Work Daze: Musical Chairs

By Bob Goldman

You want to succeed at work. This is admirable. But will the traditional methods for getting ahead work for you?

Don’t think so.

Maintaining a positive attitude is one frequent suggestion for strivers, but your “can’t-do” attitude is based on years of failures, flops and boo-boos. To positively believe you have what it takes to get ahead is only possible if you are positively deranged.

Working harder is another pathway for success. Alas, you are allergic to hard work, and since any work you actually do accomplish must be checked for errors, your working harder would only create even more work for everyone else.

Networking is out, as well. Given your personality, the key to your survival is that most people at your company don’t know you even exist.

Feeling hopeless? Don’t. There is one way for you to get ahead that does utilize your best ability—sitting.

That’s right! When it comes to plopping yourself down in an office chair and just sitting there, no one is better than you.

In “Use Your Seat to Get Ahead at Work,” Sue Shellenbarger, the Work & Family columnist for The Wall Street Journal, cites a variety of serious, scientific surveys that show a key ingredient for success is not what you do, but who you sit next to when you do what you do.

“Proximity to high achievers can lift people’s performance in various jobs, via inspiration, peer pressure or new learning, a growing body of research shows,” Shellenbarger reports.

That is very good news for sphinx-like employees who ride their office chairs all day long, without speaking, without thinking and, definitely, without working.

“Simply sitting next to a high achiever can improve someone’s performance by 3 percent to 6 percent, according to a two-year Northwestern University study of 2,452 help-desk and other client-service workers.”

This is a big plus for the client-service industry. Considering the totally dismal experience of calling a help desk, a 3 percent to 6 percent increase in productivity means a 3 percent to 6 percent increase in the number of callers who end the experience feeling frustrated and angry. These people will never again call for help, and that translates to a major ka-ching! moment for the company.

In a study published last year by the Harvard Business School, Northwestern Professor Dylan Minor explains the proximity effect as “a combination of inspiration and peer pressure.” In other words, the poor performer sees their neighbor working him or herself to death and says—gee, that’s something I want to do.

Sorry, dude, but I don’t see it.

Sitting next to a peak performer is like sitting next to a monkey who has mastered your job. Your admire the productivity, but you want more from life than bananas.

But it could work the other way round. When your co-workers see how little you do and still manage to keep your job, they will be inspired to cut back on their work schedule and coast along with you. This will make you look better to management.

Even people without offices can benefit from sitting in the right chair.

“People who are working from home or on the road might find a Starbucks and surround themselves with caffeinated high achievers,” says Minor.

This makes sense, and since chairs are not assigned at Starbucks, you will have more flexibility in choosing who sits next to you. The problem is that coffee drinks look quite similar, and before you make your choice, make sure your seatmate is not a decaffeinated achiever, because they are likely to be as sluggish as you. You will also want to avoid anyone who uses soy milk, or asks for whipped cream, and you certainly want to find yourself seated next to some weirdo who ordered chai.

Whatever chai is, it is unlikely to be associated with success.

Another effect of office proximity occurs when teammates’ cubicles adjoin each other. “‘Those pods take on tribal effects’ that can have a big impact, positive or negative, on the whole team,” reports CEO Marc Landsberg.

This is an interesting observation, and one you can use to improve your work experience. How difficult would it be to convince your “tribe” to hold regular ceremonies, like boiling an effigy of your supervisor in a large pot at the end of the workweek? For added tribal bonding, you might skip the effigy and just boil your supervisor.

Just be sure to add chai to the pot. Really brings out the flavor in a manager.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He now works out of Bellingham, Washington. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.