Be like Conan (not the barbarian)

My favorite film and television critic recently wrote a piece on Conan O’Brien’s recent departure from late-night television. Specifically, she wrote about his reputation for being a supportive colleague and leader; the number of comedians he helped start their careers, the lengthy and loyal tenures of his staff members. And in the days that followed, I saw many, many tributes to Conan from many, many people, thanking him for his generosity and kindness and support in helping them launch their careers.

This reminded me of a fundamental lesson I’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—from my many years of working, which is this: in the work context, whenever possible, it’s always the right choice to behave like a decent person towards other people. Even when a person has done you wrong—like, spread misleading or false rumors about you, or conspired against you behind your back—it is still never a bad idea to behave well towards those people. Why? Because even if someone has treated you badly, and behaved abominably, you can go to sleep at night knowing that…you didn’t.

Let me unpack this lesson a little.

FIRST, by no means am I claiming that I myself have behaved well in all work contexts. Au contraire! I can remember quite a few instances of behaving badly at work in ways that negatively impacted either the person who unwittingly provoked my ire, or the people who happened to witness the bad behavior. Examples of my bad behavior: I indulged in an extended bout of pouting and sulking when I was trying to get work done on a major project with very little guidance or direction; I criticized a consultant in extra-scathing terms for failing to produce a decently-written draft; I offloaded my own stress about an upcoming major event on an assistant who had missed some of the details.

I define these instances as “behaving badly” because, ultimately: my behavior helped no one and nothing. Even though I might have gotten a momentary feeling of catharsis at speaking, you know, what was then my version of the truth, so what? At the end of the day, I made someone else feel like shit. And over time, I can see how, if I had continued to up the frequency of such behaviors, it would have had a terrible effect on my own status and reputation as a, you know, decent person to work with, and for.

[Side note: I always wonder about the people who DO have reputations for being terrible and difficult to work with, and how they manage to…stick around, and even get promoted into ever-more senior positions. My working theory on this is that a lot of people simply don’t want to deal with or manage people like this, so they find some way to just…move them elsewhere. Even when it’s, like, the role of top banana at an organization. My other working theory is that sometimes founders/original thinkers are brilliant, but not necessarily decent, people. And that people over-invest in the brilliance and under-estimate the human toll of the bad behaviors.]

SECOND: am I saying that you should never show anger or any other emotions we tend to characterize as negative while at work? No, of course not. We don’t suddenly become robots when we enter into work settings. Very few people I’ve known have ever demonstrated 100% perfect control and calibration of their emotions at work. And the few that have—the few people who manage to appear remarkably serene, in the face of tension or stress or pressure—they’re either naturally gifted at being serene, or, they let me glimpse exactly how much effort it takes for them to exercise that level of calm and restraint.    

I am not ashamed or embarrassed of the times I’ve shown emotion at work—in fact, as I get older, I get more comfortable with my emotions in work settings. Like, when I was younger, I pretty much died of embarrassment and mortification whenever I cried in front of colleagues. These days, I don’t think it would bother me too much—and, I have more control over finding colleagues who create more forgiving environments for being yourself, whatever that means. (This might be one of the biggest perks of consulting life: I don’t have to worry about a performance review and how I’m comporting myself in each and every meeting. If a client doesn’t like me, she or he or they won’t hire me again. I’m okay with that.)

THIRD: Even if I’m saying it’s always a good idea to try and take the high road and NOT ruin a colleague’s day or life, what if, like me, you’ve had moments of occasionally behaving badly in a work context?  And remember, I’ve defined “behaving badly” as an instance where your stress and tension caused you to blow up in a way that impacted another person. Given that we don’t get re-dos on these types of situations, what, then, to do?

  • DON’T endlessly self-flagellate on the situation. It is truly a progressive skill, to be able to recognize when you’ve behaved badly and then figure out how to help everyone—including yourself—move on from the incident. People who can’t move on from an incident of their own bad behavior are, IMHO, just perpetuating the initial harm that was done to another person.
  • DO apologize to the other person who was affected by your behavioral misstep. Don’t do it grudgingly. Do it with the sincere recognition that you likely caused that person to feel like shit, and you are genuinely sorry about that. You might want to show the person that you are aware that there were better ways to handle the situation, and that you will try to choose the better option next time. For example: the consultant I reamed out? If I had to go back in time to when that happened (b/c I was too immature and petty to think of this at the time), I’d say: “I’m sorry my feedback was worded in such a negative and angry way. I should’ve noted the comments and questions I had about the draft and then asked you or the project lead about the best way to deliver the feedback. But I didn’t, and I’m very sorry it came out the way it did, and I hope you can forgive me and give me a chance to do better next time we work together.”

We are none of us saints. We have good days and bad days, and we have stresses and pressures, some of which we choose to keep private, and some of which we choose to air out in public. If I recognize that we’re going to have days when we slip up and unleash our worst feelings in the presence of a colleague or two, why, then, am I urging that it’s worth striving to do better?

Because the rewards for behaving well towards one’s fellow human beings—in this case, your work colleagues—are wonderful. Because people will remember the positive things you did for them and in many cases, they will give it back. My husband and I have both worked for decades, now—and right up until the present, we’ll still get people from long-ago jobs contacting us and reflecting on something positive we did or said that helped them tremendously. Someone said to me last year: “I remember when my mother died and I had to give this huge presentation to the Board and you said, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of handling all the feedback and comments, and when I came back, my talking points and the Board memo were all beautifully finished. I will never forget that.”

In the instances when I’ve behaved well towards a work colleague—which, I fervently hope, greatly outnumber the times I’ve behaved badly—I’ve never had an expectation that I’ll be thanked or I’ll be rewarded in some way, e.g., turnabout is fair play, now it’s your turn to help me. It just felt like the right thing to do at a particular moment: I get satisfaction out of being able to deploy whatever skills I have to help someone, for the sake of the greater good (or a satisfying work outcome). But that’s the funny thing about good behavior, done on behalf of someone else, with no expectation of gratitude and reward: that’s when it yields the richest rewards of all.