Calibration

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Every once in a while, if you’re a manager, you’ll find yourself in a massive meeting with other managers talking about performance evaluation.  If you’re lucky, it’s only 2 hours.  If you are growing fast, it might be 2-5 hours.

Either way, you’re probably asking yourself: what is the point of these meetings?! Well, the goal of these meetings is to make sure you recognize accomplishments consistently across your org.  Before you scoff at it, consider what might happen if you didn’t:

  • A worker in another group might get a higher rating with half the work (or, via poorer quality of work)
  • Some teams or managers would promote unfairly or too quickly
  • Workers would reach positions of importance without the competence needed to succeed at that level

Consider the Law of Crappy People from bhorowitz:

For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.”

I consider this to be true — we tend look at the level above us, find the crappiest person, lean back and exalt, “WTF — I’m better than Billy!!!  He can barely tie his shoes.  If that guy is a Level 70 Unicorn, I should be a Level 70 Unicorn.  Ugh!”

Two things:

  1. Don’t limit yourself by comparing yourself to the worst.  Instead, compare yourself to the best person at the next level — or better yet, the best damn engineer/designer/whatever at the company.  I think it’s self-defeating to adopt an obsession with titles and get wrapped up comparing yourself to the worst person with a title/level above yours.  It’s not a great way to make progress.
  2. Calibration and consistency is critical to morale.  Because we all tend to do this anyway, calibration and consistency in gauging performance is critical.  If the worst person at a given level is _really bad_ it demoralizes people bit by bit, one day at a time.  That’s why it’s important for managers to have this meeting — to make sure we get treated fairly and consistently.

At Box, we take care of people and we handle calibration well — it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to work at Box.  My hope is that if you work somewhere where managers don’t do this you should speak up — and push for change.  The adverse side effects of not handling calibration are devastating.

Leadership is simple and simple is hard

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It’s been a while since the last time I wrote a summary of what I had learned about leadership. This post is about some of the general concepts I’ve picked up along the way — partially so I have them written down, mostly so I can share them.

Mind you — there’s no panacea to be found, just guidelines. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just try to absorb as much as I can.

Management philosophy: lolwut?

A common question I get from folks: “What is your management philosophy?”

My first response to this question is to ask if you think management and leadership are related, mutually exclusive or complimentary. If I had to boil it down, leadership is your ability to motivate people. Management is how well you execute. I’ve also heard that management is doing things right while leadership is doing the right things.

However you define these, I don’t see how you do one without the other. Lean too far in one direction, you’re a babbling prophet with great intentions. Lean too far the other way, you’re a lonely, walking and talking autobot. Both are undesirable fates not meant for humans.

Let’s just say I strive for competency in both and always will.

A useful list of stolen wisdom

I still need to answer the question, which leads to a discussion about non-hierarchical empowerment. I don’t think leadership or management philosophies have a 1-minute elevator pitch, though.

To answer in long form, I constantly draw on a series of idioms, quotes and principles I’ve accumulated over time. Some of them I have borrowed permanently from other leaders, and I’ll link to sources. Others are just things I say all the time. Let’s run through these:

  1. Start with the why, ask questions about how and the what takes care of itself
  2. Hire great people and get out of their way
  3. An engineering team isn’t an assembly line — and shouldn’t be run like one
  4. Success is the quality of one’s effort
  5. The only time I’ll get mad at you is when you don’t try
  6. Look for humility and faith — without those, you have nothing to work with
  7. Know where people want to go and help them get there
  8. Push power to the edges, and find a way to have decisions happen where information is
  9. Work is like improv
  10. No assholes!
  11. Does this have to be said by me? Does it have to be said now? Does it have to be said at all? (Mike Shaver/Mike Beltzner/Canada)
  12. Listen like you’re wrong, fight like you’re right (John Lilly)
  13. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses (John Wooden)

No, you won’t find this stuff in textbooks

Being asked about management and leadership so many times last summer made me realize my answers seem obvious. Five minutes into spewing statements like the above and it sounds “textbook”. I actually got this feedback once after an interview. To that, I ask: what textbook? I’d like to read it.

The truth is you won’t find the answers in just one book. They are all over the place. Many of these concepts are relatively simple or common sense, but most books, blogs or articles work hard at uncovering an undeniable truth:

Simple is really, really hard.

iPhones, web search, airplanes, TCP, cars, 4GLTE — if you look around we are surrounded by amazing, complex things we take for granted. Do you realize how amazing it is that we can fit 40,000 vinyl records into our pocket for less than the cost of a television? Is it easy to give people access to data anywhere they are? Hell no. Simple concepts, impossible delivery.

Management and leadership both have many simple concepts that are difficult to handle. They can be harder than deterministic systems because people are difficult. John Taffer (from Bar Rescue – love this show) always says, “I can fix bars, but I can’t fix people.”

tl;dr

If all else fails, watch this:

And this:

Inspiring people sounds easy but it’s damn near impossible to do unless you believe in what you’re saying. The hardest part of being a leader is putting yourself out there — to be humble, vulnerable but confident all at once. While you do that, you have to constantly fight your urge to take over, take full control. Because leadership is not about power or control, it’s about creating an environment. That is what makes you a vehicle for your mission or idea. That is what makes you a force people are inspired by. Simple, right? Right.

Simple, but really, really hard.

Reorgs: choose wisely

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We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
- Charlton Ogburn, “Merrill’s Marauders”, Harpers Magazine, January 1957

Having been through a few reorgs, I can tell you that two requirements should usually be met:

  1. The change must be good for the org and mission
  2. The change should be good for the individuals involved

You should strive for both 1 and 2, exhausting all options, but sometimes you must choose just 1.

If you find yourself stuck choosing 1 over 2, it almost always results in people leaving. It causes boredom or animosity — both spell doom for an employee or team’s morale. Just be prepared to lose people.

I believe something is horribly wrong if you are in a position where 1 supersedes 2 and you have no better alternative than to lose valuable people — but it may not be worth over-generalizing. Just think about it.

BRAINS and the art of decision making

I went through a birthing class with my wife prior to having our first kid. They introduced a framework for making decisions that is universally applicable and works well with reorgs. It’s called BRAINS:

  • Benefits: What are the benefits of the reorg — for both the mission and the people involved? What is your vision?
  • Risks: What do you stand to lose by going through with it? Will you lose people? Will it slow your teams down initially? What are the costs if it doesn’t work out?
  • Alternatives: Is it not an org issue? What if you hired a key person to fix the issue, changed your process or reset priorities? What are other ways to address your concerns?
  • Intuition: Does it feel right? Would it feel right to the team? Are you finding it hard to defend it because it seems so counter-intuitive? Typically if things do not feel right, something is wrong. Intuition is usually overlooked with these types of things but it’s a powerful motivator for the org and has direct ties to morale. Pay attention to this and listen to what people are telling you.
  • Nothing: What happens if you do nothing? Sometimes letting things play out resolves problems. Time works miracles if you can afford it — but sometimes you can’t. That said, understanding the relative cost of doing nothing is an important yardstick when rationalizing change.
  • Smile: Smile because you made a decision. When all is said and done, if you can support your decision and commit to it, be happy you made one. Move forward and be positive — it’ll help things work out and get folks to come along with you.

The reorg sanity test

There are some questions you should be able to answer before bestowing a reorg onto your organization. So in the spirit of the Rands test, follow these questions and see how many points you end up with:

Is the reorg easy to defend? (+1)
Like relationships, if things are rocky early on, something is off. Most often promotions, reorgs and other changes feel right. Intuition goes a long way here and if the first general reaction people have is “huh? what?” that’s not a good sign. You’re looking for the nod here — when you explain it to someone it should be self-evident and make sense. If it isn’t, and don’t kid yourself, then no points for you.
Did you discuss the reorg with your team? (+1)
The idea that someone can draft a master plan, drop it on a group of brilliant people and tell them to just do it is draconian. In software, solutions built from the ground-up have galvanized buy-in as a built-in feature; this applies to organizations as well. If you’re making decisions without input from the org you are forgoing a valuable resource and missing opportunities to a) evolve your solution into something better b) let the org be heard and help them own the solution. If you shared your plans early and got feedback on them before making a decision, give yourself a point.
Did they like the idea? (+1)
First impressions are hard to change. When you shared your plan or decisions (whatever stage you were at) did your team like the idea? Were they uncomfortable? Was there an awkward silence after you explained the plan? Or were they happy about the change and reinforce it? If they liked it, give yourself a point.
Did your team come up with the idea? (+1) Did upper management? (-1)
If you are a progressive leader, your team may have even come up with the idea in the first place. Asking the right questions can lead to solutions. If your team actually came up with the new reorg plan, give yourself a big fat point. Good on you. If this is an idea from upper management and has never involved anybody from your team below a certain rank, subtract a point — you are creating issues with buy-in down the road.
Did you discuss the reorg with other parts of the company? (+1)
This is a transparency check. Did you make the overall decision without dependent teams knowing about it? If you shared the plan and did a dry run to see other groups’ reactions, give yourself a point. If you hatched your plan in private and the first time folks saw it was via a) being told it was happening via an email b) rumors — then no points for you.

If you scored 3 or less, you’re playing with matches. Some combination of top-down leadership and lack of transparency leads to issues with buy-in. It means your reorg, even if applied, will not stand the test of time and erodes trust in your leadership. It could make everything harder for you.

The golden circle

I mentioned that doing what’s right for the people involved is important. I think it’s arguable that rule 1 and rule 2 must always be met — but I know in practice that people can’t always just do whatever they want and there is usually a bottom line to uphold.

Some of this all comes back to what kind of leader you want to be. In relation with Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the golden circle, I’ve always striven to be the type of leader who leads with why, guides people to how and empowers people to discover the what.

A conventional approach is to start with what you want, tell people how you want them organized and explain why when the plan is shared.

I think a better approach is to help your team understand why changes are needed, help them find a solution for how they want to be structured and ultimately they will arrive at the correct what — the right org to match the challenges they face.

Leading with the why is inclusive and gets you better buy-in long-term. This means less of a cliff when the initial proposal is thrown out there. It makes transition easier but can get hung up on finding 100% consensus. Remember that even if you lead this way, you still need to make a call and push forward.

If all else fails, do your best to listen to your team and what they are telling you before and after you discuss the problems they face. The answer to how your organization should be formed lies within your team as much as it lies within you.

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
- Confucius

Feedback will make or break you

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“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

Ignoring feedback is a lot like telling lies, except you’re lying to yourself. Once you fib, you inevitably have to make more stuff up to cover for what you already made up — and soon you have an entire house of cards on your hands. When a breeze comes along, it all falls apart. The reality we build for ourselves masks our flaws so we don’t have to confront them. The only problem? Eventually, everybody will know it except you.

Don’t put yourself there. It usually culminates in embarrassment, loneliness, depression and rejection. It takes months, years to dig yourself out of it. Consider that criticism is like pain. Would you ignore an infection? Would you just let it go and convince yourself that you’re totally healthy? Would you risk your physical health in order to support your denial? I hope not.

Why would you do that to your mind?

How do we magically ignore feedback in practice? I’m sure you have better examples, but I’ll give it a shot. Here are some common tactics we use to dismiss feedback:

  • Criticizing tone. If you’re criticizing word choice or how they said it you are deflecting useful feedback. It’s popular in politics for a reason: it’s easy and effective.
  • Dismissal by association. This is similar to “ad hominem” in Graham’s how to disagree. As a knee-jerk reaction you may associate someone’s opinion with their rank, group, background, etc. The next logical step is something along the lines of, “of course they think that, they are just a designer.” This is a mistake. Feedback from orthogonal groups is even more valuable because they see you from a different perspective. Don’t dismiss feedback because someone is not on your team or because you out-rank them. That type of feedback, if ignored, will turn into grapevine chatter and slowly come back to you.
  • Making it about feelings. When someone gives you feedback it’s a very personal thing. However, if your response makes it personal when it doesn’t have to be, you’ve got a problem. Spending all your energy on how you feel about the feedback can prevent you from focusing on what caused the feedback. I think it’s great to let someone know how you feel, but do it carefully. It could shut down future feedback from that person and make you unapproachable. It’s the difference between, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way — I feel bad about that and I’ll see what I can do,” and, “I really don’t appreciate what you said and it makes me feel terrible.” If your response is aimed at guilt-tripping the other person, you’re building a nice little wall around yourself and they’ll think twice about being honest with you in the future.
  • Constructing amazing excuses. Just stop with excuses. John Wooden said, “Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.” I don’t reasonably expect someone to never whine or complain, but excuses shift blame and make things not your problem. Chances are that if someone comes to you with feedback, you had something to do with it. I’m sure there are many reasons why the stars aligned and caused xyz, abc to happen — nobody gives a shit. Take responsibility and figure it out. Even if you didn’t have anything to do with it, ask yourself what you can do to help. Send them to the right person, or relay that feedback if necessary. Making excuses is clearly making sure it’s not your fault and taking responsibility for a solution isn’t even admitting fault. The key to remember: only one of those is remembered, and only one of those ends in solutions. If you want to be forgotten, keep on making those excuses.
  • Pulling rank. The “because daddy said so” approach to handling feedback is fairly common. Using rank to settle arguments or avoid confrontation is a slippery slope. If you’re a leader, it’s a good way to sabotage yourself. Your team will not work hard to fulfill your vision just because it’s your vision — you need to make it theirs by inspiring them. Ignoring feedback because of rank or authority says, “I’m too important to listen to that and what you said doesn’t matter.” You better have some credentials or trust to pull it off. If not, good luck with that, bossman.

Once you stop putting up your walls, you have to take some steps forward. Just like dieting, it’s not about eliminating the junk food — you have to exercise and eat good food too. Every once in a while you’ll slip, but for the most part you want balance and stability in how you approach feedback:

  • Fight like you’re right but listen like you’re wrong. John Lilly reminded me multiple times to do this, so let’s call it a Lillyism. It means moxie and listening don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Have guts, resolve and fight hard — but always, always listen and remember you may be wrong.
  • Get a second opinion. Phone a friend, ask your significant other, ping a coworker you trust. “Am I being defensive, or is this totally nuts?” is a decent question to ask about feedback you get that you don’t agree with. I know my wife is happy to tell me if I acted like a goofball and should apologize — and hopefully you’ve got people in your life who would do the same for you. Get help from them; you don’t have to process feedback alone.
  • Get counsel from your enemies. If you want to truly grow, you should know what your worst critic says about you. The best way to do this is ask them. I’ve seen folks avoid getting feedback from people that may not agree or even like them. This is just about the stupidest thing you could do. Avoiding feedback from people because it may not be good is self-defeating. Don’t avoid it, seek it out. Show them that you care to ask and listen — you’ll be surprised at what an impact they can have on your career.
  • Actively ignore things. You’ll get some noise in feedback. Just make sure what you ignore is actively ignored. You don’t have to heed everything people say — but you should listen. Make conscious decisions on what you’re not acting on as a result of feedback. And if you’re worried about the reaction, talk to the person who gave it to you and say, “this is my plan, and I don’t have time to do ____ but I will get to that later.”
  • Say thank you. Saying thanks for the feedback is just the right thing to do. Make an effort to thank people who helped you with their honesty — do what you can to make sure they do it again. People who give you feedback care about you enough to disagree with you and tell you the truth about yourself. Embrace them and value them. Let them know how important it is to you.
  • Ask questions. Your critics are great sounding boards. When you come up with actionable items from your huge list of feedback, ask them if your plan makes sense and whether it’ll address their concerns. This can open up opportunities for collaboration, discussion and at the very least lets them know you’re working on it and you’re listening. In case you didn’t understand feedback, you should do this as well — sometimes it takes effort to get down to the root cause.

Overall, how you handle feedback — and if you pay attention to it all — can define who you become. It all starts with you.

Do you have the courage to take criticism, process it and improve? Most people want to work with someone who answers yes.

Thanks to @lonnen for his feedback on this post!

Take care of the little things

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My grandmother told me two things when she dropped me off at school:

  • Be good
  • Do your best

Simple, right?

In most systems, especially those that deal with people, this simplicity is something you have to claw and scratch for. It doesn’t come free. If you’re a manager it’s usually at your expense and it’s a part of your job.

Learning what makes people happy or sad is an important part of achieving this simple success. Getting the best out of your people, and having folks do things the right way — for the right reasons — requires some basic knowledge about what motivates or demotivates people.

Unfortunately, this takes some time. You’re not going to know everyone inside-out after a few days; not even after a few months. So where do you start? You start simple. You start with the small things:

  • Be polite. Wait your turn. Hold the door. Say thank you. Clean up after yourself. Say sorry and mean it. Offer other people gum.
  • Listen to people. Make eye contact. Let them finish talking. If you don’t know what they said, ask them so you can understand. Empathize with them.
  • Be on time. Show up when you say you will. Let people know if you can’t. Reschedule promptly if you have to. Don’t waste people’s time.
  • Random acts of kindness. Notes saying “thank you!” or “you’re awesome!” mean a lot. Cards on birthdays, holidays, new babies. Gifts: trophies, action figures, mugs, gift cards, scotch, etc.
  • Go out of your way for them. Stay late. Reschedule a meeting if they aren’t done yet. Put off your dinner plans to be there with them during a launch. Reply to their late email. Give them a ride home when it’s raining.

If you find yourself in a corner because you don’t know everyone on your team, relax. The best part about these small things is they are universal motivators. They build trust and relationships at work, home or elsewhere.

Over time, you’ll get to know your team and build on what you’ve started. Until then, do the small things — and keep doing them. Eventually, your team will be good and do their best because you did the same first.

More reading:

He’s flippant, but is he right?

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Criticizing tone instead of having rich discussion is a waste of time. In most cases, the time it takes to criticize tone and delivery can be spent arguing the issue at hand.

In a case where someone has the courage to raise their voice and question things publicly:

  • Try not to discourage them from speaking up in the future
  • Focus on what they said, not how they said it
  • Address the issue in your response, always

In Paul Graham’s post about how to disagree, he states:

“So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.”

While it’s not constructive to react and submit knee-jerk comments, it’s just as counter-productive to criticize tone and delivery instead of offering solid reasoning as to why you disagree.

Of course, we can frame things initially in order to not invoke a predictable response to our snarky comments. But outside of insults or out-of-bounds comments (which are usually best ignored), I usually prefer to focus my energy on the problem, not examining words and etiquette.

Be wary of criticizing tone. It’s not as productive as it might feel and won’t do anything to change the end result.

Stalemate: Are you building a culture of silence?

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Courage. Trust. Great teams have these, weak teams don’t.

There is nothing quite so disappointing as a group of talented people who can’t achieve because they lack mutual trust. Likewise, it’s tough to see folks who can’t speak up because they either don’t have the courage or don’t trust their colleagues enough to listen to what they have to say and react constructively.

With dwindling trust or courage, you’re building yourself a culture of silence. This manifests itself in very destructive ways:

  • People do not speak up. Even when it is important for the progress of the team and company, people are reluctant to voice their opinions. It takes individuals with tremendous courage to speak up and when they do, they are labeled as dissenters and not supported even though they are saying what everyone wants to say — but won’t dare.
  • There is no room for failure. Most successes are preceded by wonderful failures. Not having the trust of leadership or colleagues eliminates failure as an option and stifles innovation. If you can’t fail for fear of retribution, you probably aren’t going to succeed at higher levels.
  • Nobody challenges each other. If I think you’ll try to sabotage me or get revenge because I disagree with you, I’m going to be less likely to challenge your points and assumptions. I won’t be vested in your success enough to challenge your core arguments. Healthy discourse goes out the window and those with the loudest voice — or those who speak first — start winning out.
  • Your true talent bleeds. People with better options don’t tolerate a culture of silence. They recognize lack of trust and leave fairly quickly for better opportunities. You often won’t hear about why they really left. It’s always the “opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” As you might suspect, there’s usually more to it than that.
  • Politics run rampant. In an environment where nobody truly knows where people stand, extroverts get a lot of credit and overshadow the silent majority. Politics, defined as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution,” replaces any meritocracy with a bureaucracy. Ben Horowitz wrote a good post about politics.

Here’s how you can prevent building this culture of silence:

  • Listen to people. People who do not listen or practice in selective listening do not trust the speaker enough to consider they may be right. Maybe you’re formulating your response before they are done talking. Maybe they are just totally wrong. Either way, if you start talking immediately after someone makes a point and come back with 10 reasons why they are wrong you are telling them something very clear: I do not trust you and I don’t value your opinion. Don’t do this — just listen.
  • Forget about blame. Blame is a huge waste of time in most cases. Can you recall any time you pointed out it was someone’s else’s fault where working with that person again was easy? If so, congratulations; that might be the first time in human history. Assume the best in your colleagues. Allow them room to fail and help them. It will pay off tenfold in the long run.
  • Sort things out directly without bosses. I can’t recall a time where cc-ing someone’s boss resulted in a positive outcome. Adults tend to work things out directly and when they can’t, they escalate. If you conduct normal business thinking, “if I say something, it could go directly to my boss,” you’re going to say less — or agonize over what to say. Try to work things out with people directly and avoid involving their superiors unless you’ve already tried and didn’t get results. You just might be able to resolve things with less drama and avoid losing trust.
  • Don’t play the victim. Everybody hates you and you’re just trying to do your job, right? I remember hearing stuff like this; I think it came from 6 years olds dealing with their first exposure to groups of other people. It has no place at work. Excuses, blaming others, entertaining all forms of outward influences as plausible scapegoats before addressing what you did or what you could have done differently is a good way to lose people’s trust and confidence in you — it’s also mentally exhausting. If you play the victim and enter meetings like mama bear protecting her cubs, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be a victim. Be strong. People will respect you for it.
  • Avoid character attacks. Maybe you think Jim is a huge asshole. Maybe Mike is crazy and he gets on your nerves. Maybe Jenny said something that hurt your feelings. A good way to screw yourself is to be irresponsible in how you share this internal dialogue. Vent to your friends, your partner, whatever — but keep it clean — always. Word gets around and you don’t want people to hear your internal dialogue. Keep the nasty stuff to yourself. Don’t play that game — everyone loses when it becomes too personal or vindictive.

Organizations lacking trust and courage can generate both noise and silence at inopportune times. Those who get drowned out have a lot to offer; the analytical, the listeners, the silent majority contribute just as much to the long-term health of the organization.

So speak up, be heard, but always listen to others. Trust they are saying things for the right reasons — give them the time they deserve before you hammer their opinions into tiny itty-bitty pieces. After all, their next point may be brilliant. But you’d never know if they lacked the courage to speak in a room full of people ready to pounce.

Energy Consumption and Assholes

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I’ve read a lot about how to cope with assholes, what the telltale signs of assholes are and how to be aware of when you are an asshole to other people. I even met an expert on the subject.

One of the things missing from The No Asshole Rule was how to estimate a positive worker’s contributions.

On top of operational performance there’s a fuzzy area you’d like to be able to measure, and that’s how someone’s attitude impacts the office. Do they generally piss people off? Do they encourage others and nurture growth?

This can be measured in terms of energy. I recall vaguely that a professor was experimenting with evaluations of workers by conducting surveys that measured energy expense towards an individual. For example, if talking to Mike at work is very draining and leaves you tired or frustrated, he has a negative impact on your work environment. On the other hand, if Mike is fun to work with and lifts you up, makes you a little happier every time you talk to him, that’s a plus.

And what do most people know about dealing with assholes? It’s very draining.

Sure, it’s healthy to understand and identify assholes, but it’s also worth thinking about your energy and its tangible effect on others. So next time you’re pissed off or irritated in a meeting, think — am I draining energy from this meeting or supplying it? Will the people I’m dealing with feel drained after this?

Granted, we’re not going to always be bouncy and huge balls of positive energy in the workplace. But over time, the sum of your interactions creates a net positive or negative flow of energy between you and the people you work with. I think we should strive to give more than we take.

Maybe it’s karma, but it’s definitely there, whatever it is. If we paid more attention to our energy consumption it’d make work a better place.