Emotional bagels

A couple of years ago, I worked in a small(ish) startup with people I absolutely loved. In fact, most of us stay in close touch and have become lifelong friends.

About once a week, I would pick up a couple of dozen bagels to bring into the office and share with coworkers. I’d get to play the hero, we’d talk and gather, and I felt like it was one way I contributed to the office culture.

But in other ways, it did little to compensate for the drain I often posed on the culture there. Unhappy in my job and with the direction of the company, I frequently vented my frustrations both privately and publicly. The company was horrendously mismanaged, and I let all the bad decisions I saw being made drive me crazy.

My dad could tell I was profoundly unhappy, and offered some advice. “I know you like taking bagels to the office, but you’re going to have to do better. You’re going to have to bring emotional bagels. Do you know what I mean?”

Sure I did, but how was I supposed to apply it?

I now know what he meant, but it was only very recently that I was able to get my head around this concept.

Knowing this flaw in myself, in my first week at my new employer, I wrote down one of my goals: “I want the time others spend here to be better because of my influence.” Since then, I’ve been shown some pretty amazing examples of how to bring emotional bagels to people. Here are a few of them:

1. Throw your support behind others’ decisions, especially if you disagree.

A friend and mentor took me aside after I strongly disagreed with a management tactic I saw. His point went straight to the heart of my problem:

“You have everything to gain by being supportive and positive, even if you absolutely hate a decision. Even if you’re right, if you’re vocal in opposition from the beginning, you’ll engage people’s defenses and that’s all they remember. If you’re supportive, you show that you’re interested in solving their problem, not serving your ego, and you’ll get a chance to offer your solution.”

The best thing about being a critic is that I get to be smugly superior without any of the responsibility of the decision-making itself. But if I can shelve my ego long enough to honestly try to support the ideas of others, I open up a lot of doors for collaboration. Plus, I’ll look like less of a jerk.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, when grabbing the steering wheel is the only way to keep someone from careening off a cliff. But those situations are vastly, vastly fewer than most of our egos want us to believe.

“That could work, it couldn’t hurt, let’s try it!”  is an emotional bagel.

2. You’re doing awesome.

When communicating with people around you, it’s nearly impossible to understand the effect you have on them.

If I’m having an awesome day, and I talk to you, and you say “today sucks,” you’ve just placed a burden on me. Now my day is a little less awesome, because I can’t help but notice all the little sucky things that I’d glossed over when things were awesome.

If I’m having a crappy day, and you tell me how excited you are to be doing X, my reason for hope just went up a notch.

So how are you doing? Think of a couple of the awesome things you’re doing. They must have a purpose, right? You’re doing some good in the world, so you must be doing something right.

This is totally weird, and totally true. You don’t need to lie if you’re having a rough day, but you do need to stop underestimating your power and influence.

“I’m doing awesome! I’m working on some great stuff I can’t wait to show you,” is an emotional bagel.

3. You’re there to help others shine brighter.

This is another very recent lesson. I must set aside my ego (see a pattern here?) and recognize that I have nothing to lose by helping make those around me into superstars. If my purpose is anything other than to benefit and improve the lives of others, I’m off track.

A software developer’s purpose is to create tools and products that help make people productive and happy. A manager’s job is to create an environment that helps make people productive and happy.

This doesn’t have to be a big moment of public recognition. The things that have helped me feel like a superstar have been as simple as a coworker telling me that they hadn’t thought of the way I approached a problem.

Some pretty amazing things happen when you put in the effort of looking for a person’s unique contributions: you become more tolerant of their flaws, and they tend to try to embody the good things you notice.

Even if you’re working completely in your own self-interest, you’ll never be as productive and happy as when you’re trying to help others shine a little brighter.

“One of my favorite things about you…”  is an emotional bagel.

Those are just a few of the emotional bagels I’m learning to bring to the teams I work in. I’d love to hear from you if you can think of ways people have made your day a little better.

  • http://twitter.com/jessesem Jesse Semchuck

    Generally, I believe the workplace is never somewhere you want to take the negativity of your personal life. My wife considers me pretty negative, although I would call myself more of a realist. :)

    It’s really easy, especially in a work environment where ideas can mean months of work, to poke holes in things. I try to remind myself that almost every idea can be sunk. Nothing is bulletproof, but you’ve got to keep an open mind and allow ideas to sink on their own. If they are talked about enough in a constructive manner, most of the time the solution is clear.

    A tactic I use when I don’t necessarily agree with something is to try to loosely map the plan out to completion, either on a whiteboard or a piece of paper. As we begin writing down steps most of the time the person who had the idea will shoot it down themselves.

    Other emotional bagels:

    “You know I could see you doing XXXX one day…”

    Personal connection means something, be open to not only being a good coworker, but a good friend.

    “Nice work on XXXX, you know I remember when I did something similar…”

    Also, bring real bagels every once in a while.