Sharks are Dangerous
Ozan Onay — 27 Mar 2011
Some species of shark are obligate ram ventilators—having lost the muscles required to pump water through their gills, they must keep moving in order not to asphyxiate. Unfortunately, the obligate ram ventilator is also commonly found in the modern American workplace.
Whereas some workers seek the simplest, fastest or most efficient solution to a problem, others will feel that they need to fuss, writhe and intensify tasks as if their lives literally depend upon maintaining a certain velocity through the water. Don’t mistake this for effectiveness or passion—the obligate ram ventilator’s pathological need to work makes her a danger in the workplace.
Warning! Risk of shark attack
There are two strong reasons for avoiding a ram ventilation culture in your workplace:
1. Difficult problems require thoughtful solutions
A professional’s job is non-trivial, requiring thought, subtlety and the occasional act of ingenuity. The brute-force ram ventilation approach propels the worker so fast that thoughtful solutions just whir by. Not only do they fail to effectively solve existing problems, they can even create new ones. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (in their book Rework) describe the workaholic this way:
Workaholics miss the point, too. They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them. They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in inelegant solutions. They even create crises. They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime. They enjoy feeling like heroes. They create problems (often unwittingly) just so they can get off on working more.
Brute force is the inevitable recourse of the obligate ram ventilator, but it’s rarely the best approach.
2. Heightened stress affects everyone
While the amateur equates stress levels with output, others are skillful enough that they do their best work in a state of relative relaxation. The obligate ram ventilator’s compulsion to heighten stress thereby reduces the quality of output of their colleagues. This is not to mention the fact that stress is physiological and will affect your health, meaning that it’s as irresponsible to stress out your colleagues as it is to blow smoke in their faces.
Are you an obligate ram ventilator?
Here are a few warning signs to watch out for:
- Pretending to work Do you avoid being the first to leave the office, even when you have nothing to work on? Do you turn down the brightness of your screen to read TechCrunch and Skype with your friends? Your embarrassment may be due to equating thoroughness with effectiveness.
- Using meaningless metrics Counting hours, lines of code, or some other crude measure of output? Keep it up and you might forget about the importance of quality.
- Boasting about intensity Have you recently told somebody how hard you've been working? Were you proud of it? What starts as pride in intensity could evolve into an addiction to busywork.
- Scoffing at fun When you notice a colleague watching YouTube or chatting about their weekend, is your first thought that they should "get back to work"? You may be obsessing over the symbols of work and play, rather than concerning yourself with substantive contribution.
- Belittling non-work commitments Were you proud that you worked while your colleague took a longer lunch break to go to the gym? If you're thinking so much about time spent in seats, you've probably lost sight of meaningful signs of productivity.
Fighting sharks: how to avoid a culture of ram ventilation
Whether or not you manage people directly, there are certain things you can do to stop a ram ventilation culture from forming:
- Congratulate shortcuts, highlight hacks Every teleconference avoided is an occasion to be celebrated. Eschew "best practice" in favor of scrappy-looking 80% solutions. Signal that you value effectiveness over thoroughness.
- Never, ever measure hours ... or pages written, lines of code, or any other crude metric. As soon as you focus on quantity, you forget about quality. This is a particularly bad signal when it comes from an authority figure. When a manager compares one worker's hours to another's, the end is nigh.
- Take naps Signal the importance of true effectiveness by napping on the office couch when you're tired. Finished a task faster than expected? Smile, head home half an hour early and be honest with your colleagues about why you're celebrating. Stuck on a tough problem? Go for a walk around the block without worrying about leaving your chair empty. In short, do the opposite of hanging around the office pretending to be busy.
- Be visibly chilled out Don't pace, rock in your chair, or rush around the office. Remind everyone (and yourself) that true effectiveness requires one to be calm and in control. Be aware of your body language, and realize that while appearing stressed and frantic may win you respect in the short term, only substantive performance is respectable in the long term.