The Lonely Worker

lonely office

In four years, my law firm went from me and my laptop to $800,000 and climbing, and suddenly we were twelve of us in newly decked out offices complete with $100,000 in telecommunications and electronics upgrades.

Obviously we’d hit a sweet spot, and we were having fun. We laughed a lot. We ate together, visited each other’s homes. We took firm ski days and watched the Rockies at Coors Field. We had crazy non-policies like “take as much vacation as you need to come to work refreshed.” We had the coolest Christmas event ever. And we did kick-ass legal work.

But then the numbers got bigger and I got serious. An accountant said our vacation policy was unsustainable — we needed one, in a real live employee manual. I wrote one but never had the heart to show it to anyone. We sat in meetings with consultants formulating heartless strategic plans we all ignored. We had an employee retreat that was just plain weird.

The worst thing I took seriously was myself. I totally blew the lesson basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic founder Pat William put in the title of his book Humility:  The Secret Ingredient of Success. Time and chance had favored us — I’d stumbled  into doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Work had often been a rollicking, happy social occasion. But then I decided I must  have been responsible for it, and paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, and didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.

We’d been in our new offices one week. My wife and I had flown  back the day before from a cushy five-day CLE at a resort in San Diego, and I was heading out to visit our new satellite office when the phone rang. It was the associate-soon-to-be-partner  we’d put in charge. “There’s something going on you need to know about,” he said.

The date was September 11th. The second plane had just hit the second tower.

Our clients — mostly small businesses — got hammered in the mini-recession that followed. As a result, so did we. I sought advice from two Denver law firm icons. They were sympathetic — they’d done that, too — expanded too much too quickly and paid for it in a downturn. A couple other people said you have to let people go — I followed their advice and let one person go — a move I mourn to this day. That’s when I decided we’ll survive or go down, but we’re doing it together.

We limped along until January 2004, when the new leader of our major referral source called to say they were “moving in a new direction” and March 31st would be the date we were officially toast. For the next three months I wrote job recommendations, we gave people their furniture and computers, sold the rest, archived files….

When I went to the office on April 1st (April Fool’s Day), the place echoed. I’d never felt so lonely in my life. Rotten timing, victim of circumstance, happens to everyone… yeah maybe, but all I could think was I miss my friends.

We don’t usually associate loneliness with work. We ought to, says Emily Esfahani-Smith in her book The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters. She cites findings that 20% consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” that 1/3 of Americans 45 of older say they’re lonely, and that close relationships at work are a major source of meaning. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy agrees and then some:

“There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.

“Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

“In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

“And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

“Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

“These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.”

Work And The Loneliness Epidemic: Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business, Harvard Business Review (2017)

He offers these remedies:

  • Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.
  • Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

And, he might have added, you might want to rethink your stingy vacation policy.

For more, see Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings (2011).

If you like this blog, you might enjoy the new Iconoclast.blog, which explores several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

Willful Blindness

see no evil

We heard last time from Mats Alvesson and André Spicer and their book The Stupidity Paradox about “functional stupidity” — what happens when we stop thinking for ourselves and go along with the dumbing-down of our workplaces.

Prof. Spicer gave a TEDx Talk based on the book, beginning with a story from first-year torts:  Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company. You may recall that Ford’s upper management went ahead with the Pinto as originally designed, despite the infamous “Pinto Memo” finding that $11.00 worth of alterations per vehicle would have made it a whole lot safer. The result was the largest product liability damage award ever against a car manufacturer (as of that time). Clearly a case of “functional stupidity.”

Functional stupidity is the result of what psychologists call “cognitive bias”:  engaging with experience only after we’ve filtered it first to conform to our habitual perceptions, assumptions, and prejudices. Journalist, filmmaker, and CEO Margaret Hefferman wrote the book on the subject:  Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril (2011). Here’s her TED talk, and here’s a BrainPickings article about her book and about cognitive bias in general. Ms. Heffernan is a marvelous storyteller — she recounts story after jaw-dropping story from all arenas of life.

Cognitive bias is especially ironic in the legal profession, since the law itself doesn’t let you get away with it:  the rule of “willful blindness” makes you culpable if you intentionally decide not to know about wrongdoing or deliberately fail to make a reasonable inquiry into it. “See no evil” isn’t going to fly.

How can we shake off our cognitive biases? As a friend of mine says, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” Not only can’t we see them, we don’t want to either — and it doesn’t work to make them someone else’s problem. I ran several Google searches looking for articles about lack of independent thinking in the workplaces. Tweak my search as I might, it kept turning up advice like this one from Harvard Business Review, which trots out this worn out bit of conventional management advice:  “It’s the employees’ fault, so here’s how a manager can fix them.” I really expected more from the HBR.

Instead of getting occupied with the speck in someone else eye when we’ve got a log in ours, we might follow the example of Ray Dalio, founder and chairman of hedge fund heavyweight Bridgewater Associates, who created a firm culture around “radical truth and radical transparency.” This is from the company’s website:

“Our unique success is the direct result of our unique way of being. We want an idea meritocracy in which meaningful work and meaningful relationships are pursued through radical truth and radical transparency. We require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation. It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.”

That last line is worth repeating:

“It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence
that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.”

Mr. Dalio’s firm culture is as cognitive-bias-busting as they come. If you’re intrigued, you might treat yourself to his talk. Click here or on the image below and scroll down a couple turns.

Ray Dalio Bridgewater TED talk

Whether or not you’re inclined to embrace Bridgewater’s radical firm culture, learning to see past our biases and get a fresh look might be a good addition to a New Year’s Resolutions list. Just an idea….

We’ll continue our search for a new perspective on economics and the workplace in 2018.