Saturday, January 2, 2010

Pavlov's Front Desk Agent

As most of you know, I started my new job this past Monday. I have to say that it is going great! It's a growing company, the CEO is only 32 and is the oldest in the office, and I feel very well taken care of as an employee. I feel like I won the lotto.

As standard in many office jobs, I get an hour lunch break. This I am especially thankful for since my previous job I had a "working lunch" which mean during my 11 hour shift I was allowed to go downstairs, microwave my lunch, and take about 10 minutes to eat. Let me repeat that: 11 hour shift and ten minute lunch. There are labor laws for a reason, but some people just don't give a shit about them.

Anyway, this past Monday lunch time rolled around and I did a interesting thing. Instead of taking off for an hour, I ate at my desk and when I was finished went straight back to work. The next day, I went downstairs to the building cafeteria ordered a club sandwich and planned on eating there and reading my book which was in purse. However, right when I was walking to sit down I saw the CEO walk in and I immediately changed my course, got on the elevator with him and ate at my desk as I did on Monday.

Why on earth did I do that? I had been waiting to have a job where I actually got a lunch break for 7 months. Seeing the CEO in the cafeteria made me feel like I was breaking the rules and should go back to the office asap. But he didn't care if I went back to my desk or stayed downstairs to eat. After I got home that day, I was thinking about it. I felt quite silly for feeling like I would get into trouble if I didn't go back and eat at my desk. Why was I holding on to the rules from my previous job?

I was Pavlov's Front Desk Agent. I had become an example of "operant conditioning". The definition of Operant conditioning, according to Wikipedia, is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of behavior. Operant conditioning deals with the modification of "voluntary behavior" through positive and negative reinforcement. So, at my previous job I had been conditioned to believe that taking a long lunch was not being a "team player" and was not "how things were done' and therefore I agreed to work an 11 hour shift with only a 10 minute break.

This learned behavior carried into my next job. Wanting to convey to my new bosses that I was a team player and cared about the rules I cut my lunch hour short. I'm sure if I explained this to them they would think I was nuts. And they'd be right almost. It is simply irrational behavior.

That takes me back to my union days. I would get so frustrated talking to workers about the benefits of being a union member and get replies that were simply irrational. Many of them seemed content with the status quo even though they were being given a chance to better themselves and their working environment. Why would someone choose to continue a low standard of living? I got some pretty sad responses. One guy told me that he was a Mexican and he would always be a Mexican. I asked him if he thought that being a Mexican meant that he deserved less in life. He shrugged and told me "that's just the way life is".

When we get used to accepting a lower standard of anything it's hard to break the cycle and we forget that (1) we deserve better and even worse (2) that there's even something better out there. It's hard to break out of the cycle. Especially when know one is there to tell you there's something more, something better. We're like the people in Plato's cave that believe the shadows against the cave wall are real entities and not just shadows because they had never seen the fire behind them that cast the shadows.

I have no answer to this problem except to practice your beliefs. Be fair, be honest, not only with yourself but everyone you come in contact with. When you see something is wrong/unfair/unjust say something. Otherwise you just enable the behavior and the cycle continues. You become part of the problem and a promoter of it if you stay silent. Never hold back.

I have no

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