Your coworker, the flat-earther

There is an important point about employee engagement below. But first, a quote. Do any of the following coworkers sound like people you have known? If you can get past the old-fashioned (and hilarious) writing style, this list of bank employees will give you a smile:

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31154778

The place was full of quaint characters. There was West, who had been requested to leave Haileybury owing to his habit of borrowing horses and attending meets in the neighbourhood, the same being always out of bounds and necessitating a complete disregard of the rules respecting evening chapel and lock-up. He was a small, dried-up youth, with black hair plastered down on his head. He went about his duties in a costume which suggested the sportsman of the comic papers.

There was also Hignett, who added to the meagre salary allowed him by the bank by singing comic songs at the minor music halls. He confided to Mike his intention of leaving the bank as soon as he had made a name, and taking seriously to the business. He told him that he had knocked them at the Bedford the week before, and in support of the statement showed him a cutting from the Era, in which the writer said that ‘Other acceptable turns were the Bounding Zouaves, Steingruber’s Dogs, and Arthur Hignett.’ Mike wished him luck.

And there was Raymond who dabbled in journalism and was the author of ‘Straight Talks to Housewives’ in Trifles, under the pseudonym of ‘Lady Gussie’; Wragge, who believed that the earth was flat, and addressed meetings on the subject in Hyde Park on Sundays; and many others, all interesting to talk to of a morning when work was slack and time had to be filled in.

Mike found himself, by degrees, growing quite attached to the New Asiatic Bank.

P.G. Wodehouse, “Psmith in the City,” 1910
Morris Gest, P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, F. Ray Comstock and Jerome Kern, circa 1917 (Stanley Green, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

You may have heard of P.G. Wodehouse or his characters Jeeves the butler and his gentleman, Bertie Wooster. The humorist also wrote Broadways hits with legends like Jerome Kern. Wodehouse was classically educated and planned to be a writer. But for financial reasons, he had to take a day job at a bank.

“Yeahhhh … you see we’re putting the cover sheets on all TPS reports now before they go out.”

The novel that came out of his two years at the bank is (like everything Wodhouse wrote) hysterical: Mike, the main character, is forced to work at a stuffy Victorian bank. Think the bank in Mary Poppins–the kind of place that takes itself too seriously.

Like Wodehouse, Mike eventually “escapes” the bank, but not before falling in love with his workplace just a little bit.

The novel is a spiritual ancestor to Mike Judge’s film “Office Space.” The corporate job seems meaningless. The bosses, clueless. The coworkers, insane.

But there’s something about getting to know people.

Employee engagement takes many forms. Including an abiding love for your coworker, the fellow who believes the earth is flat.

So many of my clients’ employees come to mind. The Bigfoot hunter leading the sales board. The former football star who couldn’t stop wearing athletic socks with his dress shoes. An older employee who ordered in Mandarin at the Chinese restaurant and in Spanish at the Mexican restaurant (who turned out to be a Yalie with a history translating for a government branch he wouldn’t reveal–although he did let leak that he escaped the shah’s fall by pretending to be an Iranian protester). Someone who toured with a southern gospel quartet. A flat-earther. I could go on and on.

Friends > Rocks

Some takeaways:

  • People are interesting. All of them. Spend enough time with your colleagues and coworkers, and you will be fascinated by the story. This is, literally, without exception. Some would make a good movie, some wouldn’t. But all are interesting.
  • People are engagement-drivers. You work better as a team with people you find interesting: You’re more willing to sacrifice to help them out, for instance. It’s why Gallup’s survey of employe engagement features the statement, “I have a best friend at work.” Engagement improves when relationships thrive.
  • People are meaningful. This is important because work can be a real grind if we don’t find meaning in our efforts. Another widget on the assembly line, another customer to serve, another day where you have to be “on.” They are all just activities that drain energy. But if you can attach those activities to the impact they have on others–coworkers and customers–you have fuel to sustain your efforts.
Sisyphus by Titian – [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3860214

We’ve talked here before about Sisyphus, the king doomed to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again. The myth has become shorthand for talking about work divorced from meaning.

Some organizations seem to have built-in “transcendent purpose.” The hospital saving lives, the ministry saving souls.

Every organization has some noble purpose, sometimes as basic as serving customers. Serving others is a noble thing!

But in the middle of rolling the boulder uphill, we can forget that.

As Wodehouse looks at those around him, he points a way forward in humanizing coworkers: I don’t like rolling this boulder, but I’ll get to help out Wragge.

I wonder what happened at last night’s flat earth meeting. …

So I’ll leave you with this:

  • What are you doing to better know your coworkers?
  • What are you doing to help coworkers better know you?
  • Where are your opportunities for everybody to better know each other?

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