The culture of the minimum effort

A few weeks ago I was hanging out in a coffee shop before teaching a session. It was mid-morning on an ordinary day and it was very quiet. Two very friendly and energetic associates were at the counter serving customers, most of whom were ordering to take away. Inside the premises there were only three busy tables (mine was one of them). One of the associates, taking advantage of a moment when there were no customers at the counter, quickly went out to collect trays and disinfect the tables that had been occupied. “Oh my, where are you going so fast, you look like a fan!” a man who was sitting a couple of tables to my right said to the boy in a joking tone. This sentence made me look away from my computer and take in the scene. The boy smiled politely at the man through his mask as he efficiently continued with his work. The man insisted, trying to be funny: “What’s the point of all this speed? Nobody will thank you for it. You go at your own pace, you’re going to get paid the same whether you do it slow or fast”. The boy, again, made a kind gesture out of pure politesse and went to the kitchen with the trays while the man, delighted with himself and his advice and believing himself to be the owner of the absolute truth, continued with his sandwich and his non-alcoholic beer. I went back to my screen thinking that it was time to stop making feel clever to people who supports the culture of the minimum effort.

“You’re going to get paid the same” is a tremendous phrase (usually uttered by someone who thinks he/she is smarter than you are) that aims to take away all the power you have as an individual to decide how you do your work. According to this belief, the fact of working “well” depends only on being seen by “whoever pays you”. In other words, and looking at it from a transactional analysis perspective, it reduces the person who works to the role of a child and gives the one who pays the role of an adult. This mentality merely perpetuates the hierarchical organisational model, where one person is needed to “watch over” the rest, and where it is assumed that without that person, the rest would not “perform” as well as necessary. The writer Toni Morrison shared in her article in The New Yorker a reflection based on a personal experience:  we are not the work we do, but the people we are. Therefore, it is about doing the job well for ourselves, not for the person who pays us. To be honest, I find this statement the ultimate empowerment as far as work culture is concerned. The apology for mediocrity represented by “you’re going to get paid the same” implies that, for things to work out, some will have to work twice as hard to make up for what is not done by those who will only work “well” when they are “seen by the one who pays”. If we look deeper into behaviours, we will see that people who contribute will do so from whatever role, job type or area of expertise, and what comes out of their work will be authentic and purposeful. This happens not only in an organisational environment, but also in our community life. After all, we are the same people in both aspects of our lives.

The truth is that the first industrial revolution and its approaches happened more than a century ago. At this point in history, we do not need a George Orwellian big brother watching at us to contribute. So let’s bury that “you’re going to get paid the same” sentence and celebrate a job well done.

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