A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 18th, 2014 by William

Industrial Strength Musical Chairs

“If you’re not invited to the table then you’re probably on the menu.” – Hannibal Lector

I just read an article on LinkedIn that turned out to be quite controversial−it received over 1,400 comments−mostly negative toward the author. The article “Shoot the Dogs Early,” (April 07, 2014) was written by Barbara Corcoran, TV Personality on “Shark Tank.” Corcoran tells us about her philosophy for yearly weeding out of poor performers. As she said, “[I] established a firm policy at the Corcoran Group to clean out the bottom 25 percent of our commissioned sales force each year.” All of the comments that I read blasted the author for her callous “lay-off” technique. While I’m not necessarily a supporter of that lay-off style, what I found to be “harsh” about the article was her labeling anyone who’s been laid-off a “dog.” I bring this article to your attention because I saw a thread of reality in her description of how she executes the process−it reminded me of the game of Musical Chairs.

We’ve all probably played Musical Chairs in kindergarten. The game involves a group of children and a number of chairs one fewer than the number of children; the chairs are arranged in a circle with the kids standing in a circle around the chairs. The game starts when the music begins. While the music is playing, the players in the circle walk in unison around the chairs. When the music suddenly stops, the kids must scramble to sit down in one of the chairs. The child who is left without a chair is eliminated from the game. For the next round one chair is removed to ensure that there will always be one fewer chair than there are players. The music resumes and the cycle repeats until there is only one player left in the game−the winner.

Little did any of us know at the time but, through this innocuous game in kindergarten, we were being introduced to a process that will be repeated metaphorically later in life in the workplace. Just like those poor bottom 25% every year at the Corcoran Group, life in the modern workplace is like a game of Industrial Strength Musical Chairs.

In the workplace we’re exposed to the game of Musical Chairs in two different ways. The first revolves around the fact that the law of supply and demand is a daily reality. As one moves up the organizational pyramid structure the number of positions available (the demand) decrease in quantity, while the number of individuals (the supply), competing for these positions, exceeds the number of positions available. Our second exposure to the game of musical chairs is that we all live in quiet, chronic fear that we’ll be the target of a lay-off, i.e., we’ll be left standing when the lay-off music stops.

When we strive to move up the pyramid we’re in effect playing a game of musical chairs. While the music keeps playing, you may keep moving, but the music can stop for you at any moment and you’re left without a chair−or more appropriately you’re stuck in the same chair. Industrial strength musical chairs is one of the reasons organizations grow dysfunctional–everyone ends up back-stabbing each in the fight for a chair when the music stops.

We see this back-stabbing clearly in “Bull,” a current-running off-Broadway play by award-winning British playwright Mike Bartlett. While I haven’t seen the play personally, critics write that in watching the play you get a ringside view of three employees of an unnamed corporate entity who are at the endgame of vying over only two positions that will remain after a round of downsizing. The play graphically depicts both of the types of musical chairs−lay-offs and the narrowing pyramid−that we face in the battleground that is the modern workplace

Just like in the real workplace, what happens in the play is that two of the players join forces, like members of a wolf pack closing in on a wounded zebra−the third player. Anyone who has ever worked in a hostile work environment will recognize what’s happening in the play. The two sociopathic antagonists−Tony and Isobel−are determined to claw their way to the top regardless of collateral damage. They pummel poor Thomas, the third player who doesn’t stand a chance against these armed-to-the-teeth backstabbers.

The play takes place in a waiting area shortly before the three players meet with the boss. From the onset, Tony and Isobel hammer poor Thomas, denigrating him on everything from his dress, to work ethic and even resort to childish name-calling. They behave just like a pair of high school bullies. The play is billed as like watching the playground bullies beat up the wimpy kid but it gives us accurate insight into how people treat each other in the workplace−and how many are picked for lay-off.

The Free Dictionary defines a “layoff” as: “the act of suspending or dismissing an employee, as for lack of work or because of corporate reorganization, or; a period of temporary inactivity or rest.” The later definition implies that the lay-off is a temporary one—but we all know that 99.9% percent of the time layoffs are permanent. The first definition however, is what management will usually call a “downsizing” or some other in vogue corporate buzzword like “right-sizing,” “smart-sizing,” or “reduction in force (RIF).” All these are more politically correct labels that help make management feel less guilty after they do the dastardly deed. Call it what you want but they are all really just firings (a term you’ll never hear in the workplace any more) and all have the same finality for the poor sucker left without a chair.

Whether the bottom 25%, as in the Corcoran case, or the bottom 10%, as in the Jack Welsh model, all those buzz-phrases are just euphemisms for the game of Industrial Strength Musical Chairs that is played out every day in the workplace. What we all can empathize with in the play is that when we’re laid-off we become losers, or as Barbara Corcoran would call us, “dogs.”

Popular management delusion believes that layoffs are somehow rationally engineered−an organization’s opportunity to effectively “thin the herd” and let go of its weakest performers. There’s some of that now and then, but if anyone thinks that there’s some scientific process behind deciding who gets laid-off, you’re kidding yourself. As someone who’s many times been in the thick of having to lay people off, I can say, without a doubt, that the lay-off planning is never a rational, data-driven, process. Many times it’s simply management targeting all the Thomas’s in the organization.

To survive you need to be a Tony or an Isobel. The decision about who gets left without a chair when the music stops is many times personal−it’s about dog-eat-dog and as such, at the end of the day it’s every dog for himself.

Milestone: this blog post is my 100th


One Response to “Industrial Strength Musical Chairs”
  1. Stanley Gendron says

    Greetings! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading through your articles.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums
    that go over the same subjects? Thank you so much!

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