• Sara Pehrsson

Keeping Your Red Stapler Under Control

What Are You Like to Work With?


If you were going to cast yourself as an employee in the movie Office Space, who would you be?


Peter, the unmotivated guy who spends as much time as possible on a coffee break?


Lumbergh, the slimy boss that gets his jollies telling people they need to come in on the weekend?


Milton, the clueless-in-every-way office staple (pun intended)?


Those characters are funny because you recognize them. Maybe you’ve worked with a few of them. But the reality is that unmotivated, incompetent, slimy people are not enjoyable to work with, even if they’re funny in a movie.


So who should you be if you want to be a worthwhile co-worker instead of a character in a dark comedy? What can you do for your own success if you really are as unmotivated as Peter, in the same soul-killing type of job?


Lots of us just want to make a decent living without too much daily angst.


Your Office Flair

For everyone who wants to be a respected co-worker as well as an employable wage-earner, these are the work-related areas I think you can develop without disruption to your physical or mental well-being.


They are:

  • Competence

  • Civility

  • Compassion

  • Ability to communicate

  • Willingness to self-manage

By the way, you don’t necessarily need all (or even any) of these to rise up the corporate ladder. I’ve known people in management positions with none of these characteristics. The world of work is a strange and illogical place, which is why Office Space is so very relatable and funny.


But if you’re seeking a sense of integrity regardless of your role, a belief that you’re a good employee who shouldn’t have to settle for a poor employer, and the pleasure of being liked and respected by those you work with who are likable and respectable, these are the characteristics you want to develop.


Why These?

There’s so much written about the requirements of an ideal business leader. That’s a much different sort of ambition than wanting to be a good worker bee that gets along with others. That’s why this list doesn’t include the various leadership buzzwords like empathy or vulnerability. This is about just being a human being that wants to get along without being either a victim or a jerk. (However, I’d argue that good business leaders need to excel in these five areas first and foremost.)


So let’s take a little closer look at why these areas of professional skill are worthwhile.


Competence

This basically means you can actually do the job you were hired to do. You do it well enough to keep the company going in whatever way your role does that. You also do it reliably, which means that other people’s jobs don’t get harder because you made mistakes, didn’t deliver when expected, or just can’t be bothered to produce good-quality work. You do your job and you do it with integrity.


If you’re spending time trying to cover up your bad work, or pretending that it’s better than it is, or using lame excuses to defend yourself from angry co-workers, you’re not competent. Work on that.


Civility

Everyone deserves to be treated with civility. Full stop. So take a close look at your own behavior. How do you sound when you speak to others? If you feel impatient, does everyone know it? Do you try a little harder to be polite when you’re talking to someone with power, and exert less control over yourself when you’re speaking to someone who really doesn’t matter to you? We all need to honor the human dignity of others, whether or not you need them. Even if you don’t particularly respect them. Your respect is something people should earn. Civility to all is how you recognize each person’s innate worth.


This characteristic is the one that will earn you the respect of others. Cultivate it. Develop your awareness of it. You’ll end up respecting yourself more.


Compassion

This is similar to the doctor’s oath to “first, do no harm.” It means you recognize that other people are human beings with lives and feelings of their own. They are not work automatons placed in your way just to frustrate you. They are not background characters in the movie where you are the star. Each person is the main character in a life that includes its own frustrations, joys, tragedies, and challenges. You don’t need to understand why they feel the way they do. You don’t even have to do anything to help if you don’t want to. You’re perfectly free to have boundaries. You just need to be kind where kindness is needed and avoid doing harm.


This characteristic seems to be a foreign concept at many organizations (even those where it’s part of their core function, like hospitals). We all need to take a stand and be kind to each other. Life is hard enough without working in an environment where there is no compassion.


Ability to Communicate

Clear communication is the foundation of an effective working relationship. It means you listen to understand and speak (or write) to make understanding easy. You recognize what others need to know to do their job and you make sure you communicate that information. You share ideas and accept ideas that others offer. When you need something, you ask for it. You do so with civility, compassion, and with respect for their time.


Communication skill is so powerful, and many of us don’t even recognize that we can improve in this area. Take a look at how you communicate with others. What can you do to express yourself more clearly? What strategies will help you understand your co-workers and their needs?


Willingness to Self-Manage

As an adult, you are responsible for knowing what you need to get done and getting it done. Therefore, you can motivate and schedule yourself. This is a concept I became aware of listening to Adam Grant’s podcast A World Without Bosses, and it seems like the most obvious thing in the world now (yet rarely acknowledged in the workplace). You don’t need a boss to manage what you do at work. You do need the company to have the right structures in place, and you need the tools and information required for your job.


Don’t accept being treated like a drone who can’t make decisions about your work. Look for a company to have those structures, tools, and sources of information that allow you to take responsibility for your own work. When you self-manage, and are supported in self-management, it’s far more respectful of everyone.


Make Work Workable

What do you think? What characteristics do you see in people who are good to work with?

I think most people are willing and able to take responsibility for the quality of their work life. Of course, there will always be those people who prefer the politics and the power-plays, or who suffer from really obstinate personality disorders.

All we can really do in those cases is to thank them, because they’re the reason that Office Space will continue to be funny long after we’ve left Initec and the Y2K conversion behind.

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