A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 20th, 2014 by William

The Career Jungle Gym

Throughout our careers we’ve all thought of our desperate climb to the top in the traditional metaphorical way, i.e., that of climbing a ladder. However, Sheryl Sandberg, in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, And the Will to Lead, provides us a different perspective when she tells us that, “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”

From my own career experience I think Sandberg hit the nail on the head by describing the climb as being on a jungle gym v. climbing a ladder. That’s simply because the climb to the top isn’t always a straight line like climbing a ladder. Despite that, the term “corporate ladder” is many times used to describe the hierarchy of a company’s organizational structure. The ladder analogy reflects the levels that must be climbed to get to the top of the hierarchy. The problem with the term is that the climb to the top can be anything but a ladder. A ladder affords no opportunity to move side to side without falling off and having to start over at the bottom, whereas the jungle gym description perfectly reflects how one can move laterally from side to side and up and down if need be in the path to the top.

I personally have knowingly made a few lateral career moves along the way all with the long-term goal of rising to the next level just via a different path. It should be noted that a few of my supposedly upward moves ended up being unknowingly lateral moves–but that’s a story for another post. I’ve also taken the bite by knowingly moving back down the ladder, from a pay perspective, (it was also a career change from factory work to engineering) so as to have better long-term chances of advancing. That’s kind of the way we climbed on a jungle gym as a child. We may be climbing and reach a point where there’s something blocking our way (like another child belligerently stuck in position) so we must navigate around them. That requires movement sideways or back down and around.

When you think about it the typical organization chart–the graphical depiction of the so-called ladder–does look more like a jungle gym than a pyramid–especially if you take into account the lateral interactions that actually happen between equal-level positions on the chart. In fact most interactions, required for someone to do their daily job, may well require interaction with people at their same level, a lower level and even a higher level on the chart.

From a career planning perspective we all keep a focus on the organization chart. In fact I could make the case that it’s the number one document in any organization that everyone knows like the back of their hand. And we probably don’t realize how focused we are, or even obsessed, we are with organization charts. That’s the beauty of a start-up organization–they typically don’t have formalized organization charts–thus people can’t get fixated on where they fall on the chart. Most organizational dysfunction begins when the first organization chart is published. I believe they are the bane of organizational existence.

So who do we have to thank for the organization chart. Well, the Scottish-American engineer Daniel McCallum (1815–1878) is credited for creating the first organizational charts of American business around 1854. The term “organization chart” came into use in the early twentieth century when, in 1914 Willard Cope Brinton, an influential man in business broached the subject in his popular book, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts. In the book he makes the observation that; “organization charts are not nearly as widely used as they should be.” This, of course, set off the rush for every organization to develop an organizational chart. Now they are a standard for every business to develop. And their very existence sets off the human need to want to climb that chart because it represents the challenge to success.

Companies utilize organization structure to document their business hierarchies and that hierarchy then becomes everyone’s roadmap to stardom. In addition to delineating management levels, organizational structures assign clear roles to departments and individuals to provide them with a sense of purpose and responsibility. Organizational charts also are graphic methods for presenting the power structure within the organization. The one thing they typically do not show however, is the horizontal relationships–and roadblocks–which are most often the real key to an organization actually being able to accomplish day-to-day activities.

All organizational structures are shaped like a pyramid–with steps just like a ladder–narrowing as they approach the top. This view helps explain why the old saying “climbing the ladder” came to describe how one would climb to the top.

Of course the downside to all organizational structures is that they only show “formal relationships” and tell nothing of the pattern of human social relationships which develop. That is the culture that develops and every organization has its own unique culture–some highly functional and some highly dysfunctional. And worst of all, they provide little information about the leadership style of the management team, e.g., whether they manage autocratically, or democratically.

In the end it’s exactly these “patterns of human social relationships” and whether the management team is “autocratic” or “democratic” that make the path to the top a climb on a jungle gym v. a climb on a ladder. Not only do you have to negotiate around people stuck in position (victims of the Peter Principal) but you must be able to survive the jungle gym of individual personal agendas that many times are focused on knocking you off the jungle gym completely–or at least stepping on your fingers–as they climb out in front of you on the way up. After all is said and done, sometimes it’s best to just jump down off the jungle gym and go try the climb from a different starting point.

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