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By Max Jacobson

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Being Austin Powers in the workplace

26 Mar 2020

I struggle with pop culture references. When I don’t get them, I feel uncultured. When I do get them, sometimes I pretend I didn’t get them, so I don’t need to acknowledge that, for example, I’ve seen all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Other times they’re just not funny and if you say you didn’t get the reference, that’s a polite reason that you’re not laughing.

So anyway, I’d like to make a pop culture reference. I really never do this. There’s that saying that “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”. I agree with the sentiment: sarcasm is also bad, but for me it places at least above:

  1. pop culture references
  2. photos of signs

But one must sometimes stoop.

There’s that scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) when the title character (Austin Powers) participates in a photo shoot. He breezes in, barks orders at the models and crew, snaps a bunch of photos, and the very moment he’s bored, he says, “And I’m spent”, and hands off the camera. He doesn’t even look. He just holds it over his shoulder, and an assistant hurries forward to take it.

I think about this thirty second scene all the time. I hadn’t actually seen it in twenty years, but it’s never really left me. Like all great art, it shows us something true: a confident attitude lets you get away with a lot.

That attitude! In my memory, he tosses the camera over his shoulder, knowing someone would catch it.

Sometimes in the workplace, I feel like Austin. It’s not entirely intentional. Whenever groups of people come together, power dynamics emerge. I’ve been on teams where everyone is so nice. We all glance around to one another’s eyes, saying things like, “No, you go first” and “If that even makes sense” and “I could be totally wrong” and “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes”. I respect the impulse here, and it’s not that I love to step on toes, but when collective politeness gels into collective inaction, that’s a problem. When that happens, someone is going to do something about it. And I’ve often decided that it should be me, because I’m nice, and I’ll do a good job. It’s probably the case that most dictators also think they’re helping.

I’m definitely the guy in the meeting who says things like, “I think we all agree that we want to do X, for reasons A, B, and C. Some of us think we should approach it this way, but there are some reservations that haven’t been fully addressed. Is that right? Can we explore those some more?” Just a little recap, a little bridge building, a little supporting of the points being made, and a nudge toward a resolution. I’m 100% doing my best effort to channel Brian Lehrer, the fantastic radio host who speaks every weekday with journalists and experts in various fields, asking questions that get exactly to the heart of what matters. He also takes calls from New Yorkers, often scatter-minded and emotional, and he helps them tell their story. He rarely offers his own opinions (this morning he offered a gentle defense of the lima bean), but he drives the conversation exactly where he wants it to go.

Social psychologists talk about the fundamental attribution error. This is the one that Carlin was talking about here:

We have privileged access to our own minds, so it’s often possible to feel like we know why we’re doing the things we’re doing, and it’s in our self-interest to justify our own actions, so that’s what we do.

Sometimes in a workplace, someone will toss the camera over their shoulder to someone else. They did the fun part, and they got bored, and they want someone else to finish it up. That way, they can go do something else that’s fun. Sometimes we call this delegating, and it’s a good thing, because it’s giving an opportunity to someone that wants it. Sometimes it kind of sucks for that person. I think it’s not always easy to tell which one it is when you’re the one tossing the camera. But you do your best.

One last pop culture reference for today. This is related.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten really into The Mountain Goats, a wonderful and prolific band that has been putting out wonderful records every one to three years for the last twenty-five years. Their most recent album, In League with Dragons (2019) is characteristically wonderful. I particularly like Clemency for the Wizard King, Waylon Jennings Live!, and the final song on the album: Sicilian Crest. That last one has stuck with me. I hate to talk about Trump on my blog, but it’s about this moment when right wing “strong man” leaders have emerged here in the states, and in Brazil, and in Hungary, and in Russia. Perversely, it tries to explore and explain their appeal by celebrating it. It suggests that, when things are bad, and the people are scared, we’re particularly vulnerable and that vulnerability can be very easily exploited by someone who promises to protect us. Like with Austin Powers, we’ll let them get away with anything.

I didn’t really get that from the text, I got it mostly from this podcast interview about the song, in which he describes the song as “quasi-fascist”.

I recommend that podcast very highly, even if you don’t like The Mountain Goats, although I suspect you already do or you’re about to.

Is it perhaps also the case that we’re drawn to Strong Man, Austin Powers types in the workplace? I think it’s true that most CEOs aren’t just men, but tall men. Even though, you know, that’s very stupid.

(Of course, Austin Powers is hanging a lantern on the absurdity of these men by placing a gnomish weirdo with a bad accent in that position, and that’s why it was great political art as well.)

Look to the West

Look to the man

Bearing the Sicilian crest

Despite my not wanting to celebrate such men, when I saw them play this song live, and I was singing along, Look to the man, I started to believe it. And when they drew the outro out practically indefinitely, letting the piano notes cascade over me in wave after wave, I never wanted it to end.

And I’m spent.