Behavioural Evolution

Futures Rambling # 84

By Laurie Aznavoorian

On the day of the Melbourne Cup I did not teeter around on stilettos, drink copious amounts of champagne or wear a foolish contraption on my head. Instead I retreated to a friend’s country house where I reclined on a cosy couch and watched a movie about time travel. It’s a concept I have a challenge embracing, I was never a fan of Dr. Who and know that even when people fly at high altitudes it messes with their brains.

Pilots that enter the upper atmosphere experience strange mental occurrences: some feel euphoric or peaceful, but others undergo emotional extremes that lead them to feel not only separated from Earth, but detached from reality. Medical psychologist studied this pilot anomaly and coined it ‘break-off effect’, but after the 70’s it disappeared because pilots stopped talking about what was happening to them and how they felt for fear of being labelled soft. At any rate, you can imagine what might happen to our brain if we travelled through time!

But supposing we could. Naturally, we’d visit the workplace of the past and find ourselves unable to ignore bad behaviours that were common back in the day, but today, considered repugnant: racism, sexism and homophobia. Any viewer of Mad Men knows what I mean, and is also familiar with the license one adopts when reflecting backward. A smug, holier than thou, attitude and claim of superiority because they believe we’ve eradicated such cringe worthy behaviours from our lives.

It’s a delusion – plenty of today’s workplace behaviours are equally vile.

Starting with sexism, workplaces of the past demonstrated a very cordial acceptance of women, but at the same time men were unashamed sexists. Prior to the 60’s feminist movement when the term male chauvinist pig came to the fore, this was commonplace. It’s a shock to know sexism is still around today; it’s just not as polite. If you mistakenly believed we’d worked sexism out of our system google Shoshana Roberts. She’s the woman who was recently cat called 108 times as she walked through New York City.

The really sad part about that story was none of the goons heckling her had a good line. If Don Draper, the main character from Mad Men, had been doing the harassing he’d have engaged Shoshana with eloquent one liner not something as insipid as “You don’t wanna talk? Because I’m ugly.” The appropriate reply to that uninspired taunt is – no, I’m not taking to because you’re a moron it’s got nothing to do with your beer belly.

We’d love to believe this is an extreme case and can attempt to convince ourselves that Australians are beyond sexism and rank in the top when it comes to equality. Sadly this is not true. The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates the national gender pay gap is currently 17.1%, below countries like: Slovenia, Bulgaria and Lithuania. Putting a positive spin on the statistic we should take pride in ranking above South Korea at 38.9%.

A workplace behaviour we have managed to eliminate is smoking, again take pride, it only took a little over 400 years. Travelling back in time to 1575 we would experience the first ban on smoking that occurred in the Roman Catholic Church. They put a stop to the use of tobacco in churches in Mexico then but for the remainder of workplaces it took significantly longer. Smoking bans in public places and offices only cropped up in the US in the late 90s and in Australia around 2007. We’ve moved fast though, making up for lost time by considering total smoking bans across whole cities in some gutsy places.

This slow and steady evolution of behaviours is what makes workplace strategist and designers like me believe it’s only be a matter of time until all the belly aching and misbehaviour born of ABW has run its course. But that day is not today and if Don Draper might still be alive and has not succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, he’d be the one to act smug and could legitimately accuse us of the pot calling the kettle black logic.

He’d wave his hand like he was swatting a fly, toss his head back and laugh at executive’s concerns for company engagement scores, employees demands for flexible work schedules and the term ‘wellness’. He wouldn’t know what OH&S was as anyone viewing season 3, episode 6 of Mad Men can attest, that’s the one where office hijinks goes awry and Guy MacKendrick’s career is ruined after another employee runs over his foot with a John Deere riding lawnmower. Afterward the partners of firm make their feelings about the disabled clear when they lament ‘any employee with a missing foot can’t work with clients.’

If Don Draper went into one of today’s ABW environments and observed the behaviours we’ve seen taking place he’d be screaming to return to the safe sixties: employees arriving early to capture the best desks, juniors or EAs assigned to mark the team’s turf and senior people telling juniors to vacate because they want the desk. And then there is the frightening propensity for groups of employees to exhibit gang like behaviour and steer unsuspecting interlopers from their turf with steely glances and rude comments.

The Inability to follow or abide by the rules in today’s ABW environments is one of the more audacious negative behaviours apparent. From talking in focus areas, eating in no food zones to leaving belongings on desks meant to be vacated each night; employees dig in their heels and refuse to participate and follow rules. They act like petulant two-year olds with the added gall of becoming snarky about noise in collaborative areas, when it is they who refuse to move delegated quiet spots.

Wait – I’m not done yet – those were the nice behaviours. They also nick the cables, chargers, key-boards and mice and pretend to have OH& S concerns to get special desks assigned. They deliberately hide from team members and managers and refuse to check in as agreed. Some have developed formidable counterfeiting skills and fashion ‘anchor’ stickers allowing them to retain the same desk every day.

There are whole populations of ABW workers out there today who are convinced rules are for others and not them. Finally, the most egregious behaviour of all, tantamount to parking in a handicapped spot – occupying a sit stand desk and never once using the standing function!

That’s what a time traveller coming to our workplace today might find. It would be emotionally draining, they would have a tough time discerning whether the woozy feeling in their head was the result of “a spiritual epiphany that changes one’s perspective on humanity forever”, which is how pilots describe break-off effect, or whether they had just observed a bunch of people who need someone to give them a good swift kick in the behind.


Friedman, Ann; The New Workplace Sexism; The American Prospect, July30, 2010

Kokemuller, Neil; Male Chauvinism in the Workplace;

Mitchell, PL; the Challenge of Changing Workplace Behaviour, blog

The Break-Off Effect – Fast Company Co.Exist Daily


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