Jul 4, 2015

Office Politics: Your Coffee Cup Has More Power Than You Do

Having a bad day at work?  I have a simple question:
Who’s to blame for that?

Is it your boss? Is it that pesky new project manager who just can't leave you alone? Or, maybe it's "those management jerks", whoever that is. Well, I have a question for you. Is it really anybody's fault, or is that just a distraction from the real problem? To appreciate what that problem is, we need to look at work stress in a different way.

For over a decade, I worked as a full-time employee in the software industry, for a variety of different organizations of varying shapes and sizes. Towards the end of my journey, I realized that I was doing myself a disservice by blaming my problems on individual people, rather than on the work environment itself, which was practically designed to enable bad behaviour from anybody who is subjected to it on a daily basis.  What do I mean by this?  Consider the following thought experiment.

Try to picture, in your mind, the most notoriusly soul-sucking individuals (or teams) you have had to work with at some point in your career. We've all had these types of experiences before. What did you feel like when you worked with them? Did they respect your time and your space? Did they respect your needs, and accommodate your schedule? The answer is probably no, no, and no.

Now, picture this same group of beautiful people standing in line to buy a morning cup of coffee. Do they try to jump the queue? Do they pretend like the coffee shop is theirs, and theirs only to use? And, when they do finally get to the counter, do they try to bully their way into a free latte, or an extra muffin? The answer is probably no, no and no. So, what's the difference here? It's simple. Coffee has a price. And, when you're sitting at the office, your time doesn't. So yes, your morning cup of coffee has more bargaining power than you do. Sorry about that.

In the absence of any rational means of prioritizing our projects, as employees we begin to accept non-quantifiable reasons for engaging in work for other people, such as:

"Ted really needs this software component or his initiative will be in jeopardy."
"Susan said her team might not meet the project milestones if this new form wasn't up on the web page by Friday."

So, what happens when people are allowed to ask for things without paying a price? Well unfortunately, people soon discover how to use another "price" to manage their workload.
   (noun) administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine
If there is no incentive for people to prioritize their work based on how much other people are paying them to do it, then there must be a disincentive for other people to ask you to do things in the first place. I honestly think that this is one of the main reasons for so much of the bureaucratic approvals and other nonsense we need to deal with every day at the office. Bureaucracy regimes provide us with a replacement for the real marketplace, which we use when we hire a plumber, shop for groceries or stand in line for a coffee.

Don't believe me? I'll finish off with one of my favorite quotes that perfectly captures this same problem, many decades ago:
 "An endless stream of cartoons and satirical essays was produced about bureaucracy from the thirties through to the eighties, which all carried the same thought - that incompetent and dishonest officials and red tape were holding back the Soviet economy."
   Lewis, Ben (2008) Hammer And Tickle: A History Of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Yes, that's right. Your office politics are really not that much different from the politics of old Soviet days. And just like then, it might be tempting now to think that eliminating red tape in your office will unleash amazing new levels of productivity and bliss for everybody. Unfortunately, your bureaucracy is there for a reason, whether you like it or not. I think we can do better.

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