I remember seeing a great picture on Despair of a snowflake, with a comment underneath “You are unique – just like everybody else”

It’s a good reminder that we may all be different be we are all human and nobody is perfect. A little bit of tolerance and respect goes a long way to eliminating stress and strops.

Euan Semple wrote a blog post that kicked off an interesting debate. I won’t go into details about the post here – read the blog – but it covered two issues that damage an organisation’s ability to share knowledge: constraining individual personalities and a lack of tolerance and respect for others.

First, Euan called out the interesting phenomena in the workplace, where we are supposed to constrain our individual personalities and adhere to ‘appropriate’ behaviour. He’s not the first to question why we’re not supposed to have fun at work. For example, in the Cluetrain Manifesto:

The ‘job’ was created 200 years ago and killed human spirit. The Internet is bringing it back. “‘Command and control’ is widely perceived as dysfunctional, but it’s a hard habit to break

and in the Elephant and the Flea, Charles Handy commented:

Perhaps we are all naturally inclined to be fleas of one sort or another, shoved against our instincts into logical boxes by our organisations, persuaded by our schooling to elevate reason above human nature

I’ve just read a brilliant book – Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-truths and Total Nonsense, by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton – that has a whole chapter dedicated to challenging this piece of conventional wisdom, with gems such as:

Sartain was turned down for one job because, she was told, “You smile too much.” Later… Sartain decided to leave after a well-intentioned boss advices, “You’re so much fun to be around, and I really enjoy working with you. But when you laugh out loud in the hall, people are going to think you’re not very professional.”

(The Sartain in question became an executive VP at Southwest Airlines and is now running HR at Yahoo!)

When I’m asked by companies how technology can help improve collaboration and knowledge sharing, my response is always to fix the culture first. If you don’t create an environment that not only allows but encourages people to have fun and (shock horror) enjoy work, not much collaboration is going to occur no matter how much you invest in the latest whizz-bang technology.

And this leads onto the second theme… the fuss that kicked off Euan’s post was somebody over-reacting to a harmless mistake – someone using cc instead of bcc to contact a bunch of email addresses and the reply-all comments that ensued. If the person was as busy and important as suggested by the rumoured ill-tempered request for the thread to stop, they would have realised it is far quicker and easier to just delete the 5 unwanted emails than it is to type out and send an email berating those 5 naughty people.

I remember once replying to an email thread on a discussion list. Now this was one of the biggest informal discussion lists at Microsoft (but it was informal – you chose to take part in what was supposed to be a discussion), and I was mostly a lurker, posting the occasional email to start a conversation. When I did the reply, I did what most other people did – clicked Reply All. That way, the email went to the distribution list + individual email addresses of those who had already replied and were part of the discussion. This seemed reasonable to me – my email rules were set up to filter all distribution lists into a folder but to keep all emails sent direct to my individual email address in my inbox…

…but this was not how some others worked. I received 5 snotty emails from people berating me for using Reply-all and breaking their Outlook rules causing the email to sit in their inbox instead of being filtered into a folder, interrupting their oh-so-important work*, ruining their day, contributing to global warming, damaging the Earth’s orbit and increasing the risk of the Sun being extinguished. OK, I may have added a few untrue side effects but really – we were talking about one email upsetting their rules. I wondered if they were just having a bad day or whether they always reacted this way to people who used reply-all on the distribution list. What surprised me was how much extra effort they were prepared to go to shout at a complete stranger rather than just delete my one email. Some of the replies came with extra formatting – the caps-lock stuck on and lots of exclamation marks tell me to Never-Do-This-Again- in extra large red bold font. And all they got for their efforts was yet another email from me, explaining how to correctly set up their Outlook rules to ensure all mail to the distribution list got moved into a folder (you just had to choose ’email sent To XYZ distribution list’ instead of ’email sent From XYZ distribution list’ – the default setting unfortunately and the one that can’t handle a reply-all response) and asking would they adopt the same tone in email if Bill Gates had been the ‘idiot’ instead of me.

We all make mistakes and most of us occasionally dare to slip into fun and humour during the working day, with conversations occuring over the coffee machine, water cooler, telephone, and now email and instant messaging. I know it can be a real pain to have your work interrupted, unasked for and unwanted, but we do sometimes delude our selves with self-importance about the work being interrupted – as long as nobody died, the earth is still spinning in orbit, the sun is where it is supposed to be and there are no asteroids in the way, it’s unlikely to be the end of the world. And if work really is that serious and important, learn to control the interruptions – switch off the phone, set up email filters etc. Small wonder so many people hate their jobs and are unable to cope with interruptions.

*It should be noted, one of the replies did come from a developer who claimed to be in the Windows team, but I don’t think you can blame my interruption for the Vista delays 😉

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