Friday, May 22, 2009

Workplace informality and the false sense of security

How many of you reading this call your boss Mr. Swenson or Ms. Patterson?  That's what I thought.  Up until the past fifteen or so years, calling your boss by their surname was the norm, while now it's the exception.  Mr. Swenson and Ms. Patterson become Dave and Joan.  Suits and hats give way to polo shirts and khakis.  The nice sit-down dinners you invited your boss to at your house (prepared lovingly by your stay-at-home wife) turns into happy hour after work or a cookout with a group of your colleagues.  Your boss is less of a stiff stranger in the office; you feel more comfortable coming to them with a problem on a project, and you don't feel like you have to hide the fact that you have a life outside of work either.  Your boss is a human, just like you.

The decrease in formality that we've seen since the 1980s is refreshing, but it has its drawbacks.  While it's helpful to remember that your boss and your colleagues are indeed human and have good days and bad days, it's important to remember that you're still at work, and at work business comes first.  That means keeping water-cooler/coffee machine chat to a minimum, providing civil but clear constructive criticism, and getting your work done comes before socializing and cutting out to do extracurricular activities.  To be sure, work is easier when you get along well with your colleagues, and it's vital to take mental breaks during the day.  It's how you go about these interactions that makes the difference.

A rule of thumb is to edit yourself on the side of caution.  Providing a few details about your hobbies or your weekend makes you human and tells your colleagues about your interests, but no one needs a five-minute description of the Star Wars theme party you held, what your cat's facial expressions mean, or just where you got sunburned at Burning Man.  And no one--no one--needs or even wants to hear how drunk you were or how hungover you are this morning.  Ever.  Please spare us all that visual.  Not only is it too much information, but it can also paint you as unprofessional.  You're 25 and you still don't know what your limits are regarding alcohol consumption?  Someone needs rehab.

In college, architecture students get really colse to each other.  You're not only classmates, but you also truly become friends.  Friends talk to each other in a different way than coworkers.  You can tell an architecture school friend, "Dude, put a sock in it--your floor plan looks like a dumpster fire."  That kind of criticism is sure to offend and/or alienate your colleagues, and forget saying something like that to a boss unless you enjoy looking for a new job.  You'll have to learn the skills necessary to disagree with others and say no with clarity and civility.

Next week: the art of verbal diplomacy at work.

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