The Key to Greater Work Happiness Is Taking and Giving Less Shit

The hardest part about any office job is probably not the job — it's the people, AKA dealing with other personalities so fundamentally different, irritating, and mismatched that it's a wonder any work gets done at all. But what if you only needed to adjust two things to be happier at work?

At this point, when we think about what makes work environments effective and happy, we probably think about "cultural fit." It's no longer enough to be simply skilled or educated or experienced. This is startup full of edgy craft beer drinkers who volunteer at animal shelters while Tweeting — we must find a hip pop-culture lover who breathes social media and takes in stray dogs! Although from personal experience I suggest you run quickly from any place that considers itself edgy, I understand why cultural fit is such a thing. The appeal is simple: Because you have the same personality, disposition and background of everyone at the place you're working, everyone will be more productive, on point, and ensured a more harmonious work life.

But it is kind of a unicorn of harmony, because since when is that the norm? For one, maybe everyone should not be the same at a job, because where will new ideas come from? Two, a person's cultural fit is difficult to truly determine (and is often used to discriminate, too). And for three, even the most culturally aligned coworker who seemingly shares all the values of the company can be a terrible pain in your ass, amirite? If you've ever had this experience with the good-on-paper coworker, you may find yourself wishing you worked with a complete tool, someone who loved Dave Matthews and Rush Limbaugh, if they would just get their shit done right.

That is why this Harvard Business Review piece by Greg McKeown discussing the emotional boundaries that are essential to a happy working life struck me as pretty brilliant:

To develop meaningful and mature relationships at work or at home we need to develop two filters. The first filter protects you from other people. The second filter protects other people from you.

I am intrigued, HBR. Go on!

Filter 1: protect yourself from others. I once worked with a manager who gave blunt feedback in perpetuity: "You're not a grateful person!" and "You're just not a great writer!" and "Well, that was dumb!" My response, at first, was to listen as if everything he said was true. On the outside, I became defensive — but on the inside, I returned home emotionally beaten up. Every night my wife, Anna, would listen to the details of the encounters and help me to discern truth from error. One day she just said, "You've got to learn to consider the source!" My error was not that I didn't listen, but that I listened too much. In other words, I needed to learn to filter the feedback.

This is extremely true. Office jobs are so weird. Your boss can give you relevant feedback about your performance, sure, but this is still a person with biases and preferences and a job to do and their own limitations. And yet, it's hard to escape: You spend most of your day at a job subjected to a steady stream of feedback (direct or indirect) from coworkers, bosses, clients, feedback that can deeply shape your narrative about yourself and your abilities. It's important to not have your identity be too totally wrapped up in a job anyway, but even more important to not have your identity too wrapped up in someone else's assessment of you. Remember that this is not some definitive reflection of your skills — this is a response to you in a specific context at this job, from this person. YOU CONTAIN MULTITUDES, and also maybe that's just how that person gives feedback (i.e., shittily).

Filter 2: Protect other people from you. On the other hand, I once worked with a leader with whom I felt I could be completely open. One day she said to me, "I value what you have to say, but sometimes it feels like I've been punched in the solar plexus when we talk." Clearly, I was not doing a good enough job at protecting this colleague from me. I needed to increase the filter of what I shared and how I shared it. (For further reading see Pia Mellody's work on boundaries).

Oh man, everyone could probably reconsider themselves on this front a bit. On some level, I think cultural fit can make this second filter even more necessary, because often times at jobs where everyone gets along or is also friends, it can create the illusion that it's so laid back and the rules don't matter. Which is great fun (dick jokes) until everyone is literally being pathologically themselves and no one exists to put a stop to the horror (missed deadlines/crying).

But overall, McKeown's message is beautifully simple: Don't let anyone give you too much of their shit, and don't give anyone else too much of your shit. LESS SHIT. Less shit is key to everything you guys (except actual bowel movements or maybe things requiring fertilizer. ANYWAY).

McKeown goes onto explain that if both of your filters are low then you are likely to be a volatile person at work (what he describes as a "wounded animal" who is both hypersensitive and defensive). If one is too high and the other is too low, you're probably either overbearing or vulnerable, meaning way too bombastic in your delivery, or taking feedback way too personally. And when both filters are too high, you're walled off, meaning too withdrawn to be affected (or effective).

McKeown offers more in-depth ways to talk through these issues, but the trick, ultimately, is finding the sweet spot between protecting yourself and protecting others, the right mixture of being open to feedback and giving feedback appropriately. I think a chart of some kind would be really handy here.


The Key to Greater Work Happiness Is Taking and Giving Less Shit

This is probably infinitely more important to being a good or happy worker than cultural fit. Of course, all this requires being able to think about how you act and actively work to change it for the better, which, truth be told, may be the biggest unicorn of all.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.