DISCUSSION Get your game face off – in the workplace, we should strive to show who we really are

by Michael Wise _______7th September 2018
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It was a pleasure, as part of our ‘Voices of Progress’ inquiry, to speak to Tom Hodgkinson earlier this week. Tom is editor of The Idler magazine and, about 15 years ago, wrote a book called ‘How To Be Idle’. Don’t let the title mislead you: being idle is not the same as being lazy. His inspiration came from an essay on the subject by Dr Samuel Johnson – a man whose output was prodigious, despite his being chronically unable to get out of bed in the morning. It’s a book that serves as a gently mocking antidote to go-getting notions such as ‘work hard, play hard’ which cause so much damage. Tom advocates long lunches and a nap in the afternoon.

Although our interview was over the phone, it was still possible to get a handle on Tom’s character. He was friendly and self-effacing, freely admitted that he doesn’t have all the answers and rounded off the conversation by saying something like “I’ve probably talked complete nonsense as usual”. I have to say I found this really refreshing; from my vantage point – which is not lofty – London media types have always seemed very sure of themselves and quite prepared to assert that they do have all the answers. For them, the alternative probably doesn’t bear thinking about. This sort of certitude seems to proliferate and, I have to admit, it wouldn’t have surprised me if even the head honcho of a magazine that features a snail as its logo revealed himself as a master of the universe. Then again, I’ve noticed that he’s not on Twitter, which may indicate something.

As much as his book has done (and continues to do), what our chat indicated to me is that there is grace and, ultimately, power in showing who you really are and saying what you really think – even if you are self-effacing and have doubts about your thoughts. This is as opposed to ‘putting your game face on’ and saying what you think people want to hear. Plenty of people do the latter – whether they’re ambitious or awkward – because they think that’s simply how it is. They may have decided it’s right for them, but is the charade right for the company they work for?

Let’s play a game. Well…it feels more like a pitch for a ‘zany Hollywood comedy’…but imagine a business in which everyone said exactly what they thought, rather than what they think is right in the circumstances. Of course, there would be zany Hollywood comedy-type consequences, such as the awful line manager being pushed down a flight of stairs and/or tied up in the basement. But also the cowed staff member, who is awkward and unsure of him or herself, might find the moxy to present a fantastic idea that takes off and makes the company a fortune.

Fear drives people in different directions: for every employee who hates confrontation and just wants to get through the day with a minimum of fuss before going home, there is the confident climber. Or, rather, confident-seeming. Again, it’s that certitude. Not only that, it’s that sort of machismo attitude to work – that way of thinking which equates number of hours worked with virtue. As Tom pointed out, there are plenty of countries and cultures in which that way of thinking is frowned upon; in their view, all it reveals is that the proponent is not very good at his or her job.

There are consequences that, surely, come with playing a role – of either pushing yourself too far, or not far enough. The latter lives in a sort of self-constructed cage, always limiting their contribution, preferring a quiet life, yet all the while imploding, slowly – heartbreakingly – because they know they can do so much more, if they could just push themselves through that barrier, self-imposed for whatever reason. The former, meanwhile, pushed themselves through it years ago – perhaps it was never there – yet are constantly in danger of over-extending themselves, or being ‘found out’. Playing such a role must be so taxing, both physically and mentally.

Like an actor plays a role, it involves a script; taken too far, though, it can lead to deception, and to self-deception. Recently, I read an article in The Sunday Times about how, in the writer’s opinion, working mothers are being sold a pup about ‘having it all’. Especially sad was the writer’s recollection of interviewing a high-flying woman who, in confidence, admitted that balancing her job with motherhood placed an awful strain upon her. But when interviewed in front of her peers, on went the impervious veneer of corporate efficiency. Heaven forfend such an admission; any trace of vulnerability was banished.

All of this relates, I think, to short-termism. For the person holding back, the worry is that the short-term pain that might come from ‘letting go’ is just too much, whatever the long-term gain might be. That they might be scared of losing their job, for example. For the person thrusting forward, meanwhile, short-termism is everything. Whatever it is they want, they want it now, in the short-term. Life is a series of short-term gains. Onwards and upwards, but at the same chopping and changing. Gaining knowledge, but not a particularly deep reservoir.

It seems that the latter has become a millstone – one of many – around the poor, creaking neck of this dear old country. In politics as in business, there is plenty of talk of short-termism in leadership, and how that brings with it less-than ideal outcomes. Of course, this is allied to a major tenet of Tomorrow’s Company’s mission: that, for business to be a force for good in society, it should take a long-term approach. That includes in investment, and long-term investment includes long-term investment in staff.

None of this assumes that a) the driven type with the certitude of a Chosen One will change his or her attitude anytime soon; and neither does it assume that b) companies will decide that they don’t need traditional(ish) hierarchical structures in order to function. As always, we must be realistic. But perhaps the greatest gain to be made is in recognising and encouraging the potential of those who aren’t too sure of themselves, who do not (on the surface at least) possess stand-out or star potential. If greater effort can be made to get the wallflowers up on the dancefloor, as it were, and (this bit is important) of their own volition, just imagine how much more potential a company might have. Long-term potential too, I would argue, since such people would be more likely to hang around.

Tom reckons the world feels more atavistic now. Do people in businesses rule by fear? It depends who you ask. Towards the end of our chat, he said he had read somewhere that Jeff Bezos wants each of his employees to wake up every morning “feeling terrified”. Since Amazon have just achieved a valuation of $1trillion, perhaps Mr Bezos knows better after all.

(Photograph of Tom Hodgkinson taken by Chris Floyd)

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