advantage of opportunities for employment, even when there is no compulsion to do so.  It is workplaces that impose meaninglessness upon us, and that puts people into a funk.

Pursuit of the Ideal is More Meaningful than Doing What We Ought

Sure, we ought to be hard workers.  But the phrase “ought to” is what is causing people to feel stuck.  Christian Jarrett, in an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, talks to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai about their new research on people’s life regrets.  The research makes a distinction between two types of self.  The ideal self is your own hopes and dreams, that self you identify with deeply, your self-concept.  The ought self is what your client wants done yesterday, what your boss is demanding of you, and the things your family expects of you but you never have a voice in.

Peoples’ life regrets are biggest for lost opportunities attached to an unrealized ideal self.  Similar to “fantasy realization” in the research by Oettingen et al, the most compelling motivators are our personal hopes and dreams, things that come from inside us.  By contrast, goals that are volun-told to us or forced upon us aren’t things that bother us all that much.  People are still pretty good at taking care of tasks associated with the ought self.  But they don’t really care if they fail to deliver.  That sounds like meaningless work to me.  That sounds like disengagement.

What does this mean for our day jobs?  It means that we must ask leaders to put thought into their organization’s higher purpose.  Leaders need to believe this higher purpose, it must be laudable, and it must inspire.  Then those at the ground level must be coached to see the connection between their daily work and that higher purpose.  Employees must be led to imagine a higher state, make it part of an ideal they embody, and that they see themselves overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of that goal.  Their daily work must bring them towards a purpose they are attached to.

I’m pretty sure I can’t get you to shine my shoes.  But what if I convinced you that next Friday afternoon you get to meet your future self?  A future self that figured out their hopes and dreams, then accomplished them.  I’ll bet personal grooming never sounded so good.

Spaghetti Principle Best Way to Change Minds

IMG_0580 by Brent (2)
IMG_0580.  Photo courtesy of Brent.

Does everything change when you touch it?  Yes for spaghetti: spaghetti changes when you touch it.  But what about people?  Do people change when you try to move them?  Sometimes.  Only sometimes.

One of my sub-skills is my ability to give one-on-one tutorials to colleagues to bring them to a higher level proficiency in Microsoft Excel.  Results vary, not because of talent, but more because of the person’s interest-level and their opportunity to apply the learning. I have done these tutorials enough times to know that there is a major concept that everyone needs to “get.”  So I offer the spaghetti metaphor.

When you move cooked spaghetti from the colander to the dining table, there are two ways that it gets there.  First, you move spaghetti out of the colander and onto the plate, changing the layout of the noodles in the process.  Then, after putting on the sauce, you move the entire plate to the dining table.  Transporting the plate does not change the layout of the noodles.  You can move the noodles or move the entire plate.  The distinction is that in some cases you change the configuration of the contents and in other cases you change their location but with the configuration left intact.

For those struggling with Excel, the issue is that if a rectangular cell has formulas in it, you must cut-and-paste the cell, drag-and-move the entire cell, or copy the formula inside the formula prompt to move a formula without altering it.  By contrast, if you copy-and-paste a cell or you use the autofill feature, your formula will automatically change so that all the cell references move accordingly.  You don’t have to worry about this if you’re not manipulating Excel right now.  As I mentioned, your ability to grasp this depends on your opportunity to apply the learning.

Enough math, let’s extend the concept to people’s opinions.  Are there cases where we attempt to move the logic in the minds of others?  Yes indeed.  Sometimes when you attempt to compel others to think of things differently, you get to change the configuration of their spaghetti-scramble of ideas.  But other times, you simply move the plate.  You get a person with the exact same opinions as before, they’re just in a different place, possibly more entrenched.

On Ozan Varol’s website, the rocket-scientist-turned-contrarian-author has some advice on how to change people’s minds.  Varol explains that people’s beliefs have an outsized impact on their grasp of the facts.  This role of beliefs drives a cognitive fallacy known as confirmation bias, the tendency for us to select facts that strengthen our beliefs and gloss-over those facts that are disruptive and uncomfortable.  The challenge is that we cannot use facts to drive changes-of-opinion, because it’s almost impossible to get into peoples’ grasp of “the facts” without attacking their intelligence.  So their defenses go up and they tell you where to go.  You know how this goes.

Varol recommends re-framing either-or debates around an alternate frame of reference.  His best example is when Columbians in the 1950s were grappling with the collapse of the Rojas dictatorship.  An entrenched mindset would blame the military for complicity in the Rojas regime, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, citizens offered an alternative narrative that “…it was the ‘presidential family’ and a few corrupt civilians close to Rojas – not military officers – who were responsible for the regime’s success.”  This narrative significantly reduced the risk of Columbia slipping into a military dictatorship.

As an academic, Varol presents papers at conferences with a subtle verbal shift.  He presents opinions somewhat detached from himself (“This paper argues…”) so that his ideas are lobbed into the public sphere to be thrashed about until others come to a more meaningful conclusion.  When he made this shift his ideas “took a life of their own” allowing him to view his own arguments with some objectivity.

You can do this too.  Varol encourages you to befriend those who disagree with you, expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, and presume that you will experience some discomfort.

Personally, I think the big deal is to get over yourself.  Or to be precise, that I need to get over myself. (See what I did there?)  If everyone other than me has opinions that are a random configuration of noodles, what are the odds that my own ideas are configured perfectly?

When it’s my turn to make spaghetti, I get the noodles into the plate, even them up, pour the sauce, and just get it all onto the table.  I have one kid that hates parmesan, and another that hates pepper.  Neither of them uses a spoon.  They handle the noodles as they see fit.  I let everyone enjoy what’s in front of them, while we talk about our day and our lives.  Hands off the noodles, because now’s the time to enjoy people.

Ambiverts: Learning How to Be Two Very Different People

large bubble and soap suds on bright cobalt blue plate against w
Large bubble and soap suds on bright cobalt blue plate against white background. Photo courtesy of Lori Greig.

My favourite memory of a great party started at the end.  Five of us stayed behind after the others left, and the host said “hey, let’s clean the apartment right now.” We all played along like it was game, still laughing because we were tipsy.

One person loaded the dishwasher, another did the recycling.  My job was to round up the glasses and beer cans and wipe down every surface.  I remember having to avoid the vacuum cleaner, a big old thing that shone a bright light on everything it devoured in its path.

Because there were five of us, we were done in 15 minutes.  Then we washed our hands, cracked open one last cold one, and sat around chatting in a clean house just before bed.  It freed up several hours for more important things to do on a Sunday morning.  I was 19.

I’m an extreme extrovert, but after a big party I need my quiet time.  Just me and the dishes, doing our craft.  That is the moment when I understand introverts.

Over at Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, authors Karl Moore and Sara Avramovic describe the experience of those who are a blend of introvert and extrovert.  This hybrid identity has a new term – ambiverts.

In describing ambiverts, the authors point to a 2013 article in Psychological Science entitled “Rethinking the Extroverted Sales Ideal.”  That article runs an analysis of introvert-extrovert indicators against the sales performance in a call centre.  The study finds that those with an extraversion score of 4.5 out of 7 have the highest level of performance.  According to the study:

“Because they naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening, ambiverts are likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm to persuade and close a sale but are more inclined to listen to customers’ interest and less vulnerable to appearing too excited or overconfident.”

It is not so much about having the “best” personality but rather being adaptable.

The article notes that extraversion is a by-product of people having a need for stimulation, because the internal state of the extrovert is dissatisfied and bored with what’s going on inside.  They look to the outside world to get their kicks.  Introverts and ambiverts are closer to being satisfied or balanced in this regard.  Hence the act of selling is not some deep burning social need, and they can hang back a little, play it cool.  And sometimes that can close the deal.

There are nuances to the actual results of the regression analysis.  First, hours worked and job tenure are actually the biggest drivers of performance.  That is, if you work many hours per day and have many years of experience, with practice you become a lot better at your job.  But performance was also tested against the Big Five personality measures: Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness, and Neuroticism.  The traits were assessed on a straight-line and curved-line basis.

Just to get geeky about this for a few seconds, a straight-line measure would look at the two extremes of a personality indicator.  If there was a slope, the highest performance would be at one extreme or the other.  For example you need to be agreeable to be good at sales, but not all the time (it wasn’t statistically significant).  By contrast, if there was a curved-line relationship, and the curve was negative (downward), then there would be a “peak” in the middle, like a volleyball that tips just over the net.  And that is what they found with extraversion; that there is a sweet spot in the middle where you can sneak the volleyball over the net and score when you’re not expecting it.

Back at Quiet Revolution, Moore and Avramovic reported on interviews they conducted with over 50 ambiverts.  They note that being part-way between introversion and extraversion has its strengths and weaknesses.  In terms of strengths, ambiverts have the ability to move back and forth between two different modes, which may be exceptional if they are free to choose.  But ambiverts don’t always get to choose how they will behave.

In terms of internal motivations: “Ambiverts need to be both outgoing and independent, seemingly at random and sometimes with very little regard to what disposition would be best suited for the present moment.”  It may be ideal to sit quiet and listen right when someone else has something important to say.  But the ambivert could just-so-happen to be gearing up to assert an opinion of their own.  They could experience the worst of both worlds if their internal thermostat it out of synch with their environment.

The authors’ advice on how to be an effective ambivert is largely in taking initiative to match to their environment.  They recommend ambiverts control their environment, moving back and forth between alone-time and socializing at their choosing.  They recommend ambiverts plan ahead, building-in some alternation between social and alone moments.  And they recommend ambiverts learn to say no when something won’t work out for them.  All of these recommendations are very much about the person having autonomy, self-directed flexibility, and the independence to choose their mode.

Perhaps this is good advice for everyone?  Even though I’m an extrovert, I still need alone time.  It may be cleaning up after a party, or folding the laundry, or thinking through something private during my daily commute.  These moments are chosen and planned, by me.  Do introverts have an equivalent experience?  Do they occasionally need social time to share their deep reflections, connect with one person they trust, or ask for help from someone who can help them get what they need?  If I have this right, what is important is that they be able to choose.

Perhaps this is why power-sharing is so important, at work and at home.  We don’t entirely get to prescribe that people should behave one particular way at one precise time.  And we don’t get to choose which part of a person we want.  We can only invite the whole person into the room, and go with the flow.

Think about that during your spare time on Sunday morning.

BLT McMuffin Ruined My Morning and Possibly My Career

BLT McMuffin Ruined my Morning and Possibly my Career
steak mcwheel. Photo courtesy of jordanalexduncan.

The new Egg BLT McMuffin nearly ruined my life.  I have data, I can prove it.  Don’t get me wrong, it tastes good.  But if you’re trying to get some morning mojo by picking up something in the drive-thru, do not buy this sandwich.

The bacon is an inconsistent shape and flatness, and the lettuce has a springiness that makes things unstable.  After three bites, my McMuffin started to fall apart, and the mayo ended up on my shirt and pants.  My first experiment with this horrible sandwich was on the day I met my new top client for the very first time.  When the moment came, I started talking before she had finished her sentence.  Twice.  My first impression with a very powerful person happened the day that McDonald’s chose to ruin my career.  I hereby call for a boycott of the Egg BLT McMuffin.

Your morning mood, prior to arriving at work, has a measurable impact on your workplace effectiveness.

Nancy Rothbard from University of Pennsylvania wrote an meaningful article in July 2016 in Harvard Business Review.  Rothbard was summarizing a paper she co-authored, “Waking Up on the Right or Wrong Side of the Bed: Start-of-Workday Mood, Work Events, Employee Affect, And Performance,” by Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk.  Academy of Management Journal, 2011, Vol. 54, No. 5, 959-980.

The study looks at customer service representatives in an insurance company — which had good performance metrics to begin with — to which they added surveys about employees’ moods.  They found that people who started their day happy “…stayed that way throughout the day, and interacting with customers tended to further enhance their mood.”  Those with a good start “…provided higher-quality service: they were more articulate on the phone with fewer “ums” and verbal tics, and used more proper grammar.”  And I bet they don’t cut people off, either.

By contrast, those who started their day in a bad mood “…didn’t really climb out of it, and felt even worse by the end of the day…”  The negative moods caused people to take more breaks, and the breaks were significant, “…leading to a greater than 10% loss of productivity.”  In my case, I struggled in the bathroom trying to get the oil out of my shirt with paper towel and hand-soap.  I am paid to do metrics, not laundry.

What can managers do to help?  Rothbard suggests that not sending evening emails will improve the employees’ recovery time, improving the likelihood of a good mood the next day.  And managers “…can allow employees a little space first thing in the morning, for example to chat with colleagues before an early meeting.”  Beyond Rothbard’s comments I think there is much more that can be done.

Managers are first and foremost the leaders of the mood of their team.  They need to share inspiration and positivity, since their mood has a contagion-effect on those who look up to them.  The manager needs to decide to be in a good mood, organize their life accordingly, and use their emotional contagion for the better.  If you are a leader, you might not be free to control the home life of your staff.  But you can finesse your own morning routine, and boost your team indirectly with a contagion-effect.

In a helpful article in Inc.com, Allison Davis suggests that in order to have an effective morning, we need to take care of morning tasks the night before.  Your gym bag, your lunch, and your wardrobe must be in place before you wake up.  You need to plan your week or month prior to arriving at work, so that you arrive with a clear game plan.  You need to think through your “worry” items ahead of time, then write them down, forget about them, and arrive at work with a clear mind.

For this reason I ensure my shirts are cleaned and pressed on the weekend.  All I need is for McDonald’s to put a McMuffin into my hands, and I’m ready to get to the office a few minutes early and rock my day.  Just another perfect morning, with a spotless shirt and an Egg McMuffin in my hand.

I once took a great course on emotional intelligence through Coursera, taught by Richard Boyatsis from Case Western Reserve University.  The course is called Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence, and you can find it here.  Emotional intelligence is a complex field because it’s not just about being positive.  There’s significant brain science involved, and your understanding how the brain works in a clinical sense has a big impact on understanding and managing your gut response.

My favorite take-away was the distinction between two modes of thought.  The sympathetic nervous system is the mode where you are under some stress.  This mode is good for rules compliance, cranking-out large volumes of identical outputs, and – in my experience – a certain kind of perseverance.  By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is a relaxed state where you are open to new ideas; grateful and hopeful; and superior at creative thinking, strategy, and looking at the future.

In terms of how to get into this positive state, you should know that you typically wake up that way.  As frustrations and annoyances pile up through your morning, your blood thickens with stress and your mind narrows.  You’re usually done by noon, ready for an afternoon producing large volumes of rules-compliant outputs.  You can minimize these frustrations if you can plan a good morning routine.

Managers under significant stress are routinely pulled into the sympathetic nervous system.  They become uncivil.  They display a lack of emotional intelligence as they rise through the ranks.  Their reduced ability to understand those unlike themselves has an adverse effect on inclusion.

To be a good leader you need to control your stress, not just on-the-fly, but also in terms of how your life is organized.  Your get-out-the-door errands are typically thoughtless and mundane.  Therefore, it is best to take care of them when your sympathetic nervous system is active anyway, such as on evenings and Fridays.

Early in your day and early in your week is the natural time for creating great new ideas.  By contrast, bad decisions are typically made on a Friday afternoon.  How many really bad ideas can you think of that happened on a Friday afternoon?

I can think of one.  The sandwich-that-shall-not-be-named.  The Egg BLT McMuffin from McDonald’s.  I’ll bet five bucks it was invented on a Friday afternoon.  Because that’s the worst idea that has ever existed.

Handle Office Politics Like Fitted Sheets

Women honoured at Herat hospital
Women honored at Herat Hospital, Afghanistan, IWD 2011.  ResoluteSupport Media.

Office politics and fitted sheets are basically the same thing.

Before you truly understand fitted sheets, they entangle you, waste your time, and you can’t fold and put them away properly.  Sure, there are people who have a proper folding method, but who has the time to learn this kind of skill?  Yet if your fitted sheets are a bundled mass at the back of the closet, you’ll never feel like you’re great at everything.  But if you ask those who have mastered fitted sheets, you will notice that they have no stress about this topic.  It’s all very simple and easy, just something that needs extra attention.

Office politics is the same thing.  It entangles your day-job with something you think shouldn’t be such a big deal.  There are “proper” ways of dealing with office politics, but are there a gazillion methods and it’s bewildering.

Are office politics even a real skill?  Or is it just some nuisance that sits at the back of your career history, making your best efforts seem unfinished.  The funny thing about office politics is that it’s always messy when you don’t do anything about it.  But there are people who just apply the correct efforts using a couple of simple rules, and they seem strangely calm.  How do they do that?

Here are your instructions for handling fitted sheets.

You need two sets of bedding so don’t have to wait all day for everything to dry.  Wash all bedding in one load, but place the single fitted sheet in the drier on its own.  It will dry quickly.  The rest of the bedding goes into the drier as another load, and will dry faster unentangled.

When folding a fitted sheet, just fold it in half like a towel, bringing two fitted ends together.  Match the corner of elastic bands together, and the sticky-out parts are nested inside one another.  Do this with all four corners in pairs.  Then fold it in half so you have three corners and a semi-circle hanging on the bottom.  Fold it again until most of it looks like a proper rectangle and the semi-circle is not visible.  It will look pretty good but not perfect.  Store it with the rest of the folded bedding, and leave it there until you need it.

Then stop complaining about fitted sheets.

Here are your instructions for handling office politics.  Perceive more than one set of overlords; the one you report to currently, plus their boss, plus the person you’re probably going to work for in three years.  Do all of your normal work as one effort, applying intelligence and exertion plus your own special thing.

Like putting a fitted single sheet in the drier, treat each office-politics-item as a single-purpose puzzle, and apply your best judgment with partial disregard for other concerns.  Who is going to backfill the senior vacancy?  We’ll have to rely on the selection process.  Why do those two people dislike each other?  If one of them trusts you, ask politely about their history.  Was that story I heard personal, and should I not pass it on?  When in doubt say nothing.  These items are confusing when bundled together and entangled with your normal efforts.  So keep it simple.

Now, bring it all together into a clear understanding of what the general dynamic is.  Store all of the agendas together in one place in your mind, simple and organized.

Leave it there until you need it.

And don’t complain about office politics.