cognitive dissonance in the office...
(Column No. 1; Guardian
How do you avoid becoming a corporate drone?
Firstly, it helps to accept that if you spend
most of your waking hours confined to the office,
it will eventually get to you. Anyone starting
an office job expecting to escape the politics
and petty bureaucracy is in for a shock. You
can't expect to remain dignified in that environment.
It's better to recognise your inevitable deterioration
into something contemptible. The only alternative
is to join the ranks of the deluded, seek opportunities
and aspire to professionalism but that's
the action plan of the trainee drone.
Of course, jobs are supposed to give people
self-respect, not take it away. But due to the
nature of the typical workplace (authority hierarchies,
miscommunication, chaos), employees end up behaving
in undignified ways: concealing things from
their bosses, redirecting blame, feeling resentment
over trivial matters, reporting that everything's
fine when it isn't, hiding in the toilets, etc.
Obviously this behaviour doesn't fit our beliefs
about ourselves as essentially rational and
well-adjusted. The result is cognitive dissonance,
which occurs when our self-image is contradicted
by our actions. How can you come to terms with
your 'guilty' behaviour if you see yourself
as honest and dignified? You think you're above
it all, but the evidence of your own actions
shows that you're immersed in it. Faced with
the horror of your out-of-character behaviour,
you rationalise and make excuses. You turn into
an office drone.
Any smart person with a meaningless job suffers
the crippling cognitive dissonance of: "I
am intelligent, my waking hours are spent in
stupidity". Rationalisations are used
to mask the frustration: "I'd be bored
without my job" (if you really believe
that, it's probably time to consider entering
a nursing home). According to Leon Festinger,
creator of dissonance theory, the less you are
paid to do stupid work, the more you will attempt
to rationalise it ("well, it was fun"),
rather than admit to doing it for the money.
Remember this next time you hear someone claim
to "enjoy" their underpaid desk job.
As an office worker, don't expect to have any
dignity. Perhaps the only way to stay sane is
to accept that you'll turn into something despicable.
Don't fall for the office management propaganda
about integrity and professionalism. In the
corporate workplace, self-respect is out of
the question it exists only in the delusions
(Column No. 2; Guardian
Staff morale is a dangerous thing. Most companies
spend money on morale-boosting schemes in the
belief that it will raise productivity, but
this is a mistake. If staff get the idea that
they're supposed to be happy, where will it
end? The risk is that it will lead to an eruption
of office hedonism in which employees pursue
a more relaxed approach to work. Obviously this
can't be allowed to happen.
Businesses invest in motivational schemes mainly
because of a fear of employee apathy and its
effect on output. This shows they have a poor
grasp of psychology, as apathy results not from
a lack of motivational indoctrination, but from
an absence of outlets for staff laziness. There's
so much apathy inside corporations because people
are expected to be productive 100% of the time.
The only real solution to apathy is scheduled
laziness. But obviously that can't be allowed
Another problem with morale-raising is that
employees might get too uppity. If this happens,
the mantra of office authoritarianism can always
be invoked: "You're not being paid to
enjoy yourselves". But this is risky
because it contradicts the motivational message
that you should enjoy your work. Office managers
have a tough job keeping a balance between morale
and cowering obedience.
You can experiment with this by suggesting
that your company adopts schemes to shift control
from bosses to underlings, "in the interests
of morale". Optional Monday-morning attendance,
for instance. See how long it takes before you're
reminded that employees are paid to make the
company profitable, not to make themselves happy.
In fact, managers would be terrified of genuinely
happy employees. Happiness means endorphins
and relaxation, not adrenaline and strain
carefree workers aren't going to be perturbed
by unmet deadlines or big overspends. Your boss
would rather have you reeking of stress.
So, for every morale-raising gesture from the
managers, there's an esteem-lowering mechanism
in place. This keeps productively stable, as
morale never gets high enough to undermine worker
servility. Esteem-lowering devices are legion
performance reviews, automated employee-monitoring
and a never-ending parade of patronising staff-development
schemes courtesy of the Personnel Department.
A typical example of the latter is the team-building
exercise. As if normal office work isn't demeaning
enough, employees are forced to perform activities
designed to humiliate. Team-building exercises
originated in torture manuals absurd
"challenges" which have the effect
of regressing groups of people to an infantile
state, at which point they're supposed to bond
with each other. The way to avoid this nonsense
is to inform your boss that you've already booked
a holiday and won't be available for the scheduled
staff development. It doesn't matter if they
think you're lying. If every employee did this,
it would soon put an end to the stupidity.
Avoid work through invisibility
(Column No. 3;
As an office employee, you need a strategy
for avoiding work it's a requirement
for job fulfilment. If you're unlikely to become
a manager, the next best way to avoid work is
to become invisible. If people can't see you,
they can't pester you with work assignments.
Start becoming invisible by lowering the height
of your chair and positioning your computer
so you're hidden from your boss. You might also
want to build tall stacks of documents around
your desk. The next step is to be invisible
in meetings. The easiest way is to not turn
up. Five minutes before a meeting starts, make
sure you go as far away as possible from your
desk and colleagues. You can hide in the toilets
or go for a walkabout. Nobody will notice you
sneaking off they'll be too busy preparing
for the meeting and mentally rehearsing their
You probably won't be missed, but have an excuse
ready in case you're asked. Be imaginative when
inventing explanations. For example, you had
to go to your car because the security desk
noticed squirrels tampering with your windscreen
wipers. Remember to laugh in a self-deprecating
way when you recount such stories this
is an old trick, taught to spies, for dealing
Once you've mastered guilt-free lying, you
can progress to hard-core invisibility, otherwise
known as skiving. The best-known method is to
take sick days. As with avoiding meetings, it
helps to have a set of fabrications memorised,
just in case you're suddenly struck one morning
with a massive disinclination to go to work.
Plan ahead. You can use your time in the office
productively by searching the web for illnesses
which sound convincing but not too obvious.
Make a note of details of interesting symptoms,
so you'll at least sound as if you're making
an effort to seem believable. Claiming to have
a "cold" every time will be regarded
by your manager as a personal insult.
Some people have a guilty conscience about
phoning in sick. The remedy is to imagine, vividly,
how you feel at work on a typical Monday morning.
That should make you feel queasy. By dictionary
definition, "queasy" means ill. Therefore
it's your duty to phone in sick. If you don't
feel queasy at the thought of Monday morning,
then by definition there must be something wrong
with you, so you should phone in sick anyway.
Far too many people spread low morale by going
to work when they don't feel like it. It's better
for you, your colleagues, and the national economy
if you stay at home. Or, to put it another way:
prevention is better than cure, so phone in
sick before you get ill.
Scheduling & deadlines
(Column No. 4;
A major peril of office work is project assignment.
If you thought aimless drudgery was bad, wait
until you experience the planned, monitored
kind. Projects don't alleviate tedium
they simply schedule it. Deadlines, progress
meetings and status reports add nothing to the
emptiness but an artificial sense of urgency.
Scheduling forms a big part of project work
you should expect to spend at least two
days a week planning, reviewing your plans and
fabricating your timesheet to make it look as
if you're working to plan. The main purpose
of scheduling is to somehow squeeze a week's
work into the few days remaining after the scheduling
This is impossible, of course. The result is
panic, guilt, stress and more scheduling. Ultimately,
you pay the price by working 60-hour weeks on
a 40-hour salary. Then, when chronic exhaustion
takes its toll, you become even less productive.
But the scheduling process makes no allowance
for this, because the project team is in denial.
Ideally, at this point, you could quit. But
there are other, less drastic, options. For
example, whenever your manager asks you to estimate
the time required for a task, always multiply
the realistic figure by five. They will whine
and moan, but you must stand your ground. Never
accept an estimate of less than triple the time
you think it'll take.
To help you stand up to your manager, remember
that scientific research is on your side. In
the 1990s, researchers at Sussex University
conducted a five-year study into "Task
Completion Wishful Thinking Syndrome",
which concluded that tasks always take longer
than we expect. This is apparently a universal
human trait. From wallpapering a room to developing
a new fighter aircraft, we all tend to underestimate
how long it will take. We also never learn from
previous missed deadlines we fail to
modify our expectations of our own performance
based on previous experience.
The flip side of this is that we'll look back
at any given period of time, and it will seem
that we've accomplished embarrassingly little,
relative to expectations. As a result, most
of us go home from work every day feeling guilty.
Managers then have an easy time emotionally
blackmailing us into working overtime.
To assuage your guilt, it helps to familiarise
yourself with the Law of Office SNAFU,
which states that no project is ever completed
on schedule. Projects which appear to finish
on schedule are, by definition, not really complete.
A corollary is that project managers are living
in a dreamworld. No amount of hard work on your
part can overturn these laws, so why bother
straining yourself? Chronic under-productivity
is as certain as gravity you should never
feel ashamed of it.
Guerilla tactics at work
(Column No. 5;
Office employees are required to sacrifice
more than just their time and energy. They're
expected to yield their souls too. As early
as the interview stage it's made clear to new
recruits that total commitment to the company
is mandatory. This means adopting the company
ethos and believing in its "mission".
It's like joining a cult.
Your employer requires your sincere devotion.
Cynicism is regarded as an attitude problem,
and will result in your behaviour being closely
monitored. In this kind of environment you need
to disguise your contempt, otherwise everything
you do will be regarded with suspicion.
Mask your sarcasm with humour, and avoid attracting
unwanted attention. In fact it's probably best
to channel all your simmering frustrations into
covert propaganda rather than risk self-incriminatory
Office propaganda wars are the business world's
best kept secret. Thousands of disenchanted
employees are engaged in clandestine projects
to counter the corporate propaganda relentlessly
churned out in the form of newsletters, notices,
memos, staff debriefings, team pep-talks, etc.
The employer's aim is to make staff view the
company goals as all-important. The antidote
to this brainwashing is ridicule and parody,
which can take the form of graffiti, stickers,
fake notices, spoof emails, etc.
Ambitious, careerist types won't appreciate
this subversive humour, as it undermines their
sense of self-importance. Consider these folk
as your enemies in the propaganda war. They
might be your colleagues, but you don't have
to socialise with them. Taking coffee breaks
together isn't mandatory make excuses
and go later when you can read a newspaper undisturbed.
But beware of being branded unsociable, as this
attracts scrutiny from the company thought-police.
You can always fake sociability. On occasions
when you can't avoid your colleagues, join in
the office chit-chat. But whenever there's a
choice, look for an escape route. Always keep
an important-looking document close to hand,
so you can pretend to be on an urgent errand.
Performance reviews will reveal whether you've
successfully concealed your "attitude problem".
If your supervisor suggests that you're not
a "team-player", it means they're
onto you. This means you'll probably be sent
on team-bonding courses and be press-ganged
into socialising with career-driven morons.