We Are The Traffic

I’ve been asked an intriguing question this month.

It boils down to: In a workplace culture with a moderate level of obstructive behaviour, should you also adopt that obstructive behaviour?

Ahhh, yes, but here’s the catch: if you don’t match the general level of obstructivity, your whole team will be saddled with an unfair workload. And these aren’t glamorous jobs. There will be no special recognition or increased pay with the increased workload. Is it fair to burden your team with extra work, so that you can pursue your high moral road?

This question touches on professional ethics, teamwork, efficiency and workplace culture. It’s a version of the “gosh we hate traffic / but we are the traffic” dilemma. There’s no obvious answer to this question, because it will depend on the interplay of the factors I discuss below. If you work through your own answers to these four topics, you’ll hopefully arrive at your own version of an answer.

Professional Ethics

The easiest aspect of this question is the ethical side. Should you be obstructive because other people are being obstructive? It may be tempting, but it’s not right. Every positive or negative act we do ripples out from us, sometimes for years. And the ripples come back.

The expression “fight fire with fire” always struck me as a reckless piece of advice, sure to end in disaster. If the advice was originally intended to mean “be as aggressive as your enemies are, so they do not perceive you as weak” then I get it. You do need to ensure that your behaviour is seen as that of a strong-minded person sticking to their principles, rather than a weak-minded person buckling to pressure because conflict is scary.

When I’ve personally been in this situation, I’ve noticed that I naturally adopt a helpful but stern demeanour.


You might be prepared to suffer for your ideals, but the idea of forcing that suffering onto other people should make you pause for thought. If you take on extra work, knowing that you can just grit your teeth and power through it, what about the effect on your team? On your partner? Your children? On the other projects you’ve already got lined up? If you genuinely are a team player, you need to consider these things, and in some cases, ask the opinion of the other people affected. If you do this, be prepared that they may not agree with you, and if they don’t agree with you, be prepared to take their opinion on board. It may not be helpful to open the question up for debate. Instead, you could explain (in inspiring terms) what you’re doing and why you think it’s important.


This is about to get a little maths-heavy, but you’re smart people, so let’s go!

Imagine that you have a workplace with 21 people in it, and you’re one of the people. Let’s propose that doing a really good job makes your life 5% harder, but it makes everyone else’s life 1% easier. Let’s further say that when you make everyone’s life easier by doing a good job, there are high fives.

If the entire workplace adopts the “high fives” approach, then everyone’s work is 5% harder from doing a good job, but 20% easier from everyone else doing a good job. So it’s actually 15% easier, and the quality of the work is higher, and so is the morale. For larger workplaces it makes even more sense to adopt the high fives approach.

The problem with it is that one or two people start to think, “This is pretty sweet – I could make my own life easier by slacking off, or being rude, because all these other people are keeping things going smoothly.” As more and more people do this, the workplace ends up sliding down to the poor efficiency, scowls-a-plenty model, which for the sake of rhyming I’m going to call the “bad vibes” model.

It makes sense for anyone with a sense of leadership to try to push the workplace from bad vibes to high fives, and it does take constant vigilance.

Workplace Culture

Culture. It’s pervasive, powerful, and because so much of it consists of unwritten rules, it can be complex and contradictory as well. Some people are indifferent to cultural expectations, while others are held in culture’s iron grip.

Workplace culture is not simply a microcosm of societal culture, for the following reasons:

  1. It’s a curated culture. People are carefully selected to join the workplace, and carefully selected to leave. We have higher expectations for people’s behaviour at work that we could ever imagine in society at large.
  2. There are clearly established hierarchies, resulting in faster decision making.
  3. It’s smaller and more manageable than an entire society. If societal culture is an ocean, huge and resistant to our individual efforts to dictate; then workplace culture is a lake. You can dredge a lake, if you really must.

To create or encourage a particular culture, a leader models the core behaviour, rewards similar behaviour, and calls inappropriate behaviour to account.

In this context, a leader is someone who behaves in a way that we consider admirable. They don’t have to officially have a leadership role.

If you see a behaviour that is detrimental to everyone, or that flies in the face of the underlying principles of who you are, then you can set an example by refusing to engage in it. Whether this shifts the culture or not depends on how big the organisation is, and how much you believe in your ability to shift it. However, I urge you to consider this: we are much more effective than we think we are. One person who believes something strongly enough for long enough can change the way an entire organisation sees itself. I know this because I’ve seen it happen.

Good luck. Be unofficial leaders. Your culture needs you to.


Round Pegs That Really Exist, Square Holes That Don’t

Some of you will remember a halcyon time last year when we discussed the Apollonian world of real things and the Dionysian world of unreal things. The real world contains things like hamsters, copper wire, the Empire State Building. The unreal world holds concepts like law, dignity, joy. And we live in both those worlds at the same time.

End of recap: here’s the new stuff

When you’re trying to fix a problem, it’s important to remember that Apollonian currency can’t always purchase Dionysian goods (you can’t buy love). Conversely, you can’t use Dionysian funds to pay your Apollonian bills (you can’t make a sandwich with nothing but enthusiasm).

Some of you may be thinking, “well, maybe I can a little bit” and I agree that both the above statements are only 95% true when you’re dealing with a world full of people.

If you buy a material present for a friend, aren’t they going to like you more? Perhaps. Not necessarily. If your gift is thoughtful... shows insight... a gentle sense of humour… you see where I’m going with this. What you’re giving isn’t just the gift (however useful it might be); what you’re giving is the message I care about you. That’s what lifts your gesture out of being a simple material transaction. You may be able to achieve a deeper level of friendship by doing something straightforward like listening to a long story without interrupting very often.

The Cup of Plenty

Back in the 1950s, when managers assumed that all their workers were essentially robots*, the prevailing philosophy was that you could motivate people to work harder by offering hard cash. However, once we reach a certain level of material comfort, we become more concerned about unreal concepts, such as respect, gratitude, recognition. There’s an inexhaustible supply of this stuff – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to produce, especially since these emotions have to be heartfelt to have any impact. Still, it’s important to remember: the things we care about the most are intangible.

* so history tells us

The Bottomless Hole

What drives you? What are you striving to fulfil? If there was something you lacked when you were growing up, it can become a powerful incentive that propels you throughout your entire adult life, even if the original issue has been dealt with a hundred times over. We’ve romanticised the idea of the person who struggles with schoolwork but then goes on to discover some grand scientific theorem like general relativity, but I’m not interested in dramatic stories that apply to only a few individuals. What’s more useful is recognizing that facing obstacles can power you up with a never-ending well of motivation.

But if it is something that really troubles you, a frustration that you can't seem to shake, then remember: the answer is almost certainly going to involve some Dionysian concept, rather than something material like a new possession or a new location.

Perpetual Motion

I wish for you a difficult quest, something you almost, but never quite achieve; and in the non-completion, in the sense you can always do that little bit extra, I hope there is an engine that powers you.



Those darned people who disagree with your sensible views

There are complex things happening in the world right now, but I’m not going to talk about them – except maybe extremely tangentially – instead, let’s talk a bit about what mindset works best when improvising or innovating.

The act of improvising is that of making a story appear out of nothing, just as the act of innovating is that of making an idea into a reality. At first, we are all cautious. We take little steps, or we cling to what we already know, refusing anything that breaks new ground. Frustrating! The only way you can advance is if you are prepared for things to go a bit haywire. Hence one of the loudest, clearest messages in improvisation is: don’t act out of fear.

Now, I’m about to tell you something which isn’t true.

Here it comes.

The world is made up of two types of people. There are ones like you and me: we challenge old ways of thinking, we’re excited by uncertainty, we feel that diversity makes us stronger. Let’s call ourselves The Brave.

Then there are the other sort of people, who don’t like change. They’re suspicious of new ideas, wary of newcomers, and they don’t like complexity. They want structure. Let’s call them The Cautious.

Oh, sweet delicious lie! It’s tempting to see the world in that way, isn’t it? Because you can get frustrated at The Cautious, who want to turn the clock back to 1955, or at the least, who resist moving into the (admittedly unpredictable) future. Surely The Cautious are the reason we don’t have flying cars and 100% clean energy!

I'm not cautious, I'm just visiting

But the truth is that we are all Cautious at one time or another. Over one issue or another. And at other times we are The Brave.* We become Cautious when we feel overwhelmed: threatened and helpless in the face of that threat. You may feel equipped to deal with a physical threat right in front of you, but how do you fight an invisible, nebulous threat, like “change” – especially change that you didn’t ask for?

* For example, I’m quite progressive on social issues, but ask me to eat unfamiliar seafood and I’m all like, “how many tentacles/mouths/radulators does it have???”

Many of us do it by imposing structure, by trying to make a complicated world smaller. Structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but creating systems or making choices out of fear is definitely A Bad Thing. One symptom of fear is to take a nebulous idea and make it into a specific person or people, to blame them for whatever is going wrong, to simplify down to an “us versus them” story. Wouldn’t it be better to face change bravely, to help shape it? Change comes, whether we embrace it or run from it.

"Have courage!"

Of course, telling someone “just be brave” is as useless as saying, “try really hard to relax” so let’s not do that. Instead, let me come back to the idea that it’s natural to feel cautious when you believe you are threatened or helpless. There’s no denying that sometimes we are under threat, or we are helpless, and that is a terrible thing. It is also a terrible thing to see threats where there are no threats.

Invisible threats are often presented to us as stories, particularly in the news, or in politics, because stories are powerful. Some stories try to tell me that the world is a threatening place, or exaggerate my helplessness. Stories like that are trying to make me fearful, maybe even to control my choices.

But it’s my brain! I decide what a story means to me. Stories of threats forewarn us and forearm us. Stories of complexity reveal the world to be a wonderful place. And stories of helplessness challenge us to prove them wrong.

Much love and safety to you all,