June 10, 2013
As regular readers of this column know, my last vacation involved a cactus and the unfortunate perforation of my buttocks. (Thank you for all the sympathy cards.)
So I'm pleased to report that on a recent trip to Disney World — aka "Mickey Mouse's Money Vacuum and Perspiration Emporium" — no injuries were suffered. But I did have an interesting exchange with a Magic Kingdom worker.
My family and I — after clearing the requisite credit checks — had just spent $12,000 on four ice cream cones and were standing on the Magic Kingdom's Main Street planning our next move. An affable young man came up and said: "Hi, folks. If you're interested, there's a really great spot to enjoy your ice cream right up around the corner!"
Though perfectly nice, this struck me as an odd way to say: "You can't eat your ice cream here." So I said: "I take it we're not supposed to eat our ice cream here," and he broke through his Disney veneer and said: "Yeah. That's basically it."
There was nothing wrong with this exchange, but it was weird, and it reminded me of my ongoing desire to see people in the workplace act naturally. It would have been fine if the worker told us we couldn't stand where we were standing. But his words had been corporate-ized, sucked of any semblance of humanity.
He might as well have been an animatronic figure on one of the rides.
And that's a problem in every workplace — too many animatronic people. Managers don't speak to employees with the same directness they use in regular human interactions. And vice versa.
We devour never-ending waves of management how-to books, as if carrying out 10 simple steps is the key to dealing with our fellow earthlings.
I have a theory on how we arrived at this place.
Work has never been a particularly pleasant aspect of our lives, thus the name. It started as a simple necessity among prehistoric tribes, the need for communal cooperation and the division of tasks.
As we evolved and got meaner, slave labor made up the bulk of many civilizations' workforces, eventually giving way to lower classes who were paid meager sums and treated horribly. Work was toil.
In his book, "Blood, Sweat & Tears: The Evolution of Work," Richard Donkin details how technological advancements brought forth factories and mass production, which required layers of management instead of one tyrannical boss. Along with that, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the concept of job satisfaction began to bubble up.
Donkin writes that psychologist Dill Scott, in a 1911 publication, introduced "the prospect of a more regulated, enlightened environment where care for human welfare is part of the productivity equation."
Working people should be treated like people. A novel concept, and one we seem unable to perfect.
Of course, things have gotten infinitely better since the days of widespread factory line drudgery. But I wonder if, in trying to humanize our work environments, we haven't over-thought things. Instead of saying — "Hey, here's an idea. What if everyone just starts being nice to one another?" — we've opted for 18 billion pages of strategies on how to "amplify" our "likability."
There is good advice out there for how to communicate and how to manage. But I think too often we're forgetting, or ignoring, what we know.
Obi-Wan Kenobi didn't teach Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi by having him read "Maximizing the Jedi Within." He told him to use the Force. (Disney recently purchased the "Star Wars" franchise, making this reference pertinent.)
So now, as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the workplace, I am giving you an assignment: Find moments in your workday when you feel a canned response to a question coming on or when you're about to behave the way some book told you to, and stop.
Trust your instincts. Use the Force.
Be a human being.
And then send me an email and let me know how it goes. If it goes well, write to IJustWorkHere@tribune.com. If you get fired, send all notes to Donald Trump, 725 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.
I want details, and I want your thoughts on how people can be themselves at work. I'll share those ideas, and we can continue this discussion, which I truly believe gets at the root of many of our workplace problems.
In the meantime, I'll be practicing with my lightsaber, purchased at Disney World for the low, low price of $9,545 and a kidney.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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