A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
August 24th, 2014 by William

You Can Only Run Away and Join the Circus if the Circus Wants You

One of my all-time favorite comedians, George Carlin, once said, “Just because you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.” There’s a bit of truth to that statement if you think of it in terms of changing jobs–which was the focus of last week’s post. In this context Carlin’s quote reflects the fact that in quitting one company that’s little better than a circus, odds are that you’re taking a big chance that the next company will also resemble a circus.

Everybody’s been to a three-ring big top circus at least once in their life–right? You probably think it’s not been since you were a kid, but did you realize you might be going to one every day at work?

A three-ring circus is one in which there are three adjacent rings in which performances take place simultaneously. For instance in one there will be acrobats defying gravity and balancing between life and death; in another there will be equestrian shows with people balancing on the backs of horses as they speed around the ring, and in another, you have wild animals and their human trainers. And of course mixed throughout there are clowns–lots of clowns.

The circus concept originated in England in 1768 as the brain-child of Philip Astley. Not so ironically this is about the same time period that modern corporate structure was spawned. The circus concept came to America in 1793 when Bill Ricketts opened a one-ring circus in Philadelphia. This was the mainstay of the circus for another 80, or so years. Then in 1871 Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup débuted P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus which added to the typical circus menagerie by adding exotic animals, sideshow oddities and performances of strength and agility. They added a second ring in 1872 and a third ring in 1881.

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Barnum teamed with James Anthony Bailey to create an even bigger circus. When Barnum died in 1891, Bailey continued on with the circus. After Bailey’s death in 1906, the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus and merged it with their own popular circus–the same one we see today.

Why the analogy that a workplace can be a circus? I’m sure everyone has heard that comparison at one time or the other. First and foremost is the fact that in any dysfunctional organization, at any given time, just like in the circus, you can become the main attraction. Metaphorically the lights will go out in two of the rings and the spotlight will be squarely on you as you are singled-out by your sociopathic bully boss or by a colleague who is intent on torpedoing you to further promote him or herself. Face it, most modern workplaces are little better than a three ring circus of simultaneous events that most often defy logic, are (career) death defying in nature, and make you shake your head in amazement, amusement or disgust.

The evolution of the modern circus isn’t much different than the growth of a typical modern company as evidenced by the chronology detailed above. The circus started small (one ring) and evolved into the three-ring extravaganza it is today. Thus just like any modern-day business organization, the circus needed twenty elephants instead of two to fill the three rings at once. They needed 10 clowns instead of one; lion and tiger tamers and acrobats. Every act grew bigger and more flamboyant. And, just like the evolution of the circus from one ring to three business organizations are constantly adding more metaphorical elephants, lion tamers and of course clowns.

And by the same token organizational structures evolve into a sophisticated circus-like environment where the rings–usually way more than three–are all the various departments which attempt to maintain their segregation from each other like the fiefdoms of medieval times. Of course in the modern business organization the three rings can also be defined by the behaviors of the inhabitants. At any one time you have hatred, anger, and chaos; disagreements, confrontation and back-stabbing; and of course, sprinkled amongst the three rings we find the people who perform the function of the organizational clowns.

In fact your typical workplace is so much like the true three ring circus that you can make a direct comparison of the performers in the circus to the people you’ll meet every day in the workplace. Let’s dissect you’re average circus and look at the similarities to the modern workplace. Here are a few different circus performers and how they mirror the personalities found in the typical modern workplace.

Of course first we have to talk about management–the ringmasters. The ringmaster isn’t much different from the management of your typical organization. The ringmaster orchestrates the actions in the three rings as does the typical management in the workplace. However, a big difference is that the circus ringmaster trusts the performers to perform their jobs accurately, whereas the typical management types in any organization use command and control and micromanaging to ensure the work is being carried out by their staff performers. Why is it that way? Because trust between management and the workers is a scarce commodity in most workplaces.

Next is the Lion Tamer–really the ringmaster of one of the rings. Lion Tamers are like department heads. They are in a life or death situation (can be replaced at any time by the ringmaster or be eaten alive by the very animals he/she is trying to tame (manage). They need to do anything, and everything, to keep their act running smoothly. Both the lion-tamer and the department head are cast from the same command and control mold. Like the lion-tamer, bosses believe they have everything under control and only they can tame the wild beast. Like the ringmaster, department heads use tools like micromanagement to keep control. Your might say the lion-tamer reports to the ringmaster in the same way that a department head reports to the head sociopath and are just as sycophantic in nature.

Next are the sideshow performers like Fire Eater, Knife Thrower, or Sword Swallower. These are people that bring unique talents and complementary skills that are needed by the organization to actually perform the work and insure the success of the organization. They are talented in their role and work hard however, each only concentrates on one responsibility or a small piece of a work needed to run the organization. These are the organizational individual contributors.

The Trapeze Artist blends the daredevil skills of the lion-tamer with the focus of a sideshow performer. They are the ones that have realized the need for others and rely on others to help them perform. You can’t have a successful trapeze act without trust amongst the performers. Thus the trapeze artists are those that work well as team members. They react quickly to situations and can work on the fly or change directions easily. These are the type personality that are necessary to keep the organization tied together.

The acrobats are slightly different from sideshow performers–who only master one skill–as they are versatile multi-taskers who can juggle, and perform gymnastics and ride a horse, sometimes all at the same time! They are a virtual one-person show. They are adaptable, flexible and have multiple skills, which mean they can work independently, as well as part of a team.

Lastly if you ever watch the circus, you have probably seen the clowns running around. They’re entertaining and add to the overall experience of going to the circus. However, you might also notice that clowns are always performing simultaneously with the acts in the three rings. They never have center stage. They are what give the circus the overall feeling of chaos. Workplaces have the same kind of clowns interspersed throughout the organization. These are the people that make most workplaces a hard place in which to work and give the workplace that overall feeling of chaos.

So which type personality do you best represent? Are you a lion-tamer, a trapeze artist, an acrobat, or are you one of the clowns? While it may be true that you can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you, if you’re one of those personalities and you’re looking for another job I’m sure you can find a circus somewhere that needs you. That’s because every workplace organization is like a three-ring circus with the same ringmaster, lion-tamers, fire eaters, acrobats and clowns. However, be especially cautious of the knife thrower.


3 Responses to “You Can Only Run Away and Join the Circus if the Circus Wants You”
  1. Thanks!!…

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