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Home > Audio, Podcast, Show > Archive: Work Theater — from the Career Opportunities Podcast

Archive: Work Theater — from the Career Opportunities Podcast

March 29th, 2013

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Looking busy at work is a fine art form that has been honed over decades and centuries of workers and companies. Regardless of how much your thinking actually impacts your productivity, if you don’t “look busy” management is sure to come calling. The result of all this effort is something I call “work theater.” It has all the outward appearance of work, but very few benefits to you or your company. Unfortunately, it seems that every job today requires some work theater, just to stay employed.


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As with other red flag events I have mentioned in past columns, when the amount of work theater in your life starts to outweigh your actual work, it is time to consider a change. Perhaps you simply need to change your attitude about work. Maybe you are under-employed in your current position and need something more challenging. If your management i values looking busy, more than giving you the tools to actually get something done, perhaps you need to change departments or find another company. Whatever the reason, don’t waste your time and energy on looking busy. Find a way to re-direct it towards something that will increase your knowledge, your prestige or your salary.

What’s in it for…everyone?

Moving beyond work theater holds benefits for everyone. Personally, it can lead to better self-esteem and better opportunities. No matter how much we might pretend, we know when we are not doing a good job. We know when we are looking busy and we often worry about getting caught. Isn’t it better to re-engage with your work, than spend all your time worrying about looking engaged enough in it?

First, what has become tedious or onerous about your job? Is it boring? How can you make it less so? Is it difficult? How can you make it easier? Is it useless? Then why are you doing it at all? That can be a difficult question to face, but the truth is, many of us are engaged in useless work. Whether it is pushing around pieces of paper or moving dirt from one pile to another, we often lack meaning in our work. If you can’t find meaning in your work then you should be looking for work that you can care about. I believe that meaningless work is one of the major curses of workers today. How many invoices can you file? How many times can you re-install Windows? How many times can you put together the same fast-food burger? How does this work effect those around you? How does it effect the world?

Next, removing work theater from the workplace dramatically increases a company’s productivity and profitability. When management focuses on external productivity measures instead of hard numbers, work theater explodes. Help desk workers create trouble tickets for every 30 second call, so that “the reports look good” at the end of the week, month or quarter. Hundred page reports are created to report a simple change in policy. Presentations are labored over and take all day to present even when circumstances have changed so radically that they no longer have meaning. If you force people to look busy, that is exactly what they will do. So much effort will go towards work theater that little will remain for actual work.

Finally, bringing down the curtain on work theater benefits mankind. We have all seen how dedicated and focused efforts can cure deadly disease, build great civilizations and even put men on the moon. Would those events ever have occurred if those involved were more interested in looking busy than being productive? Of course not! It is only by stripping work to its bones that we find the power to do great things. Whenever bureaucracy, micromanagement and pettiness have their way, we demonstrate the worst of human nature. You only have to look to the recent spate of failed technology projects at the FBI and other governmental organizations. Too many masters, with too many goals and too much time leads these projects down the road to disaster. We spend so much time talking about how the system should work that we never get around to producing a system that does work.

How much work theater do you engage in on a daily basis? Why do you do it? Are you afraid of losing your job? Maybe you would be better off if you spent your time looking for a new job instead of looking busy. Don’t waste your time, skills and intelligence any longer. Get off the stage and make something happen.

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