Helpful Notes from Nick, Vol. 5: Buckets & Boundaries
It’s easy to think of empathy as an absolute–something that’s either present or absent in people. I prefer to think of it as a skill each person can choose to consciously develop as they gain new social connections and life experiences.
Developing empathy can feel like establishing a solid workout routine. It’s initially discomforting, but ultimately rewarding, to routinely put oneself in others’ shoes. I hope you enjoy reading this new batch of responses and that each one helps strengthen your empathy muscles.
Fast Facebook Friends
One of my colleagues sent me a friend request on Facebook. Circumstantial small talk at the office is tolerable, but I’m not sure I’m ready to be accountable for round-the-clock online content in service of keeping up appearances.
My hesitance isn’t arbitrary. I’ve caught wind that this person’s Internet presence consists of nothing but Game of Thrones memes, thoughts on who should get a rose on The Bachelor, and polarizing comments about politics. Those things will all populate my feed and my Monday morning conversations if I can’t figure out a diplomatic maneuver here.
I’m worried that if I don’t accept a friend request from this coworker, it’ll gradually damage our working relationship. I’ll never have any intention of calling this person a “friend” in the genuine sense of the word, but I can’t tell if I’m prematurely being too standoffish given that online interactions may not actually be that significant.
Is there a polite way to deny this person’s Internet friendship, or am I overthinking this?
In service of my feed
Dear frightened follower,
I completely understand the resistance to accept this person’s friend request. Exercising discretion in curating our feeds and online friend circles is essentially a form of self-care in our digital world. You could accept this coworker’s request and then immediately click “Unfollow,” thereby making them virtually invisible while preserving a façade of politeness (I’m non-confrontational, so this route is a go-to for me when I want to avoid an awkward follow-up message). However, the fact that you’re even describing this in such detail leads me to believe that it’s not that simple for you.
The reality of modern life is that our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds have become meaningful social sanctuaries. The workplace and its conditioned interactions are inevitable, and often stressful or taxing. Carefully crafting one’s digital life can ensure a steady stream of relaxing things that ease the pressures of office life. That being said, it’s important to make sure that you’re not medicating with social networks. Authenticity in these spaces can be just as elusive as it is in professional interactions.
If online life were reflective of conscious social decisions, the birthday wishes on your wall would only be from people with whom you maintain connections in real life. Similarly, event invites you accept would line up with your actual social plans and pictures wouldn’t be so filtered. We are manufacturing the idea of intention on a daily basis as long as we engage with digital platforms. In that sense, it really isn’t such a big deal if you accept and then effectively mute this coworker. If this person’s feed is as devoid of originality as you say it is, you’ll be able to fake your way through icebreakers over coffee whenever that’s necessary.
What you’re really seeking are tangible boundaries. The friend request is symbolic of a general irritation you may have with this person. The completely authentic route here would be to deny the friend request and then verbally communicate (in a polite way) that you really want to focus on work at work. The message will translate, but delivery of that message depends on whether or not you’re braver than I would probably be in your situation. If a successful working relationship hinges on keeping up appearances, this would not be the worst instance in which to do so and proceed.
My agency’s management divides art direction duties between me and another team member. His name is Stan, and I think we’re equally qualified to do the work. Socially, I like Stan, and I respect both his design skills and approach to work.
The issue I’m having is that, when it comes down to big design strategy decisions, Stan and I can never seem to agree. Our arguments are always respectful (and probably useful for the junior designers to observe), but sometimes a genuinely urgent decision needs to be made.
Should I dissuade our CEO away from this split-AD structure? This would mean letting Stan win a few battles and seeing if he’d do the same for me. Do I just make him disappear?
Dear divided and conquered,
First of all, don’t make Stan disappear either magically or criminally! Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I can hopefully shed some light on this situation.
Some workplaces–especially creative ones–function on consistent levels of drama. Oftentimes, that drama is perpetuated by situations designed to fuel tension. The culture of your current agency may be wired for drama, but perhaps that dynamic has simply developed because you and Stan think about things differently. Diversity of opinions is important (hence the power of your collaborative relationship), but if manufactured tension is getting in the way of expedient decision-making there should be some other options for management styles.
Varying management strategies are worth considering in a number of creative fields. I recently listened to John Mulaney discuss his canceled FOX sitcom on a podcast. He said that TV writers are able to be creatively successful even if they leave the office by 4 PM and have relatively normal lives. This contrasts with the idea that TRUE ARTISTS WORK LATE INTO THE NIGHT AND ALSO ON HOLIDAYS. One could say that writers should do the opposite of what John suggests because his show failed commercially. However, it’s worth noting that he is an extremely talented standup comedian who focuses on the craft of comedy itself. Since his sitcom has been off the air, John has found great success by connecting with his roots as a stage performer. The lesson I took away from his story is this: even though there isn’t one formula for effective decision-making in creative fields, eliminating tension and focusing on what makes you great are terrific starting points.
Not everything needs to be a scripted battle. The junior designers observing what may mostly be theatre (starring you and Stan) will find their own ways of articulating ideas if they have time to hone their perspectives outside of being audience members.
I would suggest that you make the AD split more pronounced and field some urgent decisions independently. You mentioned that you respect Stan’s design skills and general approach, so good decisions will still be made when he handles some things on his own. When time is of the essence, splitting final approvals may make everyone more flexible to collaborate where it’s more productive. You won’t be compromising your authority or your standing with the CEO if you frame the decision in a way that serves the work itself.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Coworker
One of my coworkers and I have gotten pretty close, so naturally, we commiserate. The other night at the bar I had one too many and the conversation went from typical office griping to specific complaints about a certain account manager.
This guy’s my friend but in the morning I remembered that he’s also a blabbermouth.
How can I tell if our friendship is strong enough to ensure confidentiality? Is it dangerous to let my guard down around co-workers, no matter how friendly? Who can I really trust, anyway?
Dear rightfully concerned,
I know from experience that specific complaints about coworkers can quickly turn into specific reports on behalf of those coworkers about your morale and commitment to the team. When that happens, you’ll be left out in the cold with nobody commenting either supportively or defensively. Perception becomes reality, and recovery is almost impossible.
Friends in workplaces are tricky things. They must always be kept at arm’s length, but they’re also some of your most intimate social connections in terms of how many hours you spend with them every week. After-work drinks can be deceptive because they feel like a safe space in which empathy can be generated over common grievances.
I don’t want to encourage blind cynicism, but you really can’t trust anyone in a professional setting. The professional world is teeming with competitive interactions and silent evaluations of your performance. Social performance is one of the most important aspects of the game employees play, and a surefire way to lose is to target your complaints by naming names. Even if everyone shares your complaints about this particular person, you could find yourself taking 100% of the heat for the fallout.
That being said, I also don’t want to encourage keeping secrets about hostile feelings. There are appropriate channels in your workplace (HR and immediate management) through which you can voice your complaints. It wouldn’t hurt to do a second or even third draft of what you want to say before you say it. Try to be both empathetic and objective with regard to this person’s role. Imagine this person making the same complaint about you. That makes the stakes visible before they are all too real.
All of the above may be a huge bummer in terms of maintaining genuine office friendships, but you may want to keep in mind that the guy you’re calling a “blabbermouth” may soon be saying the same about you. Your go-to descriptor for him is evidence that certain negative traits stick in professional settings.
My degree is in sociology but now, years later, I find myself four years into a marketing analytics career. First of all: how did this happen?
I don’t particularly dislike my current field, but it definitely isn’t what I pictured myself doing. Worst still, I’ve come to a fork in the road: I can either pursue a key certification, which should lead to a pay raise and/or promotion, or hop off the analytics freight train before it carries me all the way to analyst town.
Should I prioritize money or dreams?
Dear anxious analyst,
You should prioritize marketable skills in something that makes money. You should also acquire skills in something that makes your dreams more tangible. I know this is not a fun answer, but living a double life is the only way to keep the dream alive. I write and draw outside of my daily work as a digital marketer (so the analytics are right up my alley), but I like being able to fund my rent, and other things pertinent to me comfortably having dreams.
Something I’ve recently discovered is that I simply need to put extra hours toward the things I want while taking other days to just rest. You’ve almost gotten to analyst town because you’ve been practical. Nothing is wrong with that. Even though you’re viewing that certification as the door to a prison, it could very well be the key to your salvation. You’ve invested hours toward it, and that means something. You should ride that train to its final destination, because you may actually be even more flexible to hop on another one after that.
Things in life are iterative.
As annoying as this reality still is for me as a cranky 27-year-old, things in life are iterative. They move in stages, and each stage requires focus on certain elements. I’m drawing and writing in my free time, but in controlled increments. Sometimes I need to focus on one writing assignment I want to pitch. Sometimes a drawing takes four days to conceptualize and put on paper. I’m working on being patient and making gains in my digital marketing career while I let my creative pursuits simmer. The balance can be frustrating to maintain, but practicing intentional decision-making for both money and dreams feels better in the long run.
I promise that the oppressive freight train you fear you’ve boarded can bring you more flexibility and opportunities if you create the right balance in your days. Since sociology seems to be where your interests lie, time may feel like it’s escaping you because it means less time to make strides in that arena. The money will buy you more time. It may be wise to save up your funds and plan a graceful, timely exit from the analyst train in the near future. Anything less would be a disservice to the momentum you’ve gained as a working professional.
Drips and Drabs
The ceiling right about my cubicle leaks, a vaguely greenish liquid. I asked my manager about it, and she gave me a bucket.
My job sucks, but I can’t leave. Help.
Drowning in the dumps
There is so much more behind this seemingly simple question. I’m imagining a workplace environment in which you are consistently asked to make unreasonable compromises with no alternative options. I’m also wondering if exposure to the mysterious greenish liquid has turned you into a superhero yet. If the latter is the case, you should leave your cubicle behind and follow your destiny.
Your job sucks, but you probably can’t afford to voice that opinion because you have no other employment options if you lose said job. Many people are in this position, and many managers hand out buckets instead of actually fixing things because they know you’re stuck.
That leaky ceiling above your cubicle is a metaphor for your current career status. You can temporarily put a bucket under it, but eventually the greenish liquid will be too much to contain. Before that happens, you should look for ways to make your situation more sustainable. You can do this by demonstrating your value to your manager.
Hone in on a key objective your team is trying to accomplish and play an active role in checking that off your manager’s to-do list. If you go into the conversation with a win under your belt, you’ll have leverage. You may also feel a personal sense of accomplishment that will hopefully make things a bit better, if even for an instant. Small victories must be leveraged to gain ground in more significant areas. Establishing your worth and being proactive will go a long way.
Ultimately, if this job isn’t for you, you should take steps to secure another position. Until you can establish a viable alternative, though, you should see what scraps of achievement you’re able to convert into somewhat substantial rewards. You might be able to move from that cubicle and into a well-maintained office if you play your cards right. I know it must be difficult to summon enthusiasm with the world around you leaking mysterious liquids, but this experience could be the origin story of a happier you.
Bonus Commentary: Many of the quandaries featured in this series center on people being hesitant to claim space for themselves and state feelings that are often completely valid. There is much in contemporary culture designed to dissuade us from claiming and graciously providing emotional space, but those actions are vital if we intend to solve problems. I know I’m going out on a soap box, but I just wanted to nudge you toward seeking what you need emotionally in order to succeed professionally. A huge part of exercising your empathy muscles is believing you are worthy of empathy in the first place.
Thank you for sharing and reading! Please continue to send all of your personal and professional quandaries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here to help,
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