Saturday, September 17, 2011

Office Politics: Careers and cleverness

Husband comes home seething with righteous anger, tells wife he took on the boss, told him where he got off, enough’s enough, my self-esteem is more important than the consequences.

Wife’s eyes reflect the sheen of pride in her husband, the hero, we’ll take the world on my darling, keep the starch in those principles, don’t let anyone ride roughshod over you, show them what you are made of, the right stuff and all that. Someday later the houseboy back answers, is out of line or so the husband thinks. The reaction is instant. Insolence is unacceptable. He must be punished, the cheeky sod. And he is. Cancel his visa, send him home, he did not know his place. Why is virtue in us not a virtue in somebody else?

We spend an inordinate portion of our lives feeling good about the sort of persons we are. We even offload our concept of ourselves on others. “I am like this” or “I am very particular about” are sentiments, which preface our self-sell. Yet, establishing stakes turns into an invasion of our dignity when we become the targets. Surely, if we can dish it out we should be ready to take it. Remember the last time you cut your superior to size and felt justified as he squirmed and your colleagues admired your courage?
Splendid, so long as you are ready to extend the same privilege to your subordinate who may be somebody else’s superior. But when he takes you on, you bristle with rage. Many of us then plot to get even because we convince our-selves that retribution is well deserved, His misdemeanour is our martyrdom. One senior journalist, for example, worked for a very high profile Editor who was overly conscious of his prerogatives as a crusader and still is. Almost super-sensitive to any encroachment of his authority he brooked no interference. Paradoxically, he was indecently cavalier with the space other people administered. Since he had the benediction of the proprietors, little could be done to control his arbitrary tramplings in office and the chasm between that image and the sword and shield wielding civil rights champion projected to the outside world widened by the day.
Finally, a delegation was forged and dispatched to protest his double standards. The man was completely bewildered by the attack. So smugly certain was he that everyone admired his courage and his vitriolic pen that he presumed we also saluted his unilateralism. The lesson completely failed to get through and to this day he cannot practice what he preaches.
Success and power blind such people to their flaws and allow them to set themselves up against their own rules of conduct, denied to the rest. The tougher they go the deeper the dichotomy. They are candid. The rest are nitpicking. They see the whole picture. The others muddy the waters. They are innovative. Their subordinates are shortsighted. We’ve had bosses like that and been bosses like that. Our perks are legitimate, the other chap misuses company property. We see the greater good. He is only propelled by self-interest. We exercise individual perceptions. If he does it he is guilty of not being a team man. We know what we are doing. He is groping in the dark. We see ourselves as fair, reasonable, compassionate, open to suggestion and tolerant, never realising that others see us as mean, spiteful, small, vengeful and suspicious.
The more people we command the more potentially dangerous becomes this idea we have of ourselves as paragons. Failure to accept our weaknesses leaves us vulnerable to blandishment and flattery from the ranks and very soon the manipulator becomes the manipulated. Thousands of good people collapse mid-career because they serve inept and incompetent superiors. Instead of giving off their best at all times they divert their energies into the art of survival and engage in the most widely played game of all time — office politics. What is seen to be done becomes more important than what is done and the equation on the hierarchy becomes fluid and dependent on expediency and not expertise.

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