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Leonor

How to stay a rational worker in an irrational job?

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I have read the essay "How does one lead a rational life in an irrational society?" but I do not know how to apply it to real life situations, more specifically, irrational workplaces.

A small re-intro: I lived as a bad person most of my life. I guess I still do. I'm in my 40's and I don't have a stable employment situation or have managed to support myself longer than a few years without family bailing me out. I have read Ayn Rand for the first time over a decade ago. There was a serious attempt to be more self-responsible and I even got a job. Things seemed to improve for a while, but I never fully integrated her ideas into my life. I've disconnected from Objectivism. I feel that was a big mistake.

I have major problems with the jobs I get that I do not know how to deal with. I end going from starting to be very serious about my job and wanting to be a good worker who actually puts an effort and believes she will be rewarded for being honest, to a rebelious one who doesn't care anymore. And I rage quit jobs which I cannot afford to do.

For instance:

On the induction day of one of the jobs, I was told we had no right to a meal, but we had a staff discount. In my first day I see other staff members just helping themselves with what they wanted to eat. When I commented to one of them "I thought you had to pay for your lunch" I was told "Oh, they just say that to new staff so they don't steal. The implied rule was that for "old staff" breaking rules is OK. Either because you are friends with management or because you are good at having management not catching you. Or some irrational nonsense like that.

So there I am in a new job among strangers, and I learn the first day it's a terrible place to be where people are dishonest. I'm expected to be accomplice in this dishonesty. A job which I got after months of unemployment. A job I'm still learning and that I am not very competent at yet. I actually depend on these older staff members that steal food to teach me the ropes. I didn't feel I was in a place where it was wise to complain. So I didn't.

And later when I complained to management, it was seen as me being weak and not coping, so I stopped complaining. On a few occasions, including my last day, I ranted on Facebook which was wrong and reported to management and I only quit because I think I was about to be fired anyway.

I can't say my hard work wasn't recognised in a way, because in part it was. My hours were increased, in one job my contract was extended and went from a part time contract to a full hour contract. Still temporary contract, sadly, but that's the nature of the business. But I always felt overworked, underappreciated and disposable. I felt the reward for hard work was more hard work. Perhaps my mistake was to expect appreciation in the first place and to care that other staff got away with being lazy, doing jobs wrong, calling in "sick", etc, when it wasn't my problem. But it felt unjust.

How do you remain rational in irrational work environments until you find better work? What exactly is the rational thing to do?

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I’m slightly puzzled about what the problem is, and it might help you if you would simplify and be a bit more explicit. Let’s say that the problem is that some employees steal from the company. They are behaving irrationally. You know that stealing from the company is irrational, and you do not steal. Is your concern that your grip on the irrationality of theft is not very firm, and you are concerned that you will adopt an irrational practice? That’s my primary guess as to what your issue is. That is, even though you intellectually know that certain behaviors are irrational, you cannot overcome the emotional reactions that you have to irrational situations.

It may help you to intellectualize this situation a bit more. Your emotions result from other people betraying your values: you recognize the objective superiority of your system of values, compared to their “system” of values. Ideally, you’d like to not be confronted by that other non-system. So you have to make a choice, meaning you have to understand your own system of values well enough. I would not advocate rage-quitting (totally irrational), but what about value-based quitting? What value of yours is being destroyed by the existence of irrationality in others? You have to go beyond saying “I want all people to act rationally”. If indeed (as I am confident is not really the case) that working with these irrational people makes existence impossible for you, then you should seek employment elsewhere – anywhere else. If all elsewheres are equally intolerable for you, you will have discovered that you reject the primary choice (the choice to exist). We know where that leads. On reflection, you will probably then realize that you can actually take other employment e.g. at Galt’s Janitorial service, though there will be a pay cut. Or you may discover that you can make your choices based on reason (that’s what it means to be rational) and not based on emotion. So you can continue to work there and not steal.

 

Setting aside non-trivial cost problems, it might help to seek a professional who can get you to embrace reason as a tool of cognition, rather than emotion (in discovering what choices to make). The rage reaction to irrationality is itself chosen, and it can be unchosen as well.

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I'm not going to comment on the whole thing but it sounds like you might have worked at some sort of restaurant? It sounds like meals for employees might have been an unofficial perk and you were being a bit too hard on them for defining them as thieves instead which soured your thinking on your coworkers in this case. To me it sounds like you were trying to apply a principle slightly out of context. Some places will just have these official rules like pay for your meal at a discount, but an unofficial rule where employees can eat meals instead at no charge. This isn't immoral, nor are the employees "thieves" in that case.

The same thing happened at a Taco Bell I worked at when I was a teenager, and no one there was a thief for eating food that management was willing to write off for that purpose, regardless of what the company's official policy was/is.

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On 12/29/2018 at 3:31 PM, Leonor said:

On the induction day of one of the jobs, I was told we had no right to a meal, but we had a staff discount. In my first day I see other staff members just helping themselves with what they wanted to eat. When I commented to one of them "I thought you had to pay for your lunch" I was told "Oh, they just say that to new staff so they don't steal. The implied rule was that for "old staff" breaking rules is OK. Either because you are friends with management or because you are good at having management not catching you. Or some irrational nonsense like that. 

I recently read a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It really helped me make peace with this ever present contradiction between supposed workplace rules and what people actually do, as a rule (not sure how to phrase this exactly...maybe "what people actually do as if they were following a different rule book"?), at work. Because it's not chaos: people aren't acting unpredictably, or unilaterally, when they're ignoring the official rules. They are just following a different set of rules: one that's not written down. But they're all following the same unwritten rules, it's not like one person follows one set, another one another set.

You should just read the book, it's really good (the first half is dedicated to individual habits, the second to organizational ones), but I will try to sum it up briefly. It says something along the lines of: organizations, just like people, are guided by habits, not by rules.

For instance, you acknowledge that Objectivist principles are rational, and should be followed...but you can't just flip a switch and follow them, you must consciously and constantly work to develop habits that make it easier to act the right way. Same is true for organizations, except developing good habits is even harder, because there are different people, with different values and personalities, involved. I would argue (based on personal experience) that the ONLY way to get people to follow the rules and do so with enthusiasm and good intentions (as opposed to begrudgingly, which produces worse results than not bothering with rules at all) is if the rules are created by EVERYONE in the organization, from the lowliest intern to the top boss, working together and agreeing to them.

In other words, you can't impose a set of rules from the top down, and expect your business to stay productive if you're tyrannical about enforcing them. People will simply hate you for it, and work against you. Not just "irrational" people. Everyone. The notion of top down rules one's inferiors just follow unquestioningly goes against basic principles of productive human interaction.

That leaves managers with two options:

1. In an ideal situation, with an organization that's small enough, or with a branch of an organization that has enough autonomy, the person in charge of the place does what I suggest above: talks to everyone regularly, asks everyone's opinion on what the rules should be, and finally gets everyone to agree on a reasonable, minimum necessary set of rules people are willing to follow. And, of course, the rules are updated regularly.

2. The second options is what usually happens: a set of rules gets handed down, and promptly ignored. Doesn't mean that anarchy follows. Far from it: as the rules start being ignored, people come up with their own replacement rules fairly quickly. There are conflicts at first (in the process of these rules being formed), but conflict is unpleasant, and people quickly reach compromises meant to avoid conflict, and those settlements end up guiding their actions from that point on. And smart middle managers aren't just aware of these organizational habits, they know how to make slight modifications as needed, to keep things functioning smoothly, and with minimal conflict. They're essentially doing what's described in point 1., but not explicitly (because they don't have the power to do it explicitly).

My advice is, figure out these hidden rules quickly, and follow them. When you asked your coworker about the hidden rule concerning eating, for instance, they were beyond forthcoming and honest with you. People usually are, because they love these rules (they love them because THEY made them, and they made them to make work life easier and more productive), and they want to help newcomers understand and follow them to. And once you prove that you understand the system, and are willing to work within it, you can start to influence it as well, and bend it to your will. You have to be willing to start small conflicts, to gain any territory, but people will respect you for it (conflicts shouldn't be shouting matches, they should be calm, brief, rare but well timed expressions of dissatisfaction with someone's actions).

And none of this is irrational. It's not ideal, but it's not irrational. It's the second best solution to the problem, when the first one (explicit cooperation to reach the same result) isn't an option.

P.S. Don't mistake this with an absence of principles, or dishonesty. Again: in a functional organization that functions in spite of the written rules rather than because of them, people are honest about the unwritten rules. They are honest about their scope (they're not official rules you can be written up for breaking, they are enforced by your co-workers, through social pressure). They are well intentioned about their purpose, and, finally, the rules DO NOT contradict basic human principles like honesty, property rights, etc. If you are not honest, if you do not have the business' best interest in mind, if you steal, etc., these unwritten rules will get you ostracized and even fired more surely than any written rules.

And don't think that the above description only fits fast food chains that hire minimum wage workers. I've seen the same habit driven work environment everywhere I ever worked, and in every organization I ever came in contact with. The book also goes into the detailed functioning of organizations like ALCOA, the London Underground, a major East Coast hospital, etc.

In a dysfunctional organization, of course, dishonesty, theft, and much, much worse becomes the "rule". Such organizations exist too, obviously. Just look at the history of the 20th century, examples abound. Functional organizations can't exist without freedom of association, and self interested, rational owners and managers. But you haven't posted anything to suggest this organization you worked for was dishonest, encouraged theft, etc. Having a bite to eat during your shift, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone who works there, is not theft. Who knows why that rule was written down (could be anything from regulation to some out of touch manager on a power trip)...point is, no one cares about it. If no one cares about a rule, it DOES NOT MATTER. IGNORE IT.

Edited by Nicky

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22 hours ago, Nicky said:

Having a bite to eat during your shift, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone who works there, is not theft. Who knows why that rule was written down (could be anything from regulation to some out of touch manager on a power trip)...point is, no one cares about it. If no one cares about a rule, it DOES NOT MATTER. IGNORE IT.

Yeah this was my exact point.

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