A quarter-century ago, I bought a tree.
I’d never bought one before. I haven’t since.
It was for the newsroom of XS Magazine, a now-defunct alternative weekly in South Florida. In the mid-’90s, I was the arts & entertainment editor. Thing is, XS wasn’t very alternative. It was owned by the Sun Sentinel, a conservative Tribune daily newspaper in Fort Lauderdale.
That meant we had the worst of both worlds: Very little funding (because our profits were sucked out for shareholders) but all the rules of a national corporation.
Among those rules we had to obey were dress codes and office-conformity policies. It was so hypocritical: How could we be alternative outside the newsroom but submissive within it?
So I experimented with various means of ridiculous defiance, and I learned some valuable lessons.
What I did…
Rule: “No cubicle obstructions.”
No. 1: Glass block on top of the cubicle walls, with flags of several nations protruding randomly, for no good reason.
Rule: “No unapproved office furnishings.”
No. 2: Blue recliner next to my desk.
Rule: “No personal refrigerators.”
No. 3: A micro-fridge under my desk.
Rule: “No amplified sound.”
No. 4: Boombox between my two computers.
Rule: “No marring of desk surfaces.”
No. 5: Movie posters taped to my desk.
Rule: “No tape or thumbtacks on cubicle walls.”
No. 6: You can barely make out a quote: “Four hostile newspaper are more to be feared than 1,000 bayonets — Napoleon.”
Rule: “No defacing, modifying or altering company equipment.”
No. 7: My computer in the foreground (called an ATEX terminal) was covered in stickers, while the one behind it (my Mac) had a homemade hood over the screen and black ink splattered across the front.
Rule: “No additional floor coverings.”
No. 8: An illegal throw rug in front of the illegal recliner.
Rule: “No unapproved office foliage.”
No. 9: The new young tree towered above my cubicle wall. I bought it at Home Depot, and Phil Davis – now social media strategist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – helped me drag it onto the elevator and up to our 10th-floor newsroom in the Sun Sentinel tower. Over the years, it grew quite tall.
I didn’t stop there. This is the row of cubicles for me and my staff. Note both the plants and the rugs…
Guess what happened next? Nothing. Here’s why.
As a journalist, I studied the system
Office-conformity rules are written by overpaid executives who don’t actually hang out with the employees they’re conforming. So they delegate enforcement to those with the cheapest salaries.
That usually means secretaries and security guards, who have no clue why these rules exist. They don’t care, either. Some enjoy tormenting employees slightly above their station. Others seek as little hassle as possible.
Knowing this, I flouted the rules completely and mysteriously. I issued no manifestos or explanations, and I always smiled and greeted the enforcers on their monthly rounds.
So the enforcers looked at my part of the XS newsroom and were…confused. Someone pleasantly making such a massively illicit effort must have permission, right?
Because of their limited ability to step inside the minds of others, they could ascribe only three motives to my efforts: anger, greed, or laziness. Why? Because when they defy rules in their own lives, those are their only reasons.
But I was smiling and saying nothing. So I wasn’t angry. And obviously, I had exerted myself both physically and financially in a deliberate and aesthetic way. So I wasn’t lazy or greedy.
When enforcers get confused, they get nervous. They’re afraid they’ll be in trouble for the rules going to hell on their watch. So they pretend to see nothing.
As a journalist, I studied the psychology
Game theory dictates a weaker opponent can defeat a stronger opponent if the latter believes the former is willing to sacrifice them both.
My boss at XS was the editor-in-chief. He was a conflicted soul, toiling for a decade as a local reporter who hated The Man. But then he got promoted and was The Man. Even worse, he managed a staff of anarchists. So more than anything, he just wanted to stay off the corporate radar.
The solution was a trade.
At his behest, I launched an annual event called the XS Music Fest. It grew to feature 100 local bands playing in a single night in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
The Music Fest was such a hit, it impressed the VP who was my boss’s boss. He wanted to give me a Pride Award, your basic quarterly recognition for being a good corporate citizen.
The VP hated XS. We were poorly dressed malcontents who didn’t respect his prestigious title. Except XS made the company money, so what could he do?
He descended from his office suite to bestow upon me a Pride Award, and he saw what I’d done to the newsroom. I think he noticed the tree before he noticed me.
What could he say? He had my award in his hand. He had a little speech prepared, in which he praised me for putting the company first. He also knew if he forced me to get rid of everything, I’d surely pout. I might lash out in other ways. I certainly wouldn’t organize the music festival again – because despite his words, he knew I wasn’t a good corporate citizen.
Office politics are more about precaution than power. If you make it harder for the bosses to oppress you than to ignore you, you can win – as long as you define victory as the company not doing something.
(In other words: You don’t have the authority to force the company to take action, but you might have enough influence to compel it to look the other way.)
So the VP handed me the piece of paper, spoke his piece, and fled.
As a journalist, I studied tradition
Finally, good reporters know if they poke at a tradition, they often uncover a mistake. Many closely held traditions are simply accidents that lingered long enough to become ritual.
In a complex society, that can take years to achieve. In a basic office, that’s compressed to mere weeks. So once my office decorations survived a month, no one questioned them again.
I’m always amazed at corporate newsrooms that want their reporters to be tigers on the street, sinking their teeth into a story and shaking it till it’s dead. Yet when those reporters return to the newsroom, their editors want them to roll over like meek kittens.
And we wonder why journalism is boring.
Oh, there was also a dress code. But that’s an entirely different class of psychological and journalistical warfare. A tale for another time.