Dear readers, first of all I would like to thank the thousands upon thousands of you who sent me email over the past few weeks. My inbox has been flooded by messages asking where the column had disappeared to, when it would reappear, whether I needed assorted pharmaceuticals to improve my “family life”, and if I was willing to collaborate in transferring some foreign currency from Egypt to Switzerland via my bank account. I have sent detailed replies to all of you.
In fact, this column is very healthy indeed. It had been absent from these pages due to a combination of work-related travel and a slight change in the editorial schedule for this space. As you may have noticed I no longer write here every week. Instead I will be writing once a fortnight, trading spaces on a weekly basis with the most excellent and rather more substantial Samar Halarnkar.
Also Read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns
Now I am not saying this in order to provoke a mob of fans to approach above-mentioned Mr Halarnkar—hence orth called “the usurper”—and threaten him to step down immediately. Or at least burn his house down.
Not at all. Well, not entirely.
In fact, I want to use this turn of events to discuss a certain prickly aspect of cubicle life: feedback.
Ah yes. You can’t live with it. You won’t get a decent raise without fudging it.
I am kidding of course. I am sure some of you—a minute minority perhaps— have very fruitful feedback and appraisal cycles in your office.
The rest of us, I think I can assume, hate it. Nothing makes the blood drain from my face like the prospect of sitting with somebody and filling in a form:
Appraiser: “So tell me. In the preceding business year have you added substantially to the company’s commitment to a cleaner planet?”
Appraisee: “Err…yes. Of course.”
Appraiser: “And how much have you done this? Choose from: Fantastically Well, Very Well, Somewhat Well, Well, Poorly Well, Bore Well, Simon Cowell…”
This conversation has ended abruptly because the appraisee, having lost hope in life and humanity, has thrown himself out of the conference room window.
But if you were to set aside the bureaucratic aspect of this process, I actually think most cubicle dwellers thrive feedback. They want to know how well they’re doing. They want to improve.
So one day I received an email informing me that the column was henceforth going to be fortnightly. Immediately my mind exploded with questions.
Why are they doing this? Does it suck? Have readers complained? Did I say something wrong? Does nobody love cubiclenama anymore?
And then a few minutes later I swung in the opposite direction:
Maybe they don’t like it. Who cares? I like my column. I need to be confident. This passive-aggressive feedback will skim off me as if I were made of Teflon.
But then I would break down again moments later and gravitate towards a window…
Thankfully, the editor later sent me a nice little email explaining the need to shuffle around schedules and increase space for more columns.
My mind was at ease.
And then I began reading an autobiographical book by Richard Feynman: What Do You Care What Other People Think?
If you haven’t read the book, or heard of the man, then I recommend you set aside everything else this weekend and Google Feynman. He was both a brilliant physicist—he won the Nobel in 1965— and a remarkable, esoteric character.
One of the chief themes of the book I am reading, as you may have guessed from the title, is how to disregard what other people might think of you. And it makes a very strong case for this. Feynman, I think, wouldn’t have become the legend he is without his general disregard for what other people thought of his weird ways.
When you think about it, this leaves us in weird place. At least from a cubicle perspective.
On the one hand, we are told, and somewhat believe, that feedback is essential. You need to know what other people think of you and your work. We need to listen and adapt. This will help us improve.
But on the other, society also glorifies people who, pardon my French, just don’t give a damn. This happens in offices. I am pretty sure you must have, at some point, worked with the type that speaks exactly what on their mind and does exactly what they please. Irrespective of feedback.
I’ve worked with plenty of the latter. In most cases, everyone admires them from a safe distance. Especially if these tough nuts are in leadership positions.
So what approach should you take? Listen? Or be like Feynman?
I’ve been thinking about this. And I reckon everyone needs to start cubicle life with a flexible approach. And then start getting more and more Feynmany as they progress. Do it too soon and you’ll jeopardize your career. Too late and you’ll probably be a soppy leader.
But that’s me.
Where do you fall on this spectrum? Send email or leave a comment.
Next week “the usurper” will be here. See you the week after.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org