Define camel. Horse, built by committee.
For years, I’ve been fascinated by group dynamics. It’s been my personal theory … and I’m still collecting evidence … that office environments are the ultimate expression of personal dysfunctionality. In my many years of working with others, it is here I have seen the best of the worst. As the unsurpassed testing grounds for “children: don’t try this at home,” there’s something about being assembled for the purpose of work that provides the impetus for outrageous behavior. Especially in Corporate America, where it’s the method of operation to leave the spiritual self outside the door, and the WHO that you are of the WeAreOne waiting in the parking lot. The standard methods and business practices leave anyone with a heart wondering “Who ARE these people, and what have you done with the humans who showed up for the first day of work not that long ago?”
For those of us who came through the School of Hard Knocks, we have earned our diplomas for Paying Your Dues, achieved On-The-Job-Training Credentials and refined survival skills that are worthy of special forces designation and combat pay. Some of us have also accomplished formal education to add some initials representing our achievements. We learn to think, inductively and deductively, and we pound through curricula of theories and fact patterns that often mean little once we leave the world of academia to pilot our way through office politics. We relentlessly work to break the code of the inexplicable multipliers that separate the vast majority of front line workers who have hands-on to the revenue from those living in the corporate tower, believing the expression of their value deserves millions.
The why of this escapes me. Now I’m the first to say I love Oprah. Yet, Oprah and I are within months, if not weeks, of each other in age. Both of us came from humble upbringing. We both work hard. We have vision. And we both have ties to Elvis Presley. OK, I’ll admit mine is a bit nebulous. I know his step brother, David Stanley. She claims to be related. But Oprah built an empire and maintains houses that measure in terms of thousands of square feet per person/animal. My furry critter and I are quite happy to live a bit more lightly on the planet — we have a few hundred feet that she permits me to care for so Kitty World Order is maintained and the milk bowl filled on command. We both do our best to help others — and we each have our success stories to share.
To this day, I am non-plused by celebrity. There are just some things, as I echo my grandmother’s phrasing, I can’t abide. I cringe at the thought of anything with Sarah Jessica Parker’s involvement and avoid it at all cost. The why of this only makes sense to me. Some years ago, I actually threw my favorite source of trash reading across the room into the wall, when I read a few lines of copy. During the fashionable season when the stars all carted their new babies about in little hand carried baskets, which lasts only a few weeks before they must find other means and ways, Ms. Parker was spied shopping at a very upscale baby boutique. She was dutifully reported as having spent $3,000 a set for Laura Ashley sheets for said basket. I could not reconcile that against the reality that 26.000 children starve to death somewhere in the world each night. Clearly we’d have difficulty finding topics to discuss that are meaningful to each of us. It’s a good thing I’m not in jeopardy of being on her A list. Whew we’ve avoided that awkwardness once and for all.
I guess I shouldn’t have been worried. Not long after that, the trend was replaced by the “teeny weeny dog” syndrome, where stars carted teacup-size pets everywhere the rest of us could not take our Fidos and Fifis, in fit-for-purpose designer bags. And even that gave way to the fashion statement of adopting third-world children, whether they were truly orphaned or not. But I digress.
The behavior you see in offices makes some of the celebrity eccentricities seem tame in comparison. With the inflow of energies that promise to reintegrate the divine feminine and masculine, giving rise to new ways of being, I am hopeful. How long it will take to become pervasive in the office is anyone’s guess. Or perhaps the office will go the way of all the other things that do not serve us. I’d vote for that.
My own career began in a world of discrimination. Back in that day, men ruled. Everything was militarily managed, perfunctorily performed. Women were mostly clerical support. As a child, it was still a rarity to find a woman who worked outside the home. If she did, she was “one of those” who couldn’t keep a husband. Still smarting from being told great school grades matter not, if any one has a college education, it will be the boy in the family. I entered the work force as a clerical worker. I nursed my wounds when my own goals were dashed to follow in the foot steps of my father in law enforcement. Yes, I had three strikes against me: (1) being female, who were only hired as meter maids and pool typists, (2) being too short as 5 ft 1.5 inches didn’t come close to the 5 ft 6 in requirement and (3) having a family member in the department. They did interview me to be a typist for the City Planners and then said no, once they knew my dad was a cop. Over time, I had popped up like cream in the bucket and by my early thirties, survived enough of the corporate politics to arrive in a very strange place. The work I did rivaled the best of the male counterparts. And I held responsibility for books and records of 283 operating companies in a publicly-held company. But the lack of a college degree kept me from moving into the executive track and pay levels. The acquisition of it could take me no further. So I took time out to take care of that, and worked only 40-45 hours a week instead of the more usual 60-80, so I could switch gears.
In my time, I’ve worked in the board rooms teaching those with my patience and quiet ways that racial slurs, sexual comments and anti-competitive discussion points might not be the best things to record verbatim in corporate records. I’ve witnessed ritual firings and vindictive crucifixions of those who would not “play nicely by the rules” or had the gall to stand up for customer satisfaction over corporate profit. Sadly, I’ve worked alongside the women who thought their only way up was through emulation of male behaviors (known as ball busters). They don’t make quality friends and tend to lead somewhat lonely lives. I survived the politics by simply focusing on the work, customer satisfaction, translating customer delight into cost savings and quietly making noise in my corner. I’ve always shown up to work, not be best friends nor chit chat my day away at the water cooler with others. Often I find myself wondering what could a person do every in an evening that merited 8 hours of rehash while phones rang unanswered, customer needs went unmet and woe be to the one who interrupts to ask for assistance with a work-related matter. “Can’t you see I am busy?” is often the reply.
I still marvel at the high degree of dysfunctionality especially in smaller “mom and pop” shop organizations. Here the person often hires a reflection of themselves and is astonished they can’t get along. Or they hire someone with less know how and skills than they need. I guess it makes them feel smarter? Smart hiring brings in the best and brightest to plow the field and turn the soil of stagnation. In a small company, it seems there is always fear. They can’t be smarter. When they look up, all they see is the owner’s butt in the chair and no chance of advancement. Or their great credentials cause the owner to project that they will be bored. Many use the friends and family hiring plan. That generally gives you a double dose of dysfunctionality and even more politics to navigate. It’s a real thrill to learn you just won the short straw and Junior, who can neither spell nor write, is your new copy editor. When the manager befriends one person, to the exclusion of all others, the way the resentment, frustration and lack of support manifests always result in an expression that impacts customers. Then there are the family dynamics of small businesses that track right into the work environment. You may not be related – but you witness on occasion how easily they lose their perspective as owners of separate companies. They slide into the parent-sibling or brother-sister role of shouting louder to be heard and issue orders that are resisted. I also love the logic of apparent democracy — that everybody gets a “vote” on every subject whether or not they are a stake holder based on the area of responsibility they have in the organization. The flip side of this dynamic is the process of “concensus” — finding agreement, often subject to all manner of dysfunctional factors, that produces something everyone is able to live with. There’s your camel, even though the desired outcome of that team was a horse, fit for purpose.
Those who must throw temper tantrums earn special mention. The way these manifest range from the obvious (yelling, screaming, foot stamping, chair throwing) through the ridiculous (cancelling all the company credit cards only to find the next day that OOPS that wiped out the credit lines, or simply leaving half the travel team standing on the runway watching the corporate jet perform wheels up because “when I said 8 AM wheels up, I mean 8 AM, not 8:15”). The one that has a special place in my collections worthy of the Hall of Shame Award is a very nasty, attacking email. It was sent to an outside consultant not in the employ of the email writer and contained all manner of threats, demands and directives, including one to simply shut down the company of the person who should have received the email. Apologies are never issued and everyone walks around the elephant in the room. If we all pretend hard enough, it never happened, eh?
Staff dynamics pose the trickiest and most logic defying analysis. In larger work environments, there is a really bizarre practice that is somewhat ritualistic. The same day a worker has quit, been fired or allowed to resign, an after hours raid of their workspace happens. It reminds me of the stories of the locust plagues that picked everything in the countryside bare. The next morning, you arrive to find the workspace totally disassembled and chair, computer, office supplies, company-owned reference materials missing. Sometimes they are replaced with all manner of unwanted items. And other times, all that remains is the mess for a janitor to pick up and shuffle out to the dumpster. The pettiness of staff can loom large. If you have a competitive situation, both women will escalate their demands and work to outpace each other. I’ve watched with incredulity while this pernicious type of person expects to be give a month of paid vacation not quite 60 days after arrival in a new job, during the company’s busiest time. I’ve seen others borrow expensive equipment and take it home, refusing to return it. And even one who claimed that 6 months of back rent for a personal residence should be paid by the company as additional compensation. Still the big winner in the Hall of Shame Classic are the two secretaries that escalated their battle to an issue between their bosses over who was most entitled to have the newest dictation transcriber. That one nearly caused world war 3.
The guys have different ways of expressing themselves with regard to position and stature. Especially at the executive level in bigger companies, it seems that the higher you rise, the less distance you are able to walk from parking spot to office. Those with windows, and especially those on building corners, have higher value and are evidence of one’s status. Carpet colors must be different and of a better grade in an executive office. And the actual square footage one gets increases with pay level, rather than by allocation to those who really need the space to carry out duties. Private dining rooms, executive chefs, corporate jets, personal washrooms, and secretaries who run personal errands to fetch dry cleaning, pay personal bills, and ferry children to soccer practice are all hallmarks of arrival at the “level” that counts.
The way out of this morass has come through a new way for organizing around work. It’s still not widely used or prevalent, but offers some hope of a bridge and path forward. This is the collaborative team. It is a group of people that come together for a purpose or project. It’s not a marriage for life. There are no hierarchies. No managers. No performance reviews and few politics. Every person on the team is viewed as important and essential. They bring their expertise and their passion to the table. Some contribute for specific reasons and leave. Others have ever-changing roles and morph blithely through their process. To say it is leaderless is a misnomer. Every person has the potential to be a leader and serves when required. Everyone is a follower. These groups are founded in trust, mutual respect, and shared vision, mission and purpose. The word is their bond. They take accountability to heart, knowing that when they are “on” they feel the need to be there. If they aren’t handling their obligations, no one else usually can do it for them. Like any group you do see the natural process — forming, norming, storming and performing. It’s not sequential nor linear.
When they hit road bumps, they may return to a forming. Some come together so quickly, you simply see them go from showing up for introductions to high performance teams in the matter of hours. These folks bring the best of who they are to the table, in many cases. They understand the importance of staying on task and in area, but do often ask or often to assist (which is much different than just jumping in) to be the one “who has your back” if your part of the work needs more support. They have “simple, common courtesy” inbred in their DNA. It would never occur to them to simply walk away from commitments to pursue something else. Don’t get me wrong. Change happens. It’s just that they take the time to inform the others, my station here must be restaffed. I’ll make sure it is covered until my replacement arrives. I’ll help with training as best I can.
What you find parked outside the door when these folks come to work may surprise you — egos, personal agendas, cut throat competition, job titles and attitudes — if they had these at all. There’s no place for that in a collaborative team. What they bring in in terms of conducting themselves respectfully and in personal integrity is bamfuzzling. These team members listen more and talk less. They are as focused on the way their work will impact other parts of the organization as they are on the details of the work at hand. They celebrate successes and each other. They organize around the work and take their pledge seriously — if one team member does not deliver, the entire team has failed. I’ve watched company CEO’s wash dishes, fetch pizza and ride in the back of the plane, while the staff worked through the night. I’ve witnessed places where the formal, but casual way of referring to each other as Miz Sally and Mr Pete went straight into the boardroom as common practice. And there have been amazing aha’s that go off in the company checkbook in a positive way, when a team-based recommendation was implemented. By giving front line staff authority to spend money to offset customer dissatisfaction, one company found that their customer retention rate improved tremendously. For taking a chance on the people that know their customers better than anyone else they spent a few dollars ($25 per incident) to save an extraordinary amount of money (value of customer loss was $2500-3000 to replace, and may represent $10000 to $30000 across lifetime of contract). There is no I in team.
Here’s your challenge for today. Look at how you work. And how you interact with your family. Do you see places where you could shift from an old paradigm way of thinking to embracing something new or different? Are there places you are already in the role of a collaborative team, even if it is called something else. What wisdom can you share back so others may learn? Feel free to post comments so all on the blog monitor can benefit from your experience.
This article merits a PS for illustration. I love the internet legend/story that demonstrates what self-importance will get you. It was told to me like this. At the Denver Stapleton Airport, a United Airlines passenger was spied in hot conversation with a Customer Service Agent. The nexus of the disagreement is not important. It was just clear that she had rules to follow and this business executive wanted to have it his way. Finally he pulled out the old paradigm tactic of raising his voice, giving her his best “don’t you mess with me” look and snarled “Don’t you KNOW who I am?” The woman was the picture of unflappability. She politely said “One moment, sir”, reached under the counter to pick up her paging mike and professionally spoke into it. “Attention, all passengers and patrons of United Airlines in Terminal C. We have a party at the Customer Service desk who doesn’t seem to know who he is. Is there any one that can assist this gentlemen? If so, please report to station 3 immediately.” The normal chaos and noise of the terminal suddenly went to deathly silence. Then someone in the line behind the executive begin to clap. Soon everyone was applauding the cheeky agent. The executive took his tickets, his seat assignment and went off to the plane, after apologizing to the woman for his rudeness.