The Perfect Employee

Following the reasoning of Stephen Covey, there are three stages in the development of maturity in a person: dependence, independence, and interdependence. First the person (usually as a child) is dependent on others, following their lead. Next the person (perhaps as an adolescent and young adult) breaks free of dependence, with a roar, and becomes self-reliant, needing no one. Finally (some people never achieve this but in most it is what is regarded as adult wisdom) the person realizes that fulfillment and results are best achieved by working as part of a team, working within an ecosystem of interlocking needs to produce a synergistic outcome beyond the achievement of a bunch of individuals.

Employees tend to settle into similar roles. Some employees are trudgers, going along as directed without looking up to see where they're going. They just do what they're told, working nine to five and then escaping to their real lives. Many otherwise good workers fit into this mold, and although they can accomplish a lot, they're not enjoying themselves as much as they might, and the lack of excitement about their work can result in me-too products from the company.

Other employees are self-starters, and can take a task and get it done without needing much guidance: they work creatively to find any necessary answers instead of getting stuck at every turn. Much of this is skill rather than attitude: over the fullness of time one develops techniques for getting unstuck. A properly-aimed self-starter is more valuable to the company than is a trudger, as the self-starter gets more useful work done by avoiding pitfalls that will bring a trudger to a halt.

The perfect employee is a team player. S/he is a self-starter who is aimed at a team-wide goal rather than an individual one. If the job at hand needs someone to step in and sweep up after the "star" workers, the team player grabs a broom. If what's needed is to point out to the boss that the group lacks direction, the team player takes the boss aside for a talk. And if what's needed is someone to get some work done, the team player digs in.

Team players are involved with process improvement. That's because processes are methods used by multiple people to work together to achieve a larger task. Almost any permanent improvement in a team's performance comes down to a change to one process or another. Modification to processes is how one reprograms part of a team's behavior to implement team-wide solutions.

The point is that the perfect employee seeks out ways to save the team time even if it's slightly inconvenient for him/herself. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.


Let's see how the different types of employees react to different situations. Ask yourself what you'd do in the following situations. As you think about the different scenarios, you'll see where the virtual office guidelines came from: they're best for the team as a whole. Anything that costs an individual an amount X but saves many times X for the team as a whole is worth considering.

You're a programmer and you encounter a small bug in Fred's code that's keeping you from going further. Do you (A) send Fred a message requesting a fix and go home early, (B) fix Fred's bug and keep going, or (C) try Fred first and get advice on how to fix it since Fred can't get to it right away, then send him the fix to make sure he's kept in the loop?

Your group is working toward a deadline and you've finished your part of the task, but Fred is not done yet. Do you (A) read mail and clean your desk, after making sure everyone knows that you finished on time, (B) push Fred out of the way and finish it up yourself in an orgy of late nights and stale pizza, (C) ask Fred how you can help out and write doc or hunt for bugs in Fred's code as needed?

You don't have call waiting and people tell you that they sometimes have trouble reaching you. Do you (A) explain to them that you don't like call waiting, (B) tell them to use email when that happens, or (C) get call waiting and use quickcalls to improve your responsiveness?

You read a busy newsgroup regularly, which takes a fair amount of your time to follow because it's got so much junk with so few useful messages, and you find that someone else in the group reads it too, and that another person would read it but doesn't have time. Do you (A) do nothing, (B) discuss the interesting items with the other people who read the group, or (C) set up a system where one of you reads the group and forwards only the interesting messages to the others, saving all of you lots of time while costing the one person who does the filtering a little extra time?

Punctuality, Superlogic, and Team Players

Why is being on time so valued in a company? It's because of the simple math of meetings and the domino effect. Meeting math says that in an N-person meeting, the last person arriving X minutes late costs the company X*(N-1) minutes. That means that being 15 minutes late to a 4 person meeting costs the company a person-hour. If that time were taken out of the pay of the last person to each meeting, people would understand this better.

The domino effect is that lateness to meetings tends to snowball throughout the day. When one meeting runs 15 minutes over because people were late to start it, the next tends to start even later. So the cost of starting the first meeting late is accumulative, and the one person-hour cost mentioned above might actually amount to more when all derivative costs are figured in.

Lack of punctuality is sometimes due to differing cultural ideas of promptness; I've heard it said that in some Chinese cultures coming to a meeting even a minute late is a grave insult, while in many tropical cultures setting a meeting for a time like 10am is unheard of, midmorning is more like the kind of precision expected.

But in the U.S. lateness is often an indication of a non-team-member attitude. I've heard time and again people who say, "well, I've wasted so much time waiting for people to show up on time for meetings that I just started coming late myself to save that time." Unfortunately this is a logical response in a company that provides no guidance on the issue, but it results in a self-feeding decay of meeting start times.

Like the prisoner's dilemma, what is needed is a superlogical response instead of a simply logical one. Someone has to realize that if everyone came on time things would be a lot better for everyone, and management has to take the first step and declare that being late is no longer acceptable. A system like a token penalty for each late minute can help to make people aware that they're selfishly wasting other people's time by trying to save themselves time.

Team players push for this sort of system, since they're aware that being 10 minutes late for a meeting with as few as two other people may save 10 minutes, but at a cost of 20 person minutes overall. It costs the team more when one is late than it saves.

Substantive changes:
    April 17, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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