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React non-newtonially


If you've been to a science fair, or watched science videos, you've probably seen oobleck. It's just corn starch mixed in water, you can make it at home.


When you simply feel oobleck, it's just a slightly viscous white fluid, not much special about it. But, if you smack it, for that instant its surface becomes nearly solid, and resists your force surprisingly well. It works so well that you can literally run across a tank of oobleck in your bare feet. (I have done this, and highly recommend it.) But you need to be careful doing that, because after that initial shock, the fluid stops resisting. Too slow, and you sink.


Oobleck is a non-newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity is not independent of stress placed on it. There are a bunch of other non-newtonian fluids that have different relationships between viscosity and stress.


I've realized that oobleck is a metaphor for how I have begun reacting to demands that others place on me at work. For most of my life, I've been more like simple water, or any other newtonian fluid, where given a stressor, I handled it the same way. My viscosity, which is my willingness to flow with the demand, didn't relate to the amount of stress.

And by stress, I'm not talking about the stress related to the topic of the request, but instead, the stress imparted to the request itself. It's not about what is being asked, but how it is being asked. Basically, are you being collegial and friendly, or forceful and overbearing?

This sounds shallow. How is it reasonable to treat a request differently based on how it's being asked? What's important is the request itself, and as a professional I should focus on that, right? "Pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the fuckin' car."


Well, the truth is, nothing in work life is as dire a situation as cleaning up a headless corpse in the back seat of a car. In the thick of it, though, when that fight-or-flight response is in high gear (don't I know how that is), a request you have to give can sure feel like it. And that's when you dispense with your usual decorum and start being driven and assertive.

Alternatively, you just get impatient, and decide to be a leader and make some calls, i.e., unilateral decisions. You get all grave and serious, and lay down some hard talk, and puff out your chest.

And that's exactly when somebody needs to check you. There are always way too many tasks for way too few people to do, and when someone comes in roaring with a demand, they need to be reminded of the greater situation. Moreover, just because some situation is incredibly urgent for you ... supposedly ... doesn't make it one for me. Surprisingly, I have not been just sitting around doing nothing, just waiting for you to swoop in; I've got my own load to bear.

So, the non-newtonian strategy is to increase your viscosity based on the stress. Someone makes a request calmly, orderly, respectfully, reasonably: no problem, let me take a look at that. Someone makes a request unilaterally, presumptively, rudely: nope, not helping you.

When someone gets to the point where they feel the need to shout out their demands, what's really happened is a misalignment. The requester has some super important thing to get done and it's super urgent, but the requestee doesn't know about it or doesn't know it's that critical. Both sides haven't been communicating. That's the real problem, and when it happens, the wrong move is to let it slide, because then, it will keep happening. That strategy, or lack thereof honestly, ends up working, so it continues.

Yes, surprises occur. Fires erupt. Even then, even when swift decisive action is needed, you don't have to be a dick. In the middle of a fire, you are going to need a good working relationship among all the firefighters, so a culture of stressful interactions is exactly what you don't want at that point. Stifling that when it arises, when there is no fire, is one ingredient to fostering that culture.

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