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.