6 final career tips from America’s most beloved workplace columnist (self-named).
I was wrong.
I suppose that’s an odd way to begin the final installment of an advice column. So let me clarify: I wasn’t wrong about everything.
In fact, I’d say the brunt of the workplace advice and information you’ve read in this space for the past six years has been accurate. But I was wrong, or at least off a bit, in one of my central tenets.
I’ve used the phrase “Be a decent human being” in more than 20 columns. I had it printed on magnets that I sent to readers. I preached it when I spoke at events.
A few months after “I Just Work Here” launched in 2011, it struck me that one of the biggest problems in the workplace was that people have a tendency to act like jerks to one another. Perhaps you’ve witnessed that phenomenon.
So I conjured a staggeringly simple mantra: Be a decent human being. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.
A few months ago I was speaking with Kathleen Hall, an author and founder of the Mindful Living Network. She’s one of the many fascinating people I’ve interviewed over the years, and she became a friend, a sort of spiritual and intellectual sherpa.
I was talking to her about a book idea that revolved around the “Be a decent human being” motto, and the word “decent” kept tripping her up. She didn’t like it because it was too vague. What does “decent” really mean?
I let that question slosh around for awhile in the vast emptiness of my noggin and then realized: Why am I qualifying the term “human being”?
By encouraging people to be decent human beings, maybe I’ve been undercutting our full potential. We shouldn’t strive to be decent human beings — we should strive, simply, to be human beings.
And therein lies the bigger problem. I think part of what drags us down at work, part of what makes our working lives so complicated — at times unbearably so — is we’ve either forgotten or lost sight of what it really means to be human.
If you asked 20 people what it means to be human, you’d likely get 20 different answers — maybe 21 because some smartypants would answer twice.
But I can guarantee the answers wouldn’t include things like walking over other humans to get what you want, bullying co-workers or criticizing people behind their backs.
You’d see words like cooperation (without which we likely never would’ve come down from the trees), kindness, generosity and even mushy stuff like loving others and caring for people.
Occasionally reminding ourselves of our true nature — our humanness — might be enough to short-circuit some bad workplace behavior. And setting our sites on being “decent” isn’t enough when we all have the capacity to be human.
I’d delve into that subject more if I had time, but I don’t. I’ll leave it to you all to mull over, hopeful that the consideration does some good. To quote my beloved Grateful Dead: “Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.”
Well, actually, I’m not quite done.
I want to explain why I’m ending this column. For starters, it feels right. Six years is a good run and, having cemented my status as America’s most-beloved workplace advice columnist (self-declared) for all eternity, it seems time to move on.
As many of you know — and as some of you, I’m sure, dislike — I also write nonworkplace columns in the news section of the Chicago Tribune. It’s a lot of politics, a lot of riffing off the news of the day, a good bit of what I call humor (and what some call stupid) and occasional bouts of seriousness.
I’ll be doing more of that now. I grew up reading columns by Mike Royko and Dave Barry and Anna Quindlen and Lewis Grizzard. They had the job I always dreamed of having, and if there’s one thing I’ve stressed in this column it’s that you should strive to do what you love. That leads you to the best version of yourself.
I want to thank all who have read “I Just Work Here” over the years, every person who has emailed to share thoughts or ideas or critiques. I’ve been terrible about responding, but I’ve read them all, and I’m grateful.
Colleagues have come and gone, but I owe a debt to Joyce Winnecke, Colin McMahon, Cheryl Bowles, Mary Jane Grandinetti, Michael Lev and Mike Kellams, who collectively helped launch, shape and shepherd the column.
I’m absurdly thankful for my current editor, Mary Ellen Podmolik, who helped reinvigorate my writing while also giving me the room to come to this decision on my own. You can’t ask for much more from a boss than trust and honesty.
When I was offered the chance to write a workplace column, I wasn’t sure I wanted to — I had dreams of a general news column, like the heroes I grew up reading. I went home and asked my wife what she thought and she said, “Of course you should do it, dummy. Say yes!”
She was right — being right is kind of an annoying habit of hers — and I’m forever grateful for the career-changing push.
I’ll leave you kind people with a few quick workplace tips I’m convinced are crucial:
Be kind. It’s so much easier than being an ass, and it makes life better for everyone.
Pause. Always pause. Before you say something. Before you hit “send” on an email. Before you leave a voicemail. Take a second or two to consider whether what you’re about to say or send is smart, kind, helpful or properly thought out.
Minimize meetings. Everyone hates them and they’re rarely productive. Keep ‘em short and keep ‘em small.
Trust your workers. Give them flexibility. Let them speak. You will be richly rewarded.
Be honest. Don’t sugarcoat things. Don’t blow sunshine up people’s … you know. Give praise when it’s due, offer criticism when it’s needed.
Cut people some slack. We’re all dealing with stuff. We all have bad days, or bad stretches of days. The more patience we can muster, the better we’ll all be.
None of that’s complicated. Nothing in this column has ever been complicated, really. Work is something we tend to overcomplicate.
We form task forces and write rules and study trendy management styles and hang posters with dippy sayings on them and go to brown bag lunches to listen to people tell us how to behave. And there’s value in those things, to a degree.
But at the end of the day, work is simple.
Human beings are at their best when they work together. So in the workplace, truly, all you need to do is be a human being.