Just Shrug

How Shrugging Can Bring Peace of Mind, Increase Your Team’s Effectiveness, and Get You What You Want

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the top producers of the world go on strike. The strikers include leads of business, inventors of new products, and competent producers at all levels. Damned as greedy industrialists, told they most perform under the most irrational of circumstances, and forced to work for the benefit of others, they grant everyone’s wish by removing themselves. They live in a valley hidden from view. Without them, society quickly collapses.

 Many people all across American can identify with the treatment received by the producers in Atlas Shrugged. The maltreatment does not just come from the government. There are plenty of hostile-to-intellect and hostile-to-talent attitudes in many companies.

I propose to these producers that “shrugging” as demonstrated in Atlas Shrugged does not just create for a moral point in a story. It is also something that can be practiced in your daily life to bring you peace of mind, increase the effectiveness of the team around you, and get you what you want.

At any company, there are exceptional, mediocre, poor, and destructive employees. The delineation between these categories is in how much work they do compared to what they are tasked with. It is possible for an employee to 1) Do more than what they are asked 2) Do exactly what they are asked 3) Do less than they are asked or 4) Be antagonistic and counter-productive to the things they are asked.

If I had to put a percentage on the makeup of these categories in a typical American company, I would say: 25-40-25-10. (Note that these numbers don’t have to be this way: it is possible that a company has 100% of employees that go above and beyond.)

It is the exceptional employees that this article is addressed to. They are the ones who have the most impact on productivity. They solve the complex problems. They jump over hurdles—be they technical, communicative, or informational hurdles. They come up with creative solutions when asked to make do with a limited set of resources. They push through red tape, biases, and stubborn personalities in order to implement a new and better idea. They usually take on the grisliest work, such as travel, long hours, or non-ideal shifts. These are the employees who are so often the victims of maltreatment.

Mediocre employees can be put in the “good” category of employee. However, in that they only do what they are asked, they have a very minimal impact on the organization’s productivity compared to the exceptional ones. They rarely speak their mind—at least, not when the moment calls for it. Many of them are talented and could be exceptional, but due to a lack of initiative, work ethic, or courage, they do not go above and beyond. Some maltreatment comes their way but not nearly as much.

The bottom employees, in the poor and destructive category, have a draining effect on a company.

The bad employees poop out one or two small tasks per week—enough to look they are working such that they do not get fired.

The destructive employees in particular are a huge source of frustration for most. Destructive employees sit at their desk all day. No one wants them near their project as they screw things up. They brag a lot when they get one thing right, which is usually something they stole from someone else. Strangely, many of them make a lot of money—probably because they cling to one job forever, knowing they can’t get a new one, and then game the system. As a general rule, they only hang on to their job because they are friends with someone who makes hiring decisions.

The success of failure of virtually all companies lies in how well they can attract and use these exceptional employees. In a world where most think that success is climbing higher and higher on the management ladder, few want to admit that the employee talent ultimately drives profits. It is the intellectual talent of the company that drives profits—those who use their mind towards productive ends.

I am not denying the importance of management. A good manager is invaluable. The proportion of importance of managers to employees can be compared to any sports team: In what proportion are coaches responsible for winning seasons versus the athletic talent?

Good coaches are important but the real driver of the success of a team is the players. Good coaches know that the most vital thing they must do to win games is attract talented athletes. Name one good coach who had a winning season who had no particularly talented players. When they do have the talent, a good coach knows what to do with them, in ways that would make Sun Tzu proud.

Note also that the talented athletes are the ones who go above and beyond the basic drills and plays of their sports—surprising and thrilling fans with their ingenuity on the playing field. These few moments are what attract people to watching sports for hours. I would estimate that the makeup of a typical athletic team in regards to the above categories is 10-90-0-0.

Whereas sports stars are glorified and clearly recognized for their talent, the talent at companies is often derided, treated as mere handmaidens of business, and exploited.

It seems to be ubiquitous across America that companies lean heavily on these exceptional employees while letting the poor and destructive employees skate by. Instead of getting rewarded with pay or promotion, the best employees are rewarded with more work. While the work is often fun and challenging, the work they have to do to really get the job done is sometimes grisly. It can involve third or swing shift work, long travel to less than ideal places, dealing with very difficult personalities, and more.

The exceptional employee gets the pleasure of working hard every day while watching their coworkers slack off all day, by watching videos, surfing the internet or discussing their personal lives all day.

The exceptional employee goes above and beyond their assigned tasks. This initiative is often met with office politics and, of course, more work. A person who creates a new product that didn’t exist before may get assigned to “fix” it according to someone else’s wishes—for a product that would not exist without the originator.

Because the exceptional employee is so willing to assume all work to get a project done, including the undesirable work, they have a tendency to be kept in their position. Imagine a job required someone to go into a sewer routinely. The exceptional employee steps up to do it, knowing the job needs done. As such, they are kept in that position as, hey, who else can that organization find to go into a sewer? This is how the exceptional employee’s ambition is rewarded.

If they complain they are met with the growl, “Be thankful you have a job!”

In short, people of intellect, talent, and ability are rewarded not with praise, promotion, and pay but drudgery, derision and drama.

This is my advice to all of these people in this situation: shrug.

The ultimate shrug of course is to quit your job. However, my experience is that this hostile-to-talent attitude is at nearly every company. So, you can either break out on your own or you will have to learn to deal with it. I propose there are many other “mini-shrugs,” besides quitting your job, that you can do that will help both your sanity and negotiation immensely.

I have talked to many people who start describing this problem to me. They work hard while others are sloths, and they are rewarded with drama and being the constant “go to” person of management. I start to tell them my philosophy of shrugging. The instant reply I get from them is, “But think of the [fill in the blank]!” The customer service lady thinks of the public. The teacher thinks of her students. A defense contractor thinks of the soldier. Everyone has someone they think they have to serve.

My response to this is that shrugging is actually a very effective negotiation method and your organization will be stronger after you shrug. The [public, children, customer] will be the better for it.

Here is the first simple shrug you can do. Before you do any task, ask yourself these two questions.

First: “Is this part of my assigned tasking?”

If that answer is “No,” then ask yourself:

“Will going above and beyond my assigned tasking bring me any drama?”

If that answer is “Yes,” then don’t do it.

If you do this, you will get the first sense of “That’s not my problem”—a feeling you should learn to cherish.

Another easy shrug is when it falls into your lap. An emergency might take you from work. You might get yanked off of one project and put on another. Or, you put your two weeks in. Exceptional employees worry about what will happen in their absence. They want to make sure others are trained.

Don’t do this! I have found management in these hostile-to-talent work environments rarely has the foresight to make sure your knowledge is transferred before a temporary or permanent leave of absence. If you go out of your way to train others, it won’t be appreciated. And the worthless bums were never interested in learning, so why would they start now? Just leave! Embrace it! Let them fully miss you. Before leaving, do only what is asked of you. Watch the organization wake up from their sleepy, comfortable state in thinking you will always be there or that things will magically chug forward. No company should have this single point of failure. If one person leaving causes collapse, that is management’s problem, not yours.

Now, on to some bigger shrugs.

There are situations in which a talented employee should do what they have to in order to get off of a project. The projects to get off of are the ones that are doomed from the start.

One sign that a project is bound to fail is if you, the talented employee, raise concerns and give your opinion, but your very rational thoughts and warnings are ignored by the “yeah, yeah, yeah” type managers or managers who still believe that cutting corners is enlightened policy. A talented employee will not want their name attached to this project. They should start running for the exits. (I encourage talented employees to ask to be handed projects outright and be the lead—complete authority with no micromanagement. This authority and freedom will bring peace of mind and let you flourish. This situation however does not always happen.)

Another sign of a doomed project is if the entire rest of the team is not doing anything. This situation is particularly trying if the others are bragging or joking about not doing anything. (Also, personally, I advocate outright calling out anyone who brags about not doing work. They are such easy targets: why not? Social harmony and alleged comical jokes be damned. P.S. These people are not and never will be your friends.)

If you are on a project that has failure written all over it, you should move towards getting off of the project. Pick these projects wisely. Try to stay on projects that have the best chance of succeeding and which you may even be recognized for (with pay).

So how do you get off the project? You shrug. Here is how: do only what you are told and give your opinion only when asked.

It will be hard. Resist! It is likely that you will actually be taken off of the project or be given a reduced role.

This is, of course, pure irony. When the exceptional employee does what they do best—which is volunteer, find and fix problems, come up with new ideas, make sure others are doing their job, and yes, voice their opinion—they are often met with derision, jealousy, etc. However, when doing all of these things, they are sought after for projects. In fact, like a beast of burden they are whipped to do more work—constantly being asked to work overtime. However, when they stop doing what they do, they are no longer sought after. If all of those involved really didn’t like all of the pushing and prodding from the exceptional employee, it would seem they would like when the employee just shuts up and does what they are told.

But it is actually the quickest and easiest way to get yourself off of a project. I’ve seen it work and it is most gratifying. Management always throws the ball to those who are waving their arms saying “I’m open! I’m open!” If you are not doing this, they won’t be as quick to throw you the ball.

If you shrugged a project that had another producer on it, what you actually did is shift more work onto their shoulders. However, if the team really was full of poor or destructive employees, the end result is a team of B-list players who must, somehow, move a project forward. This is sweet, sweet justice in action. You can ask for almost nothing better. The failure of the project will be very visible and those involved will be obvious.

Now for a common sensical shrug but one of the most important: DO NOT do other people’s job for them.

You can do another person’s job for them in one of two ways. You can either physically do the work or you can harp on them and manage them to do their job. In this latter manner, you are actually doing that person’s manager’s job by getting an otherwise bad employee do their job competently. Unless you get that person’s pay or that person’s manager’s pay, don’t do this.

I used to think that the advice of “give a person enough rope to hang themselves” was weak-minded. In experience, however, I have found it is actually one of the most effective and rationally malicious things you can do.

If you do someone else’s job for them, you are shielding their management from that person. Management very rarely sees—actually, rarely admits—who does quality work and who does not. (They do know it as evidenced by who they pick for projects and load with work.) If all of management’s objectives are being met, they will not see that there is a problem that needs fixed. While doing the worthless employee’s job for them, you are keeping that person on a very tight leash, keeping them in line, making them talk and walk as if they are a good employee.

Instead, what you need to do is let them fully loose and watch as they run around and wrap that rope around their own necks. They have to totally screw up for anyone higher up to notice. And you need to make sure their name is attached to it, not yours.

It may take one, even two or more years, for other people to notice this other person’s failure. You may have to be patient. But if they are screwing up something that is vital to the company, it will go noticed.

This is really hard for a lot of exceptional employees to do. It is due to their extreme sense of wanting to see jobs done right. It can be described as being on a ship and watching someone do something that is going to sink the ship and being asked to not do anything about it. The reality of it though is that it is their ship, not yours.

A common flaw in many exceptional employees is they do not trust other people to do competent jobs. They often want to do everything by themselves. To this type of person: you have to just back off. Usually when you tell someone who is naďve, stupid, stubborn, or lazy that they aren’t doing their job correctly, they will respond with utter indignation, defiance, arrogance, and probably a lie or two. (A rational person’s response to being shown they have made an error is “Thank you.”) You can force them, through sheer will, to do their job right. But, even if successful in the end, they will be hostile to you. This is work, effort, and hostility that you simply don’t need in your life.

Instead, this is what you have to do: warn them once, preferably in writing, and then let it go. If their way is better, a new, better product or process will emerge. If not, they will fail. They will either learn from their mistakes or, if not, they will eventually get fired. Either result is desirable to you.

Their chance of learning from the situation is increased if you give a warning before they went on their path. If they fail, there will be a nagging voice in their head saying, “You were told.” It is a voice that will already be in their head so you don’t have to state the rather tasteless, “I told you so.” Reality will state this for you. If you don’t warn once, there is a likelihood that they will start to blame other people or circumstances for their failure. If you get your warning in writing, and everything falls apart, you have verifiable proof that you had no part in it and it was all them—them, them, them, not you.

If someone is threatening to sink your ship, then you need to consider if you are going to fight that battle or not. In the past, I have always fought this battle. I will reconsider in the future.

The interesting part about shrugging is that, if you shrug, undoubtedly, someone else steps into your old shoes. When one Atlas shrugs the weight of the world, someone else comes to put it on theirs. And that is one of the best parts: that person who steps up will grow. Before you shrugged, that person just assumed you would always be there. When you stepped out, they were forced to perform. They will then also feel all the pain you went through—specifically the maltreatment that producers universally receive. A former bum may be turned into an allied striker.

And, of course, if you shrug, you will reap the desired benefits of all strikers: an appreciation by others of the work you do. An appreciation which is, unfortunately, often not realized until it is gone.

This is how shrugging will make your organization more effective. It will help to create other competent employees, who are encouraged to grow by stepping into a producer’s shoes. It will get rid of slough by making their actions more obvious to those who can do something about it. It will spread the work load to the team rather than just one individual. A functioning team where everyone does their part—a pipe dream, I know!

I would submit that a functioning team should have only exceptional and mediocre employees on it. Bad or destructive employees should be pressured to move to better and, if they don’t, should be fired.

Of course, an exceptional employee never stops altogether producing. They want to produce, work, and exercise their mind. Shrugging is difficult for them. But these mini-shrugs don’t altogether give up productive work. Instead, they frame how other people treat you. It is a very powerful negotiation tool. You can use it to guide what work comes your way and what doesn’t. More importantly—you assert yourself. You train people that you aren’t an eternal punching bag. You can’t constantly be dumped with work and be expected to turn it around, under some of the most unfair and hostile environments.

You will be left with a much smaller set of problems. Attack them with vigor. Battling biases, naivety, short-sightedness, etc., is part of your job. You will have to push forward with new ideas besides resistance. But pick your battles. Always fight your own battles, not anybody else’s.

Finally, as far as when to actually quit your job: here are three situations in which I would recommend seeking other employment.

The first situation is if absolutely nothing ever changes where you work. If there are major sized problems that never get fixed and have no hope for every getting fixed, I recommend leaving. I think that the best sign of when a company is about to lose a contract, lose business, or even fold is when their top talent starts quitting. The talent is more familiar with the company than anyone and can tell quicker than anyone else when things are going bad. A company with a brain drain is a sure sign that it is going to fail soon.

Another situation is if you, like so many people good at their job, have been pigeon-holed as being the guy to do grisly job X and they refuse to move you sideways or upwards.  

Finally, if you are ever the victim of verbal or physical abuse, please leave as soon as is rationally possible.

It took me a long time to reach this point. I used to care about everything. One guy gave me the advice, “Take a big bottle of F--k It.” I remember how offended and upset I was by that advice. I tried to do it but I couldn’t. It is not as simple as trying to force yourself to not care. You must understand the underlying philosophical implications in order to effectively shrug.

The next time you are in a situation where your talents are being exploited, you are being maltreated, or those in charge want to sink the ship, stop arguing, pleading to intellect, or straining yourself to do the impossible. Instead, start letting reality do the talking for you.

Just shrug.


Amber Pawlik
February 16, 2011

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