Sunday March 4, 2012

Yet Another Guide to Workplace Survival

Or, everything I want to tell my kids about office life

By Colin Lieberman

In my professional experience so far, the only constant has been change. Some changes are slow, methodical, and intentional, like changing how a team organizes its project workflow. But most have been sudden and unexpected: projects canceled, teams reorganized into other business units, people joining or leaving for every reason.

Following a recent change, I find myself thinking “how do I try to prepare my kids to navigate a modern workplace? What advice would I have? How do you prepare someone to be prepared for the unexpected?”

I’m fortunate in having a circle of intelligent, thoughtful, accomplished friends and associates, so naturally I ask them for thoughts on these questions, and get some very illuminating responses.

What follows are what my friends and workmates think, organized into a few themes:

After each block of others’ thoughts, I’ll have some of my own notes and reactions. What interests me the most is where these people, all of whom I respect and admire, agree and disagree.

Playing the Game

Even if you think it’s a ridiculous idea, you still have to make it work.

— Lindsey, university administrator, Texas.

Don’t pay much attention to the job description you’ve been given. Sure, there are some basic responsibilities you’ll have to fulfill, but look for ways you can apply your own interests/skills to make the company better. A worthwhile employer will recognize this and reward it. A record of this kind of attitude on your resume and in job interviews will ensure you’ll always have an easy time being hired. Find the best ways you can make an impact, and make them.

— Danny, software engineer, Silicon Valley

Every entry-level position sucks. You’re going to have to get people coffee or make photocopies or alphabetize things or do the worst white-collar crap like calling errant clients or whatever. The lower rung is a terrible place to be, but a necessary one. So just get over it, push through it, and pay your dues with grace and without complaining to anyone you work with (including your equally frustrated peers).

— Elizabeth, high school social studies teacher, California’s Office Survival Guide is some of the best practical advice I’ve read. Probably the great majority of artists use dull office jobs to fund their real work. It’s really difficult to get grants as an individual artist.

— W., artist, California

Ninety percent of what’s in that office worker’s survival guide highlights qualities I would not want in my employees or my coworkers.

— Danny, software engineer, Silicon Valley

Learn to walk away from problems that seem intractable. Study the problem until you understand it, but if you don’t know the solution, take a walk, get a coffee, do something besides look at your monitor. Your subconscious mind, which has way more processing power than your conscious mind, will keep working on the problem for you. Usually, after you let it ride for a little bit, it will return like a long running function call, with the answer fully formed.

— Dave, software company executive, California

Elizabeth’s thoughts about paying your dues without complaining are right on. It’s an unpleasant part of life, and your quickest route out is to be perceived as someone who’s cheerfully hitting the ball out of the park with the little stuff. That’s how you get bigger assignments and more interesting problems to solve.

W. points out that the Libcom guide is geared toward people who want a steady day job, while saving their time, effort, and emotions for other endeavors. That’s fine if that’s what you want. But if your goals include workplace success, those kinds of games are self-defeating. And as Danny notes, someone playing those games won’t be popular in an environment full of motivated, engaged people.

Danny also makes an excellent point about resumes. A big part about being ready for change means being in a position where change has a minimal effect on you personally. Keeping a quality resume up to date with interesting things on it is a big part of that.

Did your company or product get nominated for an award? Put that on there! Did you just take on a new project? Put that on there!

Every four-to-six months you should pull out the resume and make sure it’s up to date. This has a number of benefits:

  1. If you’re updating it every two-to-five years when changing jobs, you’ll remember a lot less in terms of projects and details. A resume rich the kind of details that are fresh in your head is the kind of resume employers want to see.
  2. By constantly thinking about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, you’re probably going to do it a little better, and a little more insightfully.
  3. As part of many workplaces’ annual review process, you need to list your accomplishments in the past year. If you’ve been keeping up with those as part of keeping your resume current, you’ll be better prepared for writing your self-evaluation, and this can only be a good thing for you at your current job.

Dave’s advice about problem solving has been 100% true in my experience. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a company that required its workers to keep those life-sized cardboard cutouts of movie characters in their cubes, and when they had a tricky problem, to try to explain the problem to the cardboard figure before asking someone else for help. Much of the time, stepping back enough to explain the problem to an inanimate object is enough to get the perspective needed to solve the problem.

Personal Development

You can “waste” about five years of your life. Living in India for six months, traveling to Costa Rica, interning at something you think you might like to do but don’t end up doing, working in the Peace Corps, wwoofing it for awhile, working at a book store... As long as you’re not doing something that is harmful or evil, you can follow a circuitous path, because the things you learn about what you value, what you don’t want to do, and who you are, are actually worth so much more than five years in your prospective career.
No matter what your job is or how time consuming it seems, do something else enriching outside of it. Take improv classes or art classes or learn a language. This is because it is unrealistic to expect your job to fulfill everything you need. You shouldn’t think your spouse or partner would fulfill everything you need socially and emotionally, and it’s foolhardy to expect your job to, too. You may have the perfect career for you, but that doesn’t mean it can give you everything you need to be intellectually or personally fulfilled.
Money is really important because money gives you opportunities and options. Things like non-profit work or teaching seem appealing because they are fulfilling and helpful, but no one should go into those professions without understanding that one literally may never own a home, be able to live somewhere with good schools, or have adequate retirement funds. People who are 19 or 20 don’t really understand how important money is to doing basic things you want to do, and how terrible it can feel to be stressed out about living paycheck to paycheck as you get into your 30s and 40s. Now some people give having money too much importance, too, but I wish someone had really explained to me how much everything costs. A $50,000 salary seems like a huge amount of money to a 20-year-old, but not a 34-year-old.

— Elizabeth, high school social studies teacher, California

Change–from–within is different from selling out.

— Rachel, law school faculty, Arizona

Assume you’ll have to change companies and even careers many times.

— Daren, university writing professor (and once–upon–a–time long–haul truck driver), Oklahoma

Your jobs and lifestyle will most likely be nothing like your parents’ jobs and lifestyles.

— Lisa, marketing director, Silicon Valley

I think a lot of what everyone’s talking about here boils down to goals. Knowing what your goals are is an important first step, and Elizabeth’s advice to take the time to do a lot of different things, travel, and meet people when you’re young is a fantastically valuable way to broaden your sense of the possible, and try on a number of personalities and goal sets before committing to anything long term.

There are useful comparisons to be made between work life and romantic relationships. Young people need to date a lot of different people to learn who they are in themselves, and what kind of long term relationships they might want to commit to, and it’s no different with work. Whether or not you ever do commit to a long-term work relationship is — like the decision to marry or not — something that should be an intentional decision either way, and one based on an understanding of one’s self and one’s own goals.

And just like people change in relationships, they change at work. Rachel’s thought’s about selling out are to my mind very similar to Elizabeth’s point about the changing value of money. It’s easy (and good and important) to be a hale 20-year-old with strong ideals, few responsibilities, and the ability to live in a cheap tiny space with strangers. But very few people are still like that 20 years later. What to the idealistic 20-year-old may be selling out is to the 30-year-old a decision that’s necessary to meet goals around providing for a family and providing flexible opportunities for one’s kids.

The key for me is to be constantly analyzing one’s own goals. To know that goals can and should change, and you should always be trying to move towards the goal that makes the best sense for you, while understanding that goals will shift. That it’s normal for goals to shift. You aren’t letting anybody down by deciding that what you thought was important when you were 15 or 20 takes a lower priority given your circumstances at 30.

Daren touches on an interesting point which relates both to goals and to tenure. Loyalty to a company or boss can certainly be important and valuable, but it’s also worth knowing when it’s time to cut bait and move on. I’m not sure there are any good rules of thumb here, but this may tie in to Elizabeth’s point about travel and experimentation earlier: the better you know yourself and the world through travel and experiences, and from having taken the time to really pay your dues, the more you’ll be able to rely on your instincts when deciding if it’s time to move on.

Workplace Social Dynamics

This is the most interesting section to me, because it seems to bring out the strongest emotions, and the most agreements and disagreements. There’s so much here I’m going to break it up into subsections.


Never underestimate the power of pleases and thank yous. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice. Unless you enjoy the taste of your foot or shoe, don’t make absolute statements. When you’re wrong, acknowledge and correct as soon as possible, waiting just makes things worse. Learn to recognize who around you knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t. There is rarely a correlation between good people and seniority unless management is really good. The corporate world is not a meritocracy.

—Joshua, software engineer, Silicon Valley

Writing “thank you” notes, knowing how to make people feel appreciated, and having a good handshake are really, really important.
Get on the good sides of secretaries, assistants, IT people, and custodians. When you really need their help to fix one of your mistakes, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and make things right on your behalf. IT people, in particular, respond well to snacks.

— Elizabeth, high school social studies teacher, California

Everybody agrees on the importance of saying please and thank you. But as multiple folks specifically call out, taking the time to let others know you appreciate what they’re doing is the single most important thing you can do in the workplace.

Joshua mentions a particular aphorism, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,” known as Hanlon’s Razor. It’s a motto to live by. If somebody you work with just isn’t doing his or her bit, there’s nothing to be gained by assuming that person has it in for you. If all your communications are helpful, e.g. “when you said x, is it possible you meant y?”, as opposed to an accusation, you are removing barriers to getting things done, and bringing down the level of drama. Everyone around you will appreciate this.

Hanlon’s Razor is a tangent to another important rule of interactions that I learned from one of the better bosses I’ve had: The Rule of 7s and 3s.

The Rule of 7s and 3s states that 70% of the people lack the skills and gumption to be able to do what you need them to do. These are the 7s. 30% of the people do have the skills and gumption to do what you need to do. These are 3s. You want to only work with 3s. In hiring, the writer Joel Spolsky uses a similar rubric, saying the people you want to hire the ones who are smart and get things done. 3s.

If you find yourself dealing with a 7, don’t worry, don’t get mad. Just find a way to stop dealing with this person, and find a 3 instead. If your team works with another team, and you’re having problems communicating or achieving your goals, maybe you need to change the points of contact between the teams to make sure you’re working directly with the 3s. The 7s aren’t your problem.

Elizabeth’s point about being on the good side of all the support people is right on. Not only is it just the right, human thing to do, but it’s practical. Elizabeth gives a number of good reasons, and I can add one more:

The better places to work at ask the receptionist about the candidate’s demeanor when arriving, and don’t hire people who are rude or otherwise poorly adjusted, even if they seemed fine in the interview itself.

Being Friends

Don’t become friends with your co-workers. Friendly and engaging while at work is one thing. It’s another to be outside of work friends.
No matter what you think and no matter how co-workers treat you, they don’t give a rat’s ass about you or whether or not you have a job or money to pay the bills. When push comes to shove they will not look out for you... only for themselves.

— Olivia, social worker, Kentucky

About the friends at work thing, it totally depends on context. Some of the best friends I’ve ever made have been work friends who became outside–of–work friends. Totally depends on the work that you do and the dynamics of the work environment.

— Dana, wildlife biologist, California

The workmates–as–friends issue is a sticky one. Everyone agrees it’s good to be friendly with workmates. But should you be friends outside of work? I’ve worked at places where people were very close outside of work and it’s fine. I’ve worked with friends and had it be disastrous. I think Dana’s point that it depends a lot on the work dynamic and the individuals involved is key.

The better teams I’ve worked with know there’s value in having people interact outside of the workplace. By getting to know each other more as people, it’s easier to work closely together on high-stress projects. Low key team-building events such as bowling or rafting, getting together in the evenings for drinks, going out for lunches where nobody talks about work, these are all valuable, and you want to work at places that facilitate these kinds of interactions and are willing to spend company money on them.

Olivia’s point about everyone watching his or her own back when things get tough is a double–edged–sword. I think she’s right, and that it can be miserable, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Part of the point of work is that it’s not the same thing as your emotional or personal life, and your workmates aren’t your best friends or family members.

When facing issues like layoffs, it’s important to remember that your company exists for the purpose of making money, and it couldn’t do that effectively if it gets too emotional about individuals. You need to have a thick skin about these things, and realize that it really is just business. You can like your workmates, and you can try to work with them so that you and they are all successful together, but some times you have to be cold-hearted and know that every person needs to be able to worry about his or her own position and decisions.

It sucks when good people get fired wrongly. Take them out for drinks, give them good recommendations, but don’t lose any sleep over it, and don’t expect anyone to do any differently for you. Just think about your goals and get on with your life.


If you are male, you need to watch some mainstream sports, so you can make basic small talk about them, and to understand sports-based metaphors for team organization and management.

— Andrew, software engineer, Connecticut

If your communication wraps to more than 3 lines, include a tl;dr version at the top.

— Danny, software engineer, Silicon Valley

Ooh – that’s good, Danny. I had to learn how to do that when I started emailing male colleagues. Women liked the long version, men liked the short one.

— Elizabeth, high school social studies teacher, California

Effective communication is hard. It’s a trope that everybody now lives in a state of information deluge. Finding ways to making nuanced points on complex topics in a world where most people don’t have the time to read critically is one with which everybody struggles. Danny’s practical suggestion to include an abstract with long communications is a great one. I’d add these:

Andrew’s point about sports is an interesting one. Being able to communicate effectively means sharing a culture. I’ve worked on teams where everybody was well-versed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that became a common ground for communication. I don’t think anyone’s arguing you have to change your interests or hobbies to reflect that of your workmates, but if you find yourself in a situation where more shared culture might make communication more effective, it could be worth investigating a little.

Making Your Mark

Don’t suggest any changes to general policy or try to improve something for at least a year. Watch and listen. See the cliques you didn’t even know were there at first. Avoid joining one clique or another. Don’t make alliances. Don’t tell anyone your secrets. Learn more about the history between people. Find out why people do what they do.
You can walk into decades-long wars without knowing it, just because you suggested alphabetizing the books on hold by patron’s last name rather than one of the book titles, or that maybe we should teach the Bible as literature. And sometimes you realize that even though you had what seemed like a good idea to make a process more efficient, sometimes you just didn’t realize why you would be wrong but you figure it out by doing it. You can do your own job more efficiently and productively, but don’t try to tell anyone else that they’re doing theirs wrong.

Elizabeth, high school social studies teacher, California

Many people, especially engineers, want the facts of the matter at hand to decide the outcome of whatever decision is being made in whatever meeting you’re having at the moment. And sometimes they do. But, you don’t always have to win, the right decision isn’t always made on the first go round, and business is fluid and subject to change. Learn when to let it go, and how to live with it when you think the wrong decision is being made.

Dave, software company executive, California

Elizabeth’s advice is certainly correct for entry level jobs. Hopefully you’ll reach a point in your career where people are hiring you specifically for ideas you have that are different from what the company or team is currently doing. But even then, all her points still stand about taking the time to understand why people think the way the do, and what’s been tried before and why it has or hasn’t worked.

Dave’s point about learning when to let go is some of the hardest to take on and do. It takes a lot of confidence in one’s team and organization. I certainly don’t disagree at all, but I think this is the hardest lesson to learn.

Final Thoughts

Is there value is laying out all these suggestions and ideas to an individual at the start of his or her professional life? Can one look at advice like “say please and thank you” and think “oh, I should do that,” or is that the kind of interpersonal skill one just has to learn when young?

I’m not a neuroscientist or psychologist, but I think it’s possible to subtly modify our own behavior through repeating readings of this kind of advice. Maybe if one reads “tell people you appreciate their efforts” enough times in enough different places, the next time a workmate does something praise-worthy, the thought will spontaneously arise — without mention of “those articles said to do it” — to send a thank-you email.

If I had to distill all these ideas into a few short to-do items under the heading “how to survive constant change in the modern workplace”, it would probably look something like this:

How to Survive Constant Change in the Modern Workplace

Good luck.


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