Stand Out at Work. Solve the Principal-Agent Problem.

If you’re looking for a hack that will put you on the fast track to success at work, I have something for you.

You might not like it.

You might hate it.

You might even despise it so much that you do the opposite.

But sometimes we all must take our medicine and do what it takes to move onward and upward.

Going Against the Grain of Going Against the Grain

I know, I know. Since I started this blog, I’ve been doing a lot of railing against the idea of working for someone else. While I do not back down from my stance one bit, I do realize that not everyone wants to work for themselves. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and a lot of studying on the topic of work, and I feel confident enough to divide the workforce into three camps:

Group A: The small percentage of people who love their jobs. People in this camp find meaning and enjoyment in the work they do, and their salary is comfortable enough to support their preferred lifestyle. Kudos to these people! They have found the nexus between their version of meaningful work and financial freedom. To achieve this outcome is the ultimate purpose of why I write about work.

Group B: People who hate their jobs and are looking for an alternate path to meaningful work and financial freedom. Finding suitable answers for these folks is my primary objective, and I find myself in the unique position of creating my own answer to this problem in the process.

There is a third and under-represented camp: Group C, the silent majority. These are people who don’t like one or more aspects of their job, but simply don’t feel the need or the urge to venture out on their own. If you find yourself in this camp, this article is for you.

The Status Quo Is Unacceptable

If you read How to be Extraordinarily Ordinary, you’ll see my disdain for the status quo on full display. That post was a bit tongue in cheek, but I will not mince words in this post.

There are a million and one reasons for someone not to like their job. Ranging from pay rates to petty office politics. From specific job functions to Pam from three cubicles way receiving preferential treatment. From not enough hours to too many hours. The list never ends. But one thing is for certain: very few grievances are ever made known to those with the power to change it.

The rest are suppressed, hidden from sight, slowly growing into intense misery. This intense misery subsides after a while into dull indifference and acceptance. Selfishness and the “what’s in it for me” mindset sets in, and newer employees are quickly influenced to follow the same path. This is the life cycle of status quo acceptance.

What I learned as an employee is that arranging a work environment conducive to happiness and success is not as hard as you would think. If you simply take the time to sit down with management to lay out your grievances, most of the time you can work something out. And in the rare instance they are not willing to work with you, then it’s a clear sign that you probably should move on.

What I learned from leading 80+ restaurant employees is that disgruntled employees are an inevitable part of managing such a complex system. There are so many moving parts in a large organization that you won’t be able to please everyone all the time. But the astonishing part is that most grievances will go undiscussed, no matter how open the door is. Employees who do not speak up will be condemned to their displeasure, and will inevitably poison the well. For those employees, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In order to give success and happiness at work a fighting chance, you cannot accept a status quo that does not work for you. But if you find that you cannot extract yourself from the situation, your only choice is to lean into your work.

How to Get Ahead at Work

I’ve been on both sides of the fence and have experienced both perspectives of what is called the Principal-Agent Problem. To put it simply, the principal (the owner or boss) has the incentives to do what is best for the good of the firm. The agent (the employee) often only has incentives to do what is best for themselves.

The norms of mediocrity have made this dichotomy an unfortunate reality. Most agents just don’t care enough about what the principal cares about. Different incentives, different goals.

As an agent who is committed to the firm, your best path forward is to think like the owner. It is the one thing you can do to guarantee getting ahead. When your aspirations are aligned with those of the owner, you instantly put yourself on the fast track to success.

Think Like an Owner and You Will Become the Owner

On the spectrum of happiness, those people closest to maximal happiness tend to be the ones in control of their own destiny. This simple fact is why I have repeatedly advocated for you to take an alternate path, take ownership of every aspect of your life, and leave the crowd behind.

If working for yourself is not an option in your mind, then your only option for true success and happiness at work is to lean into your work and be excellent. To be excellent in your workplace:

  • Never say “that’s not my job.”
  • “How can I help” needs to become an instinct.
  • Become a leader within the organization, regardless of your title.
  • Don’t wait for someone to tell you to do the work that needs to be done.
  • Avoid petty workplace politics.
  • Take ownership of everything you do. No excuses.
  • Be consistent. The principal has to show up every day, and so should you.

To illustrate this, I’ll tell you about an employee, who worked for me at the restaurant I managed, named Mike. Mike personified every single item on the above list. He was a college student and a busser, but he was so meticulous, so consistent, and so reliable that he earned the nickname “Cap,” as in Captain America.

I was so impressed by his work ethic and attitude, that I offered to promote him on more than one occasion. He turned down my offer every time because he believed what he was doing was the most effective way for him to help the restaurant.

The job wasn’t glamorous, but he leaned into his responsibilities in a way that earned him freedom, trust, and a sense of meaning in his work.

I’m confident that because he thinks like an owner, Mike will one day become an owner.

The Clear Path Ahead

There is a clear path to controlling your destiny within the confines of working for someone else. This path is not easy, you might not like it initially, but it will yield the most satisfying results over the long run.

By operating from a position of abundance, by going the extra mile to help others look good, by inspiring and lifting others around you, you will stand out above the rest over time.

I’ll finish with a quote from Naval Ravikant, who sums it up nicely: “If you think like the owner, and you act like the owner, it’s only a matter of time until you become the owner.”

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