Be Useful to Be Valuable

Charles Murray writes in his greatly titled book, The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, about what we should be doing in the workplace to fit in. If we work for someone else, the reality is that our job is to help them and add value to their organization. It is incumbent upon us to fit in and accommodate our wants and interests to that of the organization we’re serving. If we want to be taken seriously, we need to present ourselves in a way that will afford us an audience. In order to give ourselves a chance to succeed we should avoid doing things that are likely to irritate those in charge. Conform to the office dress code. Yes, even when we’re working remotely. It’s less about what’s written in the onboarding book and more about dressing like those that are respected within the organization. Follow their lead. Murray writes, “most curmudgeons are unwilling to say anything to you, but the way you dress can nonetheless make them decide you are a non-serious person and lose interest in you.” He goes on to advise us to “always be aware that what passes for good grooming and fashion among people in their twenties can still make you look like a slob to people in their fifties.”

Bosses that have put in their time to achieve their status within an organization are less sympathetic to the complaints of those starting out. Murray writes, “when the curmudgeons in your life were twenty-two, most of them found that getting started in the job market was characterized by low pay, boring entry-level work, little job security, and promotions that had to be hard-earned. They don’t see why you should feel like you are being subjected to some unprecedently harsh entry-level environment.”

Our middle son works at a golf course where he is part of the turf care team. Their boss maintains a whiteboard in their shop on which he lists the names of team members in one column and then assigns both a morning and afternoon job to each employee. Our son calls it the Boss Board. The boss is assigning the task to the worker. He’s not asking them to sign up where they want to work. They do what they’re told. The board captures the essence of our work worlds. It details the role we all play to serving the objectives of the organization. It’s not about what we want. It’s about our obligation and responsibility to the cause. It’s reflective of the purpose we serve. We’re pieces on the chessboard of the business. We’re there to undertake a job and serve the organization. Our bosses job is to determine where on the field we’re supposed to play. Our job is to then go play and execute the assigned task.

Some of the jobs detailed on the board require more skill than others. Some require use of more complex machines. One of the entry level jobs is that of raking bunkers. This is done either by hand with a rake or with a small machine that “spins” the sand. In either case, it’s a monotonous task that isn’t highly thought of. Many staff that begin work look at this job with distaste and look at other jobs with envy. They wonder why the boss doesn’t give them a chance at the more glamorous jobs. They equate their self worth with what they see as the task and feel bad when assigned what is considered a lower value job. They complain that how will they ever get better skills and add value doing higher level jobs when they aren’t afforded the opportunity. Why isn’t this obvious to the boss, they wonder? The boss has quite a different perspective. He’s thinking about his responsibility to keep two golf courses in first class shape. He sees the bigger picture. He knows he and all other long term staff in this department have been doing what they do for years. They each started at the “bottom” and have done tasks like maintaining bunkers many times. They still do it from time to time as needed when short staffed at the front and end of each season. They don’t see one task as more valuable than another. They recognize they are all essential to the overall aesthetic of the golf experience. Most importantly, they realize that those that have been “rewarded” with additional responsibility of more intricate tasks have done so based on how they performed at the prior task they had.

Only when a worker demonstrates two things are they rewarded with more responsibility. Workers that present themselves when and where they have been asked to are reliable. Reliability is the essential starting point. Then competence. Once one regularly performs a task well, then the boss considers finding them a spot elsewhere on the board. The boss knows they want a team with players that are able to perform multiple tasks. However, they want those players to earn their positions with performance and punctuality. If we want to be placed elsewhere on the job board, we need to do our part. We need to fit in well and excel. The better we are at one task, the more likely we are to receive additional opportunity. This becomes a virtuous cycle. The more skills we are able to be exposed to and develop as a result of being reliable and proficient at others, the more valuable we become to the organization as a whole. The boss’ goal is to have a team of people that can be placed interchangeably across a number of tasks. A boss dreams of having all their chess pieces being Queens capable of performing any task and not simple, one-dimensional pawns. This gives them the greatest flexibility to field a full, competent crew. Moreover, it then allows them to fit staff on the board where they may most like to be. They can also allow staff to experience some more variety in their work days. Only by doing our part where we find ourselves are we able to add value to the organization.

It’s not about us or what we want, it’s about what we can offer. In short, our value lies in our versatility. The better we can fit in, the more useful we are. It’s about how we can help by conforming to the needs of the organization and less about our wishes and desires.

Murray connects a story about “ideal” behavior to an astronaut. An astronaut associated with the Apollo space program, George Low, stood out as an exemplary performer. Murray notes, “George was the kind of guy who if you gave him a job emptying wastebaskets, he would stretch it into overtime, not because he was loafing, but because he’d find more to emptying wastebaskets than you ever imagined could be there.” In this article, Bob Gilruth, another legendary Apollo manager in his own right, observed, “George Low was good at everything. He was worth about 10 men.”

It’s worth considering that those who are at the top of an organization likely worked hard to get where they are. They likely place a high value on the kinds of things that got them where they are. Being successful, they may well be in love with excellence, strong work ethic, solid habits, willingness to go above and beyond, and a desire to let their actions and contributions do their talking for them. These are likely to be things they will appreciate in others. They are tuned to recognize these sorts of things and are impressed when confronted by them.

In his book, Leadership Strategy and Tactics, former US Navy Seal, Jocko Willink, writes about the importance of conforming. Willink’s experiences mirrored those of Chris Hadfield’s with respect to joining a new group which we noted in a recent article, Be a Zero.  Willink’s default, as is the case for most of us, was to enjoy and appreciate others who shared an attitude similar to his own. He liked those who were highly motivated, committed, and almost aggressive in terms of wanting to get the job done and done well. He preferred being around a bunch of go-getters as opposed to having to push people. In his younger days, he thought others shared his perspective and tried to demonstrate the traits he valued most highly when joining a new group. He quickly learned that others weren’t as keen to see his robust enthusiasm. Willink began to realize he didn’t know everything and that life was more of a marathon than a sprint. It wasn’t about being the fastest out of the blocks, it was more about taking care to ensure you stayed in the game. Willink learned the hard way by earning the outright ire of team members. They let him know his uber-intensity wasn’t welcomed. Willink notes that he could have ignored the input of others and considered it a sign of weakness on their part. They’re just bellyaching because they can’t keep up. They are criticizing my intensity because they aren’t as good as me. However, Willink didn’t take this route. He opted, instead, to try to interpret the feedback from the perspective of the team instead of just his own. Willink writes, “We are a platoon; we are supposed to be a team, to work together. And here I was, alienating myself from the team. There was a rift forming between some of the older guys in the platoon and me.” Willink had the self-awareness and maturity to back off and work to conform his behavior to the interests of the group. Willink writes, “That is something that no one wants to hear: that I simply conformed with the pack. People think, Jocko is hardcore: he would never give in to the weakness of the pack. But that would be wrong. If I were to hold my ground on this, if I were to ‘never give in,’ it would just mean that I thought my personal feelings were more important than the team. It would mean that my ego couldn’t bear to step down and subordinate itself and conform to what the team was doing. It would announce to the world that I believed I was more important as an individual than the team. All of that was obviously the wrong attitude to have. Let there be no doubt—the most important thing in a team is the team.”

Willink is seeking to point out that working to fit in isn’t done with the intent of ingratiating oneself to leaders. We’re not trying to kiss up or brown nose. We’re trying to demonstrate respect for and commitment to the group. It is the starting point to being taken seriously. Doing this builds a foundation from which you may be able to influence the group. If you don’t have authoritative power, you can’t order people to follow you. Your ability to influence is dependent on the respect your contributions command. It starts with fitting in, overtly working towards the objectives of the team, and , finally, doing your part well. If you want to influence things, you need to earn it. Once you accomplish these things, you increase the chances that your input is both welcomed and appreciated. Willink writes, “I can’t change the group if I am not in the group.”

An article reflecting on a career in construction offers some similar guidelines for workers. The article paints a sad picture of some of the health problems facing those in the construction industry. However, it also, in the spirit of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, helps us see the value and impact these workers make. Their “unspoken code” reflects a commitment to being a zero.   “The unspoken code that exists among most crews: (1) Do the best work you can, without creating more work for others; (2) don’t shirk the dirtiest or hardest task.” There’s no drama, no divas, no people pleasers. These aren’t Kardashians. They aren’t seeking fans. They are plodding with one foot in front of the other. No one’s asking about your feelings. They care first and foremost about doing the job.  What’s kept moving during the pandemic are things like home construction, road construction and repair, all kinds of trades for our homes like plumbers, furnace repair, gas fitters, electricians, and many more. Their mantra is more likely Larry the Cable Guy’s “Get ‘r Done.” We benefit from their steady, tried and true approach to getting the job done. They are not standing up pounding their chests about how important they are. These are examples of heroes precisely because they are aiming to be zeroes. They are valuable because they are useful. They’re making the lives of others easier with their efforts.

“Never mind your happiness; do your duty.” — Peter Drucker