A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 15th, 2014 by William

Strike While the Iron is Hot

The old proverb “strike while the iron is hot,” means don’t hesitate–do it now–don’t leave until tomorrow what you can do today. In other words, when opportunity knocks, answer the door. Its origin comes from the imagery of the blacksmith at his forge. If he delays in shaping the iron when it is hot and pliable the metal soon cools and hardens and the opportunity is lost. Striking while the iron is hot is all about being an opportunist.

Remember, “While the optimist, pessimist and realist are arguing over whether the glass is half empty or half full, the opportunist drank the water.”

We’ve all probably used the phrase, strike while the iron is hot, and even lived by these words at one time or the other. However, you typically don’t hear it in the workplace–it’s not one of the over-used buzz-phrases found in the workplace lexicon. I wonder why that it?

The definition of an opportunist is a person who exploits circumstances to gain immediate advantage−someone who acts on opportunities in a self-interested, biased or one-sided manner that conflicts or contrasts in some way with a societal norms, or principles. Hence opportunistic behavior is usually regarded as questionable or dubious behavior, because it is seen as making selfish use of opportunities at the expense of others. All my research on the subject presents opportunism in that same negative context.

Even as far back as 14th-century, when Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy, opportunists were frowned upon. In Canto III, The Vestibule of Hell, Virgil leads Dante up to the Gates of Hell, and upon entering, Dante hears innumerable cries of torment and suffering. Virgil explains to Dante that these cries emanate from the souls of the Opportunists−those souls who in life were only for themselves. They are neither in Hell nor out of it. Eternally in limbo, they race round on ground covered by worms and maggots pursuing a blank banner, pursued by swarms of wasps and hornets, which sting them repeatedly. Sounds like your average day at the office.

The British Conservative statesman Stanley Baldwin is supposed to have quipped: “I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck.” Again the connotation is that to be an opportunist you must jettison your principles.

When talking about human behavior, opportunism has the connotation of a lack of integrity, or doing something that is out of the norm. The underlying thought is that the price of the unrestrained pursuit of selfishness is behavioral deviancy. This implies that opportunism involves compromising some or all of the principles normally held by the person or organization to which the person belongs–assuming the organization actually has a norm of positive values. However, the boundary between “legitimate self-interest” and “undesirable selfishness” can be difficult to determine. It depends on one’s point of view.

Since opportunism concerns the relationship between what people do, and how those actions relate to their personal principles, opportunist can also be a positive personality trait. In that light opportunists are people who don’t wait for a grand opportunity to come about before taking action−they simply transform events to advantageous situations. Why is that necessarily bad?

I’d like to look at it from a positive angle–not from the angle of those who would torpedo their co-workers to advance themselves. You see, they shouldn’t be called opportunists; they should simply be called bullies. An opportunist sees all current events, or situations, as an opportunity and will seize the moment. They are decisive and proactive−both traits that are idolized in modern business. With a mind open to everything, there’s no room for narrow thinking–they think outside–and inside–the box, unlike their colleagues the optimists and pessimists−or even the realists.

Opportunists come in many forms, but the workplace opportunist is believed to be the worse. However, the truth is that in the workplace environment opportunism can be either benign or malignant. Benign opportunism is the conscious striving of the individual to better their career–to learn more−to hone their skills. There’s nothing wrong with that.

However, opportunism becomes malignant when it crosses the line into organizational dysfunctional behaviors and the playing of games such as divide and conquer; stump the dummy, and the practice of throwing each other under the bus. The malignant opportunist tries to improve their position in the organization at the expense of others. Malignant workplace opportunists wield a virtual club when they want someone else to do their work for them, when they steal credit, or when they want essential resources for themselves. They leave a wake of virtual dead bodies.

In game theory, opportunism concerns the contradictory relationships between altruistic and self-interested behavior. Here opportunism deals with how the different kinds of public and personal interests that exist in any situation are used mainly to make gains for oneself. Two classic cases discussed in game theory where opportunism is often involved are the free rider problem and the prisoner’s dilemma.

A “free rider” is really an economic term which refers to someone who benefits from resources, goods, or services without paying for them. The workplace can be rife with free riders and the normal response to these people is that other individuals may actually reduce their contributions, or performance, if they believe that one, or more, other members of the group may be riding free. This is the mechanism at play when a team has a bad apple that brings the whole team performance down by free riding.

The “prisoners’ dilemma” is a situation where two rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it’s really in their best interest to do so. The prisoner’s dilemma exists because betraying a coworker offers a greater monetary reward and possibly greater status than cooperating with them. All self-interested, opportunistic workers will betray each other−it’s the sad fact of life in all organizations including the workplace.

Malignant workplace opportunists don’t stop with just torpedoing their colleagues. They will attempt to divert everything from office space to staff because they cannot stop taking from others. Workload opportunists include the members of the “team” who are the first in line to take credit when everything goes well. When problems develop, they are the first to point fingers or slip out of sight and out of mind. If your boss is a workaholic or micromanager then he’s a malignant opportunist.

These are the people who give opportunists a bad name. However, I make the case that opportunism is the most misunderstand yet highest-impact approach to decision-making–being opportunistic can really be a virtue.

I ask: What is the difference between being an opportunist and being proactive? Taking advantage of opportunities as they arise is the essence of being proactive AND the essence of being opportunistic. There’s no difference–being opportunistic and being proactive are one and the same. That is, you take no action until a compelling opportunity comes to your attention. The only difference is that in a proactive approach you would commit time and resources to finding and qualifying opportunities–not just waiting for them to happen. In other words you’re a workaholic opportunist.

That all said, whether you’re an optimist, pessimist, realist or opportunist, we should remember that there are really only two relevant mindsets in the workplace: reactivity and proactivity. Despite what you may think, the two modes are not mutually exclusive−they complement each other. In today’s work environment it’s critical to develop both our ability to be reactive and proactive. Reactive behavior enables us to accomplish our daily job tasks. The proactive part of us is oriented toward the future and the unknown. It is a creative mindset which departs from the beaten track of reactivity. Imagination and intuition are its main tools because everything cannot be planned. Creativity cannot simply be mandated, nor can it be scheduled. Proactivity is the art of imagining new situations and taking control of them–being opportunistic.

Being proactive is about organizing yourself in a flexible way in order to jump on new events and, above all, to initiate change. To me that’s a lot like being an opportunist. So the question is why is being proactive preached so much in modern business yet being opportunistic is frowned upon? What is wrong with making the best of any situation you find yourself in whether planned or stumbled upon? The dividing line of course is when jumping on an opportunity involves taking advantage of, or torpedoing, a co-worker.

Richie Norton, author of The Power of Starting Something Stupid: How to Crush Fear, Make Dreams Happen, and Live without Regret tells us, “Opportunities will come and go, but if you do nothing about them, so will you.”

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