COME closer readers, as if we’re lowering our voices across the plyboard that divides our work cubicles or checking our backs when filling up at the coffee machine in the office kitchenette.
We’re not just going to have our ordinary office-politics griping session here.
We’re going to the heart of why you love or hate the people you work with and how it all comes down to a simple one-second party trick.
We can’t continue a dissection of work life without first quoting from Tim in the TV series The Office, gazing dolefully about at the people he is trapped with in his paper merchants’: “You don’t know them, it wasn’t your choice.
"And yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family. But probably all you have in common is the fact you walk on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.”
The literary version, in Joshua Ferris’s masterpiece novel about office life, Then We Came to the End, extends that sense of letdown: “We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves.”
Why? Colleagues can be comforting day to day but many years of office life measured in P60s can leave us with a vaguely disappointed air about human nature, the grey desire to “do a Reggie Perrin”, or the 2015 equivalent, to quit everything for a yoga-teacher training course.
To answer why, I invite you to administer this test. Write the capital letter “E” on your forehead with your finger. I know it’s ridiculous, but don’t read on, just do it quickly without thinking too hard.
So you had a choice. You could have written the E so it made sense to yourself (but was reversed to onlookers), or so it would appear the right way around to others.
Your tendency to write an “E-to-self” increases dramatically the more senior you are.
This is a learnt thing: in social-studies experiments those randomly assigned powerful roles were almost three times more likely to write an “E-to-self”, ie one that took no account of others.
The “E” trick was developed by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, two professors at prestigious business schools in America, and recounted in their new book about work life, Friend & Foe.
The trick catches people’s attention because it seems to symbolise a lot.
“It’s quite dramatic,” Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me.
“We even used it when pitching the book. There was a whole team from Random House, everything’s going well, and Adam says: ‘OK, take out your finger and draw an E on your forehead.’
"I was like, ‘Woah, this is kind of risky. These things work on average, but small samples . . . who knows?’
"It happened to work perfectly. The senior editors were the ones who were self-focused.”
It worked on everyone I tried in my office: from my clear E-to-others status up the E-to-self chain.
Interesting side-note: women are more likely to E-to-others, but that is simply because they have less power, the authors say. Given the same amount of power, gender effects melt away.
“Gender effects, in our research, are really power effects,” says Schweitzer.
“If women ruled the world it would look a lot like it does today.”
There is an analogy in the animal kingdom: the more powerful species have narrower fields of vision.
So, for example, a rabbit is designed so it can be acutely aware of its bonds with the colony and co-operate for survival.
The solitary hawk has forward-focused eyes because it is only interested in one thing, its prey (or sales targets).
The rabbits are the nice guys, the frontline workers who haven’t been promoted. The hawks are their line managers.
As philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “The fundamental concept in social science is power, in the same sense in which energy is fundamental in physics.”
Or, in other words, to succeed at work you have to become less of the nice fluffy bunny roadkill and, well, sharpen your claws.
If this sounds like some testosterone-fuelled business manual from the 1980s (Bunny to Hawk?), don’t despair.
The research conducted by the authors makes you feel bad for the E-to-self crowd, or as I like to think of them, Donald Trump.
They did a study in which they randomly assigned people the role of boss or employee, then gave them the opportunity to buy chocolates for themselves or others.
The bosses became Scrooge, buying an average of 32 chocolates for themselves and only 11 for others (lowly employees were far more generous: the ratios were reversed).
In more studies by the authors, those assigned power (male and female) were more likely to say they would have sex without a condom.
They were also more likely to break the rules, cheat and hypocritically condemn cheating “and other forms of moral failure” in other people.
This sounds exactly like a bad date I had with someone with the word “director” on their LinkedIn profile.
So working life is about making a choice between likeable patsy and mistrusted power-player. No wonder that, beneath a thin veneer of chit-chat about the photocopier, people find it hard.
There are indications that we are now less likely to see the workplace as a source of friendship: in 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30%.
More transient jobs and a greater reliance on social media for friends mean that the younger generation have even less incentive to invest in social networks in one particular office.
As a result, the authors told me, their exploitative work persona may become even more pronounced.
What I find interesting is that the E-to-self reaction seems regressed.
If you administered the test on children you would register a lack of social perspective as a mark of immaturity.
You might even consider it a sub-human trait. It is this tendency for workplaces to reward “Trump” behaviour, for bosses to objectify, that a lot of people find deadening about the human spirit when bound by cubicle.
“That’s right,” says Schweitzer.
“We start off being self-focused as a child, then we realise other people’s perspectives are very important to gain status. But once we have a lot of status, we can let it go, no longer need to care about other people.
"It’s as if we are regressing. We don’t lose the ability, we just lose the motivation.”
Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says that while the powerful must be more decisive, the “single biggest mistake I see leaders make is this idea that considering other people’s perspective is a sign of weakness.
It’s simply not true: it’s a sign of strength. That’s how we’re able to be effective in more powerful roles.
You exert your will, that’s true, but only after considering the perspectives of others.”
Many companies in the digital era tried to abolish the bad feeling that hierarchy has caused. Google experimented with a flat organisation in its early years, which ended in chaos.
Earlier this year, when the giant American internet retailer Zappos announced it would abolish traditional managers and job titles, one in seven of the workforce quit.
Zappos would not give the crucial detail about the seniority of those people, but we can guess.
Yet Galinsky and Schweitzer argue that a traditional hierarchy is necessary. It’s not bosses that are bad but a lack of awareness, the need to keep co-operation and competition in balance.
They use Everest as a case study. Everest climbing teams with co-leaders have been shown to be likely to have someone die on the mountain.
Business example: in June, Deutsche Bank announced the premature end of its unhappy experiment with a pair of co-CEOs.
However, the authors analysed data from 30,000 Everest climbers to show that those expeditions from more hierarchical countries were more likely to die.
This is borne out in trials into medical mistakes: to reduce them, subordinates, such as the lowliest scrub nurse, have to feel encouraged to speak their mind to those more senior.
It helps a lot, says Schweitzer, not to fall into the trap of thinking of colleagues as normal friends. Nor even the jokes about “work husbands” or “work wives”.
Instead they’re more like brothers or sisters. First because we are stuck with them for inordinate stretches of our life.
(I spend more quality time with my work team than anyone else, all without the usual rites of passage to mark best friends and loved ones. I haven’t married or gone naked sea-swimming with any of them yet, and not for lack of trying. But here we are.)
And second because with our siblings, rather than our friends, we’re happy to accept a more uneasy and complicated mixture of rivalry and trust. We expect it even.
This is the book’s overall message: for the E-to-self crew and the E-to-others crowd to learn more from each other.
To judge a good boss by how he treats the lowliest of employees, let’s say. Or not to ditch a colleague as a canteen-mate just because they act with a predictable self-interest.
The authors themselves lived this tension through their book.
Schweitzer was going to write a different kind of book on his own when he mentioned to it to Galinsky, who is both a professional rival and a friend.
“Adam said: ‘That’s stupid. Don’t write that book. If we write a book together, it will be better.’ ”says Schweitzer.
“My first reaction was: ‘That’s obnoxious.’ ”
Calling your collaborator obnoxious is a little strong, I say, but we’ve all been there.
“Yeah, well, I was glad I could overcome my reaction,” says Schweitzer.
“This book is better. He was right.”
Friend & Foe by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer is out now: Random House.