A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace

Authors Blog

October 21st, 2015 by William

I Know You Are, but What Am I?

“I Know You Are, but What Am I?” is a classic retort spoken by Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) in the 1985 film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Although most people credit Pee-Wee for this line, it has been around for a while. It first appears in the 1974 article “Philosophies of Communication: Implications for Everyday Experience” by Lee Thayer.

The phrase is an assertion that an insult made by someone toward another is really only true of the person making the initial insult. Of course the second part of the question then serves as a taunt (as we see in the movie) for the insulter to come up with a new insult. And as we see in the movie the back and can forth go on and on.

In the beginning of the movie Pee-Wee is just minding his own business when the local bully, Francis, comes by and tells Pee-Wee that he wants to buy his bike. Pee-Wee’s not having it and tells Francis his awesome bike’s not for sale. Francis then tells Pee-Wee he must be crazy. Pee-Wee responds to Francis’s accusation that he’s crazy by saying “I know you are but what am I?” Francis keeps the insults coming by responding with “You’re a nerd!” and “You’re an idiot!” All of which Pee-Wee responds with, “I know you are but what am I?” After this back and forth goes on for a while, Pee-Wee rides off happy on his bike. Francis then angrily points his finger at Pee-Wee and shouts, “You’ll be sorry, Pee-wee Herman!!” Of course if you’re familiar with the film you know that later Pee-Wee’s bike gets stolen and Francis becomes the prime suspect. The rest of the movie chronicles Pee-Wee’s adventure to find his bike.

You don’t really hear the phrase, “I know you are but what am I?” in adult circles–certainly not literally. However, I call this phrase to your attention because I’m reminded of it every time I see back and forth political discussions (term used loosely) on Facebook. While no one ever literally uses this phrase, most Facebook discussions, that are political in nature, follow the “I know you are, but what am I” insult/taunt format. In my last post, “I Feel I’m on a Life Support Machine and Everyone Keeps Pulling the Plug to Charge Their Phones,” I offered up what I think to be a new societal problem in that we, as a society, have become actively aggressive toward one another in the interest of pressing our own needs and, more so, our beliefs onto others. And this aggressiveness is manifesting itself on our social media platforms like Facebook. And nowhere does it show more than in political discussions.

The dialog between Francis and Pee-Wee is almost like a Facebook dialog between two people of differing political persuasions. The first person posts something defaming or mocking toward another’s political beliefs–just like Francis telling Pee-Wee he must be crazy. Someone else responds virtually as Pee-Wee did with “I know you are but what am I?” The first person then responds like Francis keeping the insults coming by responding with “You’re a nerd!” or “You’re an idiot!” and so on. While the words may be different the intent is the same.

I understand the powerful urge to convert those with whom we disagree. The desire to win and keep score is a powerful drive. Each of us has an inner lawyer, ready day or night to make a defense for our beliefs and try to convince the jury to see our side of any argument. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business reminds us, “There are two ways to get at the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their observations, and test them. Lawyers begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.” Most of us as it turns out are absolutely outstanding lawyers yet believe that we are open minded scientists.

That’s OK–to an extent–its human nature. But what I see happening today is we seem to go out of our way to post things on social media that can be downright insulting to anyone other than those that share our views. We insult each other under the narcissistic guise that our beliefs are the only ones that matter and everyone who disagrees must be an idiot.

The posts that usually kick-off these disrespectful discussions take the form of the sharing of a cartoon, or some biased news article, that presents something negative about someone, something, or some group that has different beliefs than we have. These posts either make fun of the other side of an argument or support our own belief or position on an issue. For example we share a post that supports global warming knowing full well we have friends that don’t necessarily buy into that theory.

In a world where everyone gets offended by the least little thing it’s no wonder these discussions quickly escalate. This is because, when insulted, we all feel the overpowering need to respond to prove the other person wrong. They then respond again and we’re off on our own Big Adventure. Our initial response to someone making one of these posts is as if we just said: “I know you are, but what am I?” This is no different than the response by Pee Wee to Francis having told him he’s an idiot.

Of course when we engage in these back and forth discussions there’s an added benefit if we can get others to side with us, i.e., to “like” our comments or posts. However, keep in mind this is just the gathering of agreement by people who already agree with us. We relish getting these “likes” because we’re little better than a gang trying to bully others. The sad fact is that many times we maliciously post inflammatory information just to get a rise out of those who disagree with us. We do it despite the fact that no one has ever converted their beliefs because of the silly shit biased posts on Facebook.

Sadly, this behavior is driven by an underlying self-doubt. The fact is we all have a self-doubt about whether our beliefs are really the best and fear subconsciously that we’re making a mistake in our belief. Having others reinforce what we believe in quiets this doubt and further embolden us to post more inflammatory junk. This behavior isn’t new–it’s been around long before the Internet or social media. It’s captured in an old saying that describes this behavior perfectly; “if you want to build the biggest house in your neighborhood, there’s two ways to do it. Roll your sleeves up and build the biggest house, or tear everyone else’s house down.”

Increasingly so this on-line incivility is further fueled by how divisive our culture has become–especially in the political arena because it seems that every issue facing our society has become a political flash point. Sadly, that divisiveness seems to be getting worse by the day. In politics the candidates that we seem to idolize, both left and right, are focused on tearing down the other guy, either in the opposing party, or as we see in primary season each other within their own party. Rhetoric is spewed versus telling us what they really stand for or what they’ll do once in office. Ironically, when either side does tell us what they will do once in office, they are pounced on and ridiculed as not knowing what they’re talking about, or (my favorite) that they don’t give enough detail thus aren’t credible. It’s just like what most of us have endured at work. We’re told that our good idea “will never work,” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work.”

What a beautiful and peaceful world this would be if the candidates spoke only about their own personal beliefs and what they’ll do in office and then we, the electorate, can just listen to what each candidate has to say, process that through our own private belief filters and then make a decision on who we’ll vote for? Then let the chips fall where they may. Alas that will never happen unless we stop gutter snipping at everyone we disagree with?

When reflecting on the latest school shooting in Oregon, one of my friends noted that she believed the real underlying causes for this epidemic lies in our outright stressful society that we’ve created. We are a society that has developed unrealistic expectations about our future, thus we develop an inability to cope with disappointment. This has spawned the entitlement mentality we see today. And part of that entitlement mentality is the expectation that we’ll always get our own way whether in our personal life or in how and where we think the country should go.

A good example is the practice of every child getting an award just for participating. It teaches kids that no matter their effort or skills they will be rewarded. Couple this with the fact that they’re taught that they need not have accountability or responsibility for their actions. Everything negative that happens to them, or that they do, is society’s fault, not theirs. All this contributes to the recipe for the exact environment we see today, both politically as a nation and how we individually behave on social media.

Another thing that makes all the gutter-snipping so pitiful is a direct result of the internet’s ability to provide us with any article, study, opinion or data that supports our view. The problem is that most people take these as the gospel (oops a religious reference) and then “share” them on their Facebook page for all their friends to see. The Internet can provide us with a full arsenal of false yet sophisticated data proving that our beliefs are the only true ones and that anyone who disagrees with us must be intellectually or morally bankrupt. The sad thing is this is really a diversionary tactic to deflect our own self-doubt onto all our challengers.

Few people will ever take the time to check the sources and the underlying data behind these (often humorous I’ll admit) posts before they feel the overpowering need to “share” them. In most cases all these articles prove is that if someone wants to make a point they can dredge up any story or fudge any numbers to support their belief. We think we get away with it because our arguments are credible to enough people. They make attacking each other look like fun and they attract many joiners. Unfortunately, it’s turning social media into little better than a rhetorical goon squad.

A child who uses the “I know you are, but what am I?” argument thinks he’s winning regardless of whether his challenger really does. Thinking we’re winning is why we engage in this childish behavior. It makes us feel good. However, “I know you are but what am I?” is not a credible approach to adult arguments yet it’s the perfect way to describe what’s happening when we gutter snipe at each other on Facebook.

If we really want to look credible in our need to convince others to our way of thinking we should try to make our arguments credible by citing facts not rhetoric. This is done through the use of critical thinking. Rhetoric is a great political tool but when you really want to change minds its best to present an argument based on critical thinking as would a scientist. As a society we have lost our ability to think critically. We are a society that does what makes us feel good, not necessarily what’s in our collective best interest. I’ll wager that if all the people who are overly, sometimes militantly, staunch in their beliefs would really take the time to look at both sides of an issue, including the cause and effect of their beliefs, they just might find they have to call into question many of their beliefs. Who am I kidding–that will never happen. Sadly, today most issues are believed only because they have a Democrat or Republican following.

In the end, I’m reminded by what H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), American essayist and philologist once said, “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

September 6th, 2015 by William

I Feel I’m on a Life Support Machine and Everyone Keeps Pulling the Plug to Charge Their Phones

“I Feel I’m on a Life Support Machine and Everyone Keeps Pulling the Plug to Charge Their Phones.” This insightful gem comes from Presidential aide Amy Brookheimer, played by Anna Chlumsky, on HBO’s hilarious series Veep. It describes the feeling we get when we realize that everyone just plain does not care about our wellbeing. This just might be the most accurate quote depicting how we all have felt at one time or the other in our life and career. We’ve all been in a job where we felt we got zero respect. I guess you expect it in the workplace where competition for jobs and money are acute however, the way our culture as a whole is evolving it’s not just a workplace phenomenon but the zero-respect attitudes that seem to be manifesting throughout society touch us in everyday life as well.

The sad fact is that no one really cares about anyone but themselves anymore. I know that’s a strong statement. I’ve written about this many times before and the preface to my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, details my view of how the world (and thus the workplace) is getting more and more dysfunctional every day. And by dysfunctional I mean the trend we’re seeing of more and more rude, disrespectful and selfish behavior. I heard a good term the other day to describe these rude people–they’re COWs. COWs are people who are thoroughly convinced that they are at the Center Of the World. I’m sure you’ve all come across these type people. I don’t believe it possible to go out in public anywhere and not come across many of these people. People believing they are the COW are everywhere.

Being a COW means that you’re so consumed by your own little world that you’re unable to function respectfully with your fellow man. It’s an all-consuming selfishness that’s taken over human behavior. Simple selfishness is being concerned, sometimes excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one’s own advantage, pleasure, or welfare–we’re all like this to some extent. It’s a normal human tendency. However, being “concerned” about our own welfare and turning that concern into aggressive behavior toward others is something altogether different. And I believe that’s exactly what’s happening in society today. We have become actively aggressive against one another in the interest of our own needs and, more so, in our need to press our beliefs onto others.

Of course this begs the question why are we becoming so disrespectful and rude toward each other? I believe it can be summed up in the concept of “perceived anonymity.” Through our technological advances we have largely become an anonymous society relying on email and social media sites to do our communication with the outside world. We tend to distance ourselves from real human interactions and relationships through the use of our technological tools. Using these tools provides us a sense of anonymity as we hide behind our keyboard. Unfortunately it’s only a perception of true anonymity. Our self-centered attitudes give us the courage to stretch common courtesies into actually being almost uncivil towards each other.

I’ve seen this in my career. People at work will fire off an email blasting a colleague without thinking about potential harm to their relationship. That wise guidance about sleeping on whatever you feel impelled to write is a valuable lesson many never learn.

Our on-line incivility is further fueled by how divisive our culture has become. Everywhere we look every issue is always boiled down to “us v. them.” And we must take a side–society makes us take a side. And if you take what others believe is the wrong side you’ll be labeled with some derogatory descriptive. Being able to absorb and attempt to understand both sides of an issue is a lost art.

I want to make it clear however that being connected to technology, i.e., smart phones, computers, TVs, etc. isn’t really the problem. The real problem is that we have created platforms on our technology that facilitate our self-absorbed rude behavior and further perpetuate the divisiveness.

The real problem is that we get on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter and all the other social media sites and have no remorse about posting snide comments about our perceived enemies, i.e., all the people who think differently from us, be it religious, politically or even racially. We repost (share) an article we may have seen that attacks or makes fun of a political group, religion, or others whose leanings are different from our own. We will blast another political party or religious group that we don’t agree with as being “morons” or “hypocrites” with impunity. Of course we do this because we’re offended by their beliefs, never once realizing that our rants are offensive to others. But of course we could care less whether others are offended as long as we aren’t.

We have no problem doing any of this because of that illusion of anonymity coupled with our innate superiority complex. We are thoroughly convinced of our own importance to the exclusion of any other belief system. The problem of course is that our friends, who may not agree with either our beliefs or our comments, are really the only ones who read these posts and it’s tough not to take these comments personally. We completely forget that these are our “friends” that we’re blasting these posts out to–not our enemies. Who “friends” their enemies on Facebook? The whole reason we are connected (i.e., are friends) with anyone on a social media site is because we (supposedly) want to be connected to them. We want to share our lives with theirs. We want to be “friends” with them yet we’ll not think twice about posting something that may undoubtedly insult them.

I see all the time comments from people questioning how society has become so obsessed with not being “offended.” Everything seems to offend someone. I believe that the underlying reason is that we’re subjected to so much derogatory information on these social media sites that we naturally begin to build up a militaristic attitude toward any comment that attacks our belief system. We see our so-called friends blast our belief system in one of their ill-conceived posts and at first we just blow it off however, the constant deluge begins to erode our temperament to the point that we become offended by the least little thing.

It’s interesting to note that the dictionary definition of “social” pertains to, or is characterized by, friendly companionship or relations; seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; connected with, or suited to polite or fashionable society; living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation; involved in many social activities. Now think about your own Facebook experiences. They can sometimes be anything but “social.” Our “friends” will post articles that clearly offend us all the time. Granted we are inundated with newscasts or interviews that preach nothing but bad news and heated political debate. Seems everything is political these days as our society become more and more split.

It’s tough not to get worked up about the issues we disagree with. Anyone who believes different from us is the enemy and we label them idiots. But that’s Ok to some extent. If we keep our views private it’s OK to have a differing opinion. That’s what a free society and the freedom of speech is all about. The problem is we as a society somehow find it necessary to let the world know how we feel about everything. However, taking to Facebook and blasting out our views and/or dissatisfaction with those that disagree with us is not what these sites are meant for in my humble opinion.

From my own experience Facebook has been instrumental in my reconnecting with relatives that I hadn’t talked to in many years. Reconnecting and sharing in their lives is what it’s all about. I also know that many of my Facebook friends disagree with either my religion or politics. However, I don’t go out of my way to gutter snipe at them by exalting my beliefs.

Of course you can unfriend those that post offensive things. But doesn’t that just compound the problem? Isn’t that divisive? Isn’t that just as divisive as the comment or post made by a so-called friend? Hence how this rude behavior keeps multiplying. If this wasn’t the case then we’d not be hearing the outcry by just about everyone that they’re being “offended” by something or the other. We as a society seem to relish offending anyone who thinks or acts differently than us. Granted, most people need to thicken up their skin a bit because the whole “I’m offended” thing has gotten a bit out of line but that’s a subject for another time.

The bottom line is that these social media sites are for just that–being social–not divisive. They are for posting news about your life in a non-accusatory, non-judgmental way and conversely wanting to hear and see about your friend’s lives. Unfortunately that’s not how these sites are evolving. Too many people use these sites as a bully pulpit to spread their views on every conceivable controversial subject we as a society face. If you are so full of yourself and feel the need to tell everyone your unsolicited opinion on a subject start your own web blog bully pulpit and have at it. Nowadays everyone is looking for a bully pulpit, hence why Facebook is quickly devolving into the divisive tool that feeds people’s self-interest.

So that phrase, “I Feel I’m on a Life Support Machine and Everyone Keeps Pulling the Plug to Charge Their Phones,” has new literal meaning. Literally people are more interested in using Facebook and Twitter as a bully pulpit to preach their opinions than they are with truly being your friend or even caring about your feelings.

Ironically, I’m sure we’ve all heard the old saying that when at a party never discuss politics or religion. That’s because when we’re face-to-face we understand how offensive our opinions may be to others and we shy away from discussing them. We certainly don’t want a heated discussion at a party where we’re supposed to make friends and have fun. However, when on Facebook (where we’re talking to our friends and supposed to have fun) we have no problem with blatantly insulting them by posting a derogatory post about one or the other of our self-important beliefs.

Aside from insulting our friends, the real harm is that sadly our kids and grandkids are observing us the whole time. Great example we’re setting isn’t it? And it will only get worse with each passing generation.

July 31st, 2015 by William

If You Want to Know Where the Food is–Follow the Fat People

Have you noticed that we don’t hear the term “fat cat” used much anymore? I’m surprised given the relentless modern day attack on the supposed evil people running big business and the exorbitant salaries they command. I Googled the term and got thousands of links to stories and pictures of literally cats that are fat, but no recent news article where a reporter has used the term to describe a captain of industry or politician.

The term “fat cat” was originally used in in the United States in the 1920s to describe rich political donors. The New York Times described fat cats as symbols of “a deeply corrupt campaign finance system riddled with loopholes,” or the recipients of the “perks of power,” who were able to “buy access and influence.” The term’s coinage has been attributed to Frank Kent, a writer for the Baltimore Sun whose essay “Fat Cats and Free Rides” appeared in the magazine American Mercury.

From a business perspective, it’s a slang term used to describe executives who earn unreasonably high salaries. The term conjures up the image of cats that consume more than an appropriate amount of food and become grossly overweight–food being the perfect metaphor for money. So it naturally follows that to obtain money the best place to start is with the people with the money–if you want to know where the food is–follow the fat people.

We demonize these fat cat captains of industry claiming it’s because we deplore the inequity of the salaries at the top versus those at the bottom. Personally I think it’s more personal–we really don’t like what we see when we look in the mirror. The hard truth is that most all of us have our sights set on rising up the corporate ladder and eventually being a fat cat and having enough cash to do and buy the things we want. Admittedly some may not be in it necessarily for the money. They may strive for status and power in one form or another. In this case status and power again serve as the perfect metaphor for being fat. If we’re true to ourselves we all strive to be a fat cat whether we like that term, or the people it describes.

All of us are constantly grappling with how we’re going to get to the top in the shortest possible time and reap the associated benefits. Many of us believe that the road to the top is paved with good intentions, when in fact it’s the road to hell that is paved with good intentions.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), the Irish author, playwright and poet is credited with saying that “No good deed goes unpunished.” I’ve written about this comical reality before. Fact is it’s why there really is no meritocracy in business. Thus if you think that you can rise to the top by the merits of your actions you are sadly deluding yourself. The fact is that for most of us to get to the top we’ll need to practice a combination of good intention AND sucking up to the fat cats in power.

What’s that you say? There is no way you’d ever stoop down to ass-kissing to get ahead. “I’m not going to play that game. I’m going to be rewarded by my own merits and career achievements!” Let me be the first to welcome you and your unrealistic and short-sighted view of humankind to the modern dysfunctional workplace. The fact is if that’s how you feel all I can say is good luck in your endeavors. You’d better get comfortable at the back of the bus–the same bus you’ll one day undoubtedly end up under at the hands of your ass-kissing colleagues. You see in the real world only the cut-throat, ass kissing sycophants get to climb the ladder to the top.

Every career plan needs to have, dare I say must have, a clear understanding of how to augment good deeds, intentions and hard work with down and dirty dabbling in brownnosing and ass-kissing. Of all the hard skills that you’ll develop throughout your career only ingratiating behavior is the one that needs to be practiced and perfected if you really want to move to the top. Don’t believe me? According to research from James Westphal and Ithai Stern at the Kellogg School of Management, “being adept at ingratiating behavior was the number-one factor for getting positions at the top of the corporate ladder.”

Fact is that everyone is looking for the extra edge on the other person. If you and a co-worker are equally as valuable and skilled at your jobs and only one of you can get a promotion, who do you think your supervisor will pick? There are lots of people with the right degrees and résumés, so if you want to be the kind of employee fat cats (and sociopathic bosses) yearn for; you must find a way to stick out of the crowd. And by sticking out I mean you simply must be the person that he likes better than all the others. And why might he like one person over another? Simple–he’s human and like everyone is susceptible, and will succumb to, someone kissing his ass, flattering him, agreeing with his every idea and generally doing anything to pump up his ego. When a person’s primary goal is arriving at the upper crust, there’s no limit to what you’ll need to do to achieve that goal.

Of course this sounds unfair but it is the reality of the modern workplace. To get ahead it’s not simply a matter of sucking up. You must suck up to the right people. So who are the right people, and where do I start, you may be asking? It’s simple really–if you want to know who to suck up to just remember this simple truism: “if you want to know where the food is–follow the fat people.”

June 24th, 2015 by William

Eventually Things Get Tragic Enough To Circle Back to Comedy

The ancient Greeks are credited with inventing theatre sometime between 600 and 200 BC. For the Greeks there were really only two kinds of theatre–a tragedy or a comedy–there was no in-between. In the ancient Greek theatre a tragedy typically depicted the downfall of a once prominent and powerful hero. The Greek comedy was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of ending in death and downfall for the main character, a comedy ends in that person’s triumph, or the rise in fortune of the central character.

“Eventually things get tragic enough to circle back to comedy” is a death bed comment made by the family patriarch Gabe Bloom (Mandy Patinkin) in the 2014 film, Wish I Was Here. In the film Patinkin’s character is dying of cancer and is talking with his son (Zach Braff) providing wisdom on how to accept life’s inevitable curveballs. This quote hit home when I heard it as the whole tragedy turned comedy scenario is certainly an apt description of our work lives. We’ve all probably experienced the feeling this quote inspires as we’ve all been in work situations where we’ve told ourselves that things were so bad that our only recourse was to laugh because if we didn’t we were going to cry.

Most of us bide our time in tragic job situations hoping that some miracle will happen and we’ll be able to find a happy ending to our misery. I’ve been in my share of dysfunctional organizations and I’ve noticed one important thing. As things got so bad I found that the only way to get through each day was to try to see the humor in my situation and convince myself to laugh because if I didn’t I was surely going to cry–or strangle someone. Everyone who works for a living is caught in that struggle to turn their personal work-life tragedy into a comedy. Like the ancient Greek theatre, in the workplace there’s really no in-between–either you’re happy (the comedy) or you’re suffering some degree of unhappiness (the tragedy). And to spend your days unhappy is truly a tragedy by any definition.

It’s interesting to note that the Greeks developed the tragic theatre from the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine. In fact, Dionysus became known as the god of theatre. Specifically, the worshipping of Dionysus included the sacrifice of goats while wearing masks and drinking wine. We can jokingly see a lot of similarities in those practices with that of the typical workplace. Substitute the ritual of sacrificing goats with its modern workplace equivalent of “throwing people under the bus,” and couple that with the fact that everyone in the workplace learns to show a different face to “mask” their true thoughts or intentions and you can see the parallel the workplace has to the typical Greek tragedy. Not to mention the fact that the workplace has always been known to drive people to drink. In this sense all workplaces are tragic in nature.

I’m currently watching the first season of the HBO show called HAPPYish. It is a somewhat dark comedy-drama series starring Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn. Coogan’s character, Thom Payne is a depressed middle-aged man who is confronted with a new and much younger boss. Thom is miserable–truly living in a tragic work situation. The show’s about Thom’s pursuit of happiness–his trying to make sense of his situation and turn his tragedy into comedy. He’s not exactly successful hence he finds he must describe himself with only feeling “happyish.” Are you like Thom Payne, living in a tragic job and barely happyish? Does your job suck? In talking with another of his compatriots about their mutually tragic work existence, Thom explains the reality of workplace life by say, “It’s a job, it’s supposed to suck.”

In your own sucky-tragic work theatre you are the central character and your goal is undoubtedly, like Thom Payne, to try to turn your tragic situation into comedy. So the question is: do you go through every day only wishing for a happy ending to your misery? Have you gotten to the point I was at–realizing that things are so bad that your only recourse is to laugh because if you don’t you’re surely going to cry? The question then becomes one of how to learn to laugh and turn one’s tragic situation into a comedy.

Of course the quickest way to change your personal tragedy into a comedy is simply quitting your lousy job and finding another in hopes that the new workplace will not be as tragic as the one you’re in. In HAPPYish, Thom ponders exactly that course of action and changes his mind. Why: Because he realized that all workplaces are dysfunctional to some extent, so once the honeymoon at a new job would end, he’d be back to finding himself in the leading role of yet another Greek tragedy. We’ve all heard the phrase, “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.” In fact it rarely is. So with that in mind, if quitting isn’t an immediate option, you’ll need a different approach to find a happy ending, i.e., making your “tragedy” into a “comedy.”

There’s an old saying, “Everything will be OK in the end, and if it’s not, then it’s not the end.” That same logic can be applied to describe being in a lousy job situation. You may think being stuck in a tragic job is the end but if everything isn’t OK then it’s really not the end. However, you have the ability to make it the end and make it OK. How? The way to end your misery is simply by learning to see the comedy in your situation. You may not think so but workplace comedy does exist–you just need to develop a new mindset to be able to recognize it. Personally I find dysfunctional workplaces hilarious so you shouldn’t have to look far to find comedy–irony and stupidity are funny. The entire premise of my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, is that the best way to combat workplace dysfunction is to study it, understand it and learn to cope with it by seeing the absurdity.

We all know there’s a lot to be said about the medicinal benefits of keeping a healthy sense of humor. Humor can be the path to a happy ending because it helps you to cope with your situation. Coping is a good skill to nurture as you’ll need this ability if you want to survive a long career. I know for me the best way to cope with a bad job situation was through humor. Why? Because humor will allow you to survive in any tragic situation whereas you can’t quit every job just because you discover it to be just as tragic as the last one–your resume will end up being hundreds of pages long.

That said I know finding humor in a lousy job situation sounds like a tall order since there’s a good chance people in a dysfunctional organization aren’t cracking jokes on a regular basis. In a dysfunctional organization few find the courage to laugh at anything. The truth is that laugh out loud humor hardly ever works in a dysfunctional work environment anyway. In fact, cracking jokes will undoubtedly get you fired. That’s because the sociopaths in charge see any form of organized humor as a sign of disrespect for their self-perceived leadership and thus they see it a personal threat. You don’t know what a tragic work life is until you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of a sociopath’s wrath.

So, to be proactive in converting your own tragedy into a comedy, you must train yourself to find comedy in the basic dysfunction that surrounds you and in your own dysfunction. This requires a different definition of comedy because, as I note above, we’re not necessarily talking about laugh out loud kind of humor. The kind of comedy I’m talking about is found by learning to see the basic irony and stupidity in most of the dysfunctional happenings you see on a daily basis. You must be willing to acknowledge the absurdity underlining your own bad experiences, mistakes, failures, and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In other words, you need to be able to laugh at yourself and your mishaps. Once you’re able to laugh at yourself, and the idiocy surrounding you, you could say things have truly gotten tragic enough to circle back to comedy.

And if you can’t find the comedy in your own foibles then there’s only one other option. I think Will Rogers put it best when he said, “Everything is funny as long as it’s happening to someone else.”

May 15th, 2015 by William

The Real Cause of Nomophobia

Are you someone who’s always checking their smartphone for the latest text, email or Facebook post? I know I fall into that behavior pattern. No matter where you go, you see people glued to the screen of their phone–restaurants, walking, jogging and sadly even while driving. Despite laws forbidding texting-while-driving, one doesn’t have to travel far to see someone with their head down looking at their phone all the while going 70 MPH.

This behavior is the symptom of a growing disease that’s gripped the modern world. The “I-must-have-my-phone-with-me-at-all-times” mindset has become such a real problem, there’s now a name coined for that fear we all have of being without our phones. The malady is called: “Nomophobia,” as in no-mo (bile) phone-phobia. It’s described as that anxiety and fear that grips you when you realize you are disconnected or out of the loop with friends, family, work and the world.

Nomophobia also affects the workplace and is a common phobia amongst those in management positions. Today everyone has a smartphone, or the like, and those in management especially need to have a smartphone. Thus everyone in the typical workplace organization suffer this phobia to some extent and the higher on the corporate pyramid the more intense the phobia. What you may not realize is that people at the higher levels of the organizational pyramid suffer nomophobia for a different reason than those at the bottom or people not cursed to have to work for a living.

That’s because in the business environment the source of one’s nomophobic behavior actually stems not from the fear of being without one’s phone but the fear of possibly missing that email, text or call from the boss. This then leads to the fear of being without the phone. This unfortunately is the curse of middle management.

For those outside the business environment we fear not having our phone because we really suffer from another quite popular phobia brought about by today’s information age. It’s called FOMO, or the “Fear of Missing Out.” We fear not instantaneously seeing that latest post on Facebook or Twitter from one of our friends.

However, in the business environment people fear being separated from their phones because they actually fear the fact that the phone itself can/will be the instrument through which bad bosses drop bad tidings in our lap at the worst possible of times. In my last post we learned of the common management practice of pyromania and sociopathic management types love the smartphone as their vehicle of choice for lighting the next fire under their subordinates.

The truth is we actually enable the behavior because as a society we’re so addicted to the phone. Sociopathic management types know we’ll be responsive no matter the hour–we have to or we’re labeled “not committed,” “not a team player,” or “not engaged” or whatever buzz-phrase they want to label us with. Companies give out the phones to the staff knowing it implies that the holder is available 24/7 for the boss to get in touch with them.

These days, sociopathic bosses–the pyromaniacs of the business world–favorite incendiary devices are BlackBerrys and IPhones and all their smart phone cousins on the market. At the same time these devices have accelerated communications, they have dramatically lowered the barriers to bosses lighting fires. Now a boss can shift the student body left in just a few keystrokes.

The problem with the smart-phone (or any phone) is that they imply that any message received must be “hot” and must be addressed immediately regardless of what you may be doing at the time you get “the call.” You see this effect every day when you go to any store and attempt to checkout and pay. Just as the clerk starts to ring up your purchases the phone rings and just as predicted answering the phone becomes more important for the clerk than finishing your transaction. This implies that the caller is more important than you and thus you find yourself waiting while the caller is serviced first. For the clerk the call becomes an immediate distraction deferring them from whatever they were doing and what may well have been more important.

In the workplace, where e-mail and text messaging are king, this type behavior actually tends to magnify the pyromania problem because the typical text or email message is short, so the recipient lacks the context necessary to interpret its true urgency and feels it’s safest to respond right away. Getting one of these incendiary messages interrupts the receiver in the midst of whatever he/she is doing, and implies instant response is necessary. Of course that’s despite wherever the recipient may be, like a wedding rehearsal dinner, or at a seminar, while relaxing at home, or out with the grandkids, or on vacation, or wherever/whatever people may be doing on their supposed off-time.

So the poor recipient of these cyber-bombs feels the need–obligation really–to immediately respond. Of course misery does love company, so in true shit-runs-downhill fashion, what will undoubtedly happen next is that the original text/e-mail bomb will then be beamed out to multiple people, and so generates a flurry of back-and-forth requests for elaboration and action. If the recipient is a manager or supervisor he or she must set his or her staff into crises mode in absentia. Let the firefighting games begin.

The real irony is that the psychic prison organizations that house these sociopathic type bosses most probably have some statement in their “values’ epistle to the effect that they “promote and support a healthy work-life balance” for their employees. And, as I’m sure you too can attest, nothing is usually further from the truth.

In her 2015 CNN Money article, “No. 1 Cause of Bad Work-Life Balance? Bad Bosses,” Jeanne Sahadi details the result of a survey from project-management systems maker Workfront. In the survey 89% of those surveyed say it’s important for their employers not to contact them outside of work. Despite that, half of participants said that work has intruded on their time spent with family and friends and caused them to miss important life events such as weddings and birthdays. And roughly 40% said it has ruined time spent with family and caused them to lose focus when they were with them.

The bottom line is that a lack of true work-life balance makes for bad morale, where employees either resent each other or certainly the boss who’s not afraid to contact them at all off hours with a problem that’s typically not life-threatening to the organization. I can certainly attest to suffering the intrusion on my time spent with family and friends. I’ve been interrupted during weddings and birthdays and of course while on vacation almost too many times to remember. And yes it made me angry and bitter. This is mostly because whatever the crisis that prompted the boss to call me, hardly ever was it life-threatening to the organization. Most “crises” aren’t business life-threatening, even during normal work hours, let alone after hours.

So, if you suffer the symptoms of nomophobia, ask yourself what you’re really afraid of; not being close to your smartphone or really being stuck a slave to the smartphone. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that if you’re in management and have a company-supplied smartphone then you’re probably really more afraid of getting a call, or text, or e-mail, from your boss on an off-hour. For those in management it’s really this fear that is the cause of nomophobia, whether we want to admit it or not. For management having a smartphone really becomes a love-hate relationship. Those making the incendiary calls love it and the poor slob receiving the calls learns quickly to hate it.

The solution can be tough. Learning to ignore those frantic calls, emails or texts, from the boss can certainly be career-limiting. What really needs to happen in the business world is a return to what it was like back in days before smartphones where a boss would think twice before calling a subordinate at home, or on vacation, for a work-related issue. However, don’t hold your breath for that to happen. Since smartphones aren’t going anywhere soon the real solution is that those values statements, where management expounds on its pride of supporting work-life balance, need to be more than just words on a poster in the lunchroom.

So if you’re a boss that has engaged in using the smartphone as a way to keep your subordinates on their toes you need only look in the mirror to understand why your organization suffers a lack of teamwork and dedication and has lousy morale.

April 26th, 2015 by William

Whac-a-Mole Management

Whac-A-Mole is a popular arcade game invented in 1976 by Aaron Fechter of Creative Engineering, Inc. It’s a game in which you try to hit moles that pop up randomly on a board using a rubber mallet. Every time you hit a mole, you get a point. The objective is to get enough points to qualify for a prize.

The term “Whac-a-Mole” has been used colloquially (mostly sarcastically) in business to denote some repetitious and futile task. In that respect it’s probably a good metaphor for what daily workplace organizational life can really be about. Most often the term is used to frustratingly describe an environment where crisis runs rampant and each time a problem is whacked, another only pops up again somewhere else. And just like with the arcade game that ends up being a no-win situation.

As each mole appears to management, they want to hit it hard and fast with their hammer of authority. Whack! They solved that one. Whack! They got another one. In fact many a management team actually thrives on being able to play Whac-a-Mole every day. The challenge of not knowing where the next mole might come from adds to management’s excitement. In fact many a manager when faced with a lack of randomly appearing moles popping up will create a mole just to be able to keep everyone on their toes.

Management types like this game because it requires lightning-quick decision making in what they view as a game of “survival of the fittest.” These are the bosses who constantly preach to their subordinates about having a “sense of urgency” and the necessity to be “proactive.” Sadly you’ll find that this behavior is an organizational fact of life. And in an organization afflicted with this management behavior it becomes an unnecessary cost of doing business. A contributor to this management behavior is that normal workplace life creates enough “moles” to keep people busy as a normal course of business.

One reason that Whac-a-Mole is found in many organizations is that it diverts management from having to tackle the really hard stuff like setting and executing on a realistic vison for the organization–or practicing the values they hypocritically preach are important to them. Diversion tactics like this are the hallmark of inept, dysfunctional management. When constantly in crisis mode there’s always an excuse for management to put true leadership aside. It’s exhausting, but for them it’s fun as they go home each night knowing they have been proactive in whacking the day’s organizational problems. However, in the end it’s only a false accomplishment.

I mentioned earlier how many management types so dote on crises that they actually create them themselves. These are the organizational “pyromaniacs.” Pyros are bosses who compulsively light one fire after another in their organizations. They really don’t realize that these constant emergencies are highly destructive because they waste time and resources while diverting attention from the important issues facing the business. Employees become too busy whacking moles to do their regular work. Also when the pyromaniac boss focuses on the minutiae-of-the-day problem, he doesn’t recognize more dangerous long-term threats to the organization.

In his March 2007 article, “Are You a Pyromaniac?” Michael Watkins explains that, “These are the organizational pyromaniacs; leaders with impulse-control issues who start the fires that waste so much precious time and energy in their organizations. For them, every day is a new crisis to be managed; and they want you to come along for the ride. All it takes is for a few key management people behaving this way and it will drive everyone lower down in the organization into a constant state of hyperactivity.”

As Watkins points out this behavior tends to be contagious. If a leader demands that his or her sycophantic minions jump to attention and respond to his crisis du jour, they’ll have no choice but to salute smartly and get on the bandwagon. If they balk they’ll be labeled a non-team player. And in true “shit runs downhill” fashion, what eventually happens is that the sycophants force their own direct reports into the same perverted game, and so on down the organizational hierarchy. Before long you have the “student body left” syndrome where everyone is off chasing the latest problem at the expense of doing their regular jobs. When the organization’s top leader’s behavior gets reflected down through the organization like this, everyone spends their time just jumping from one crisis to another.

I believe this is probably the worst behavior that a sociopath in a management position can practice–other than bullying of course. But why do they do this? Watkins explains, “For some, it satisfies a deep need to feel powerful and important. Others find that injecting anxiety in subordinates lessens their own. Some pyros are just suspicious that everyone is slacking off behind their backs. Creating a [fire] can be very satisfying for those who don’t trust employees to put in an honest day’s work.”

I think another reason Whac-a-Mole management may be so prevalent in today’s workplace is because of the sociopath’s need to judge everyone constantly. They use their daily Whac-a-Mole sessions as a way to thin out the herd and get rid of those they find weak–those that won’t blindly jump into the fray and whack those Moles. It’s a way for management to screen out those that are not good sycophant material. Anyone who can’t be jerked around by their idiocy becomes useless to them.

Another sociopathic trait of the typical pyromaniac is the need for everything to be running perfectly, albeit by their own perverted standards. Ironically, they become the real threat to stability as these worry-warts go through life constantly looking for any problem, however small, to point out and blow out of proportion. This is all part of the overall goal of dominance over everyone around them. It’s also a good divide and conquer technique because seldom in an environment like this does teamwork prevail.

For those of you who find yourselves stuck in a Whac-a-Mole workplace this behavior makes your daily routine anything but sane and manageable. You can’t plan your day in advance−so much for proactiveness. Every day becomes chaotic and unpredictable. The irony is that, come review time, one of the soft skills you’ll be measured on is “effective time management” and if you’ve managed to successfully bounce from one crisis to another, at management’s whim, you’ll probably find yourself rewarded with a low score on this “skill” because in the process you’ve probably had to sacrifice your daily job duties. I mentioned earlier how teamwork (another skill you’ll be judged on) suffers in an organization such as this. That’s because you’ll find yourself needing to be more focused on covering your own ass so as to not be blamed for the appearance of the moles.

Another problem with this behavior is that fire-fighting is only a short-term fixing of symptoms, and is used in lieu of taking the time to fully understand and address the root cause of a problem. Of course that’s assuming the crisis is truly real and not the figment of a manager’s imagination.

That all said the real and most destructive part of the Whac-a-Mole management style revolves around the fact that typically only a handful of the problems, elevated to crisis mode by the pyromaniac, truly threatens an organization’s existence. Remember that “urgent” very seldom means “important.” And only a handful of these crises really have an underlying void in process or procedure that could have caused the problem. Most often problems arise simply because someone has screwed up, plain and simple. And sociopaths don’t cope well with the phenomenon that people make mistakes. Sooner or later people become the moles to whack. This is when the problems that management professes need be fixed end up having an individual or group’s name associated with them. In an organization like this pretty soon you’ll find yourself playing the part of the mole–afraid to stick you head up (or offer your opinions) for fear of being hammered down.

Over time, a work environment mired down in this style of constant crisis and fire-fighting turns dysfunctional fast–if it wasn’t already. The sane and talented workers depart leaving an entourage of sycophants who actually enjoy the false urgency of the daily fire drills–it’s their chance to shine in the eyes of the sociopaths over which they fawn. So if you find yourself in this kind of organization you have to reflect on whether you enjoy this type environment or whether you view yourself as one of the sane and talented who’s wasting valuable career time. If you choose the later, then it’s time to exit the organization.

April 12th, 2015 by William

It’s Not About Getting Them to Like You; It’s Getting Them to Remember How Much They Dislike Each Other

Black Sails is a dramatic adventure TV series chronicling early 18th century pirate life. It’s set in Nassau, New Providence Island and is billed as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-1894) novel Treasure Island (1883). The STARZ series, just ending its second season, takes place 20 years prior to the events in Treasure Island.

The show centers on the tales of fictional pirate Captain James Flint, who has a reputation throughout the West Indies as being the most brilliant, yet most feared of all the pirates. Other, real life pirates that are dramatized in the show include Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane and Ned Low. Along with the fictional Flint we’re introduced to a character named John Silver (later the infamous Long John Silver in Treasure Island) who we learn is introduced into pirate life as a simple cook aboard Flint’s ship.

At that time Nassau was a debauched paradise teeming with pirates, prostitutes, thieves and fortune seekers–metaphorically much like many modern business organizations. In addition to the daily struggles to stay away from the noose (should the British ever catch them) the plot focuses on Flint’s hunt for a Spanish treasure galleon named the Urca de Lima, which supposedly is laden with more gold than the pirates of Nassau have ever seen. This serves as another metaphor for workers who are single mindedly focused on their career path and pay.

In this series we learn that Flint’s real last name is McGraw, who in a past life was a British Naval Officer who was shamed and, after being exiled from Britain, landed in Nassau where he ultimately became a pirate. The show also focuses on the budding relationship between Flint and John Silver who would later become Flint’s quartermaster. Pirate quartermasters were elected by the ship’s crew and served as the liaison between the crew and the captain. This is important in John Silver’s case as it illustrates how he came to power, later becoming the famed Long John Silver.

In one episode, after Flint has failed to secure the golden treasure from the Urca de Lima, he loses his ship and his captaincy and Silver loses his standing with the crew. They confiscate another Spanish galleon and are scheduled to be taken back to Nassau. Not being captain was something Flint could not bear so he and Silver plot to regain the control of the ship before they get back to Nassau. While their methods of regaining control differ, in one scene we see an interesting approach to gaining leadership. While Flint is stewing over how he will pull off a coup, Silver takes a different approach to regaining the respect of the crew.

Silver’s approach is to begin spreading tall tales in the hope of creating friction amongst the crew members. Flint is critical of this approach. In their discussion on the merits of this approach, Silver explains to Flint how he’ll go about gaining the crew’s favor. He explains to Flint that, “It’s not about getting them to like you; it’s getting them to remember how much they dislike each other.” He then sets forth on a strategy of setting the crew members against each other.

Silver’s strategy for regaining domination is a classic example of the tried and true management practice of divide-and-conquer. The divide and conquer technique has been used since the beginning of recorded history. In The Art of War, General Sun Tzu writing in the 6th century BC explains, “the art of using troops is this: When ten to the enemy’s one, surround him; When five times his strength, attack him; If double his strength, divide him.”

From a management perspective divide and conquer is a strategy for gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into smaller factions that individually have less power. It’s used by insecure managers whose own insecurity makes him/her need to intentionally create disharmony so as to stay in power. Divide and conquer creates an atmosphere where subordinates will be hesitant to come together as a unified team and thus won’t be a threat to the manager’s rule.

There are many techniques at a manager’s disposal to practice divide and conquer, including the three-legged race, delegating for conflict, delaying decisions, micromanagement, delegating authority to create conflict–the list goes on

While I’m not going to go into detail on all of these methods, there is one very popular approach used by many managers for dividing a group of people. It’s called spreading disinformation. It’s simply a way to keep trouble alive by telling lies to one or all parties. These lies–either of omission or commission–can create the impression that one party threatens the other. This is exactly the approach that Silver takes and in the end it works perfectly–eventually redeeming himself with the crew. Since the crew members can’t trust each other they swear their allegiance to Silver and ultimately vote him into Flint’s quartermaster position.

As you can probably gather, leadership on a pirate ship was tenuous at best so it’s the internal crises created through divide and conquer in which keeping the crew focused on themselves, versus the captain, proves most important. This is not just a pirate phenomenon–it’s a universal approach to modern-day management for those who are not really leaders. The key to the universal success of this approach is that managers perform best when there’s some kind of crisis. Whether we’re talking about the crew of a pirate ship, or workers in a typical workplace organization, keeping the underlings in crisis mode and thus in conflict with each other has worked for many a manager since the beginning of organized business.

I tell you all of this not because I’m advocating it as the best way to manage people or to get to the top–however, I’ll admit it does work. I explain this because at some point in your career you’ll be put in a predicament by an insecure boss who will use divide and conquer to maintain control over you and your colleagues. He or she will constantly try to remind you how much you should dislike, mistrust, or be leery of your co-workers. Half the battle of surviving in this type environment is by honing your ability to be able to identify the patterns of boss behavior so you can recognize what’s happening as it unfolds.

So take a look at your own work situation. Does your boss often tell you that he/she isn’t there to win a popularity contest? If so, rest assured that he/she is truly not interested in getting you to like him however; he’s probably very interested in getting you to remember how much you dislike your co-workers.

March 19th, 2015 by William

You Can’t Be Superman Everyday

Back in the 1950s, I remember as a kid faithfully watching “The Adventures of Superman,” a television series about the Man of Steel as he fights crime. Regardless of how old, or young, most people know the story of Superman, his arrival on Earth from the planet Krypton and the fact that he disguised himself in daily life under the façade of being a reporter named Clark Kent for the newspaper The Daily Planet.

As Superman’s alter ego, the personality, concept, and name of Clark Kent have become ingrained in popular culture as synonymous with secret identities–and we all have our secret identity. In the earliest Superman comics, Clark Kent’s existence mirrored the belief that a costumed superhero cannot remain on full duty all the time. In the same way Batman is Bruce Wayne in everyday life. Like Wayne, Clark acted as little more than a front for Superman’s activities. Everything about Clark was staged for the benefit of his alternate identity as Superman.

Being a reporter for the newspaper was the perfect front for what Superman needed to be Superman. As a reporter he received late-breaking news before the general public, and thus could act on it to save the situation. It also gave him a plausible reason to be present at crime scenes, once Superman had saved the day and had left the scene.

To deflect suspicion that he is Superman, Clark Kent adopted a largely passive and introverted personality with conservative mannerisms that were described (in the show’s opening dialog) as “mild-mannered.” We all probably can recite the start to the Superman show:

Narrator: Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Man: Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird.
Woman: It’s a plane
Man: It’s Superman!
Narrator: Yes, it’s superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

These “mild-mannered” traits extended into Clark’s wardrobe, which typically consisted of a bland-colored business suit, a red necktie, black-rimmed glasses, combed-back hair, and a fedora. Clark wears his Superman costume underneath his street clothes, allowing easy changes between the two personae. This change was usually done a telephone booth with a dramatic gesture of ripping open his shirt to reveal the familiar “S” emblem when called into action.

In case it hadn’t dawned on you, Superman was “superman” only outside of work? His supernatural powers only came alive after he left The Daily Planet. At work he was that mild-mannered and somewhat boring personality and quite possibly could have been considered an under-achiever–certainly by today’s standards of what a super employee should be. He probably got all 3’s on his performance review, with maybe a 2, or even 1 when it came to the fact that he was always late to every news worthy event. He had to wait for Superman to leave before he could show up as Clark Kent.

The fact is most of our work careers we’re a mirror image of the Clark Kent character. We’ll get a lot of 3’s and an occasional 2, or 1 on our performance reviews, all the while believing we’re worth a 4 or 5. That’s because most of us find ourselves battling an immense amount of bullshit tasks on our daily to-do list–none really requiring us to be a Superman. Occasionally however, we wish we could transform ourselves into Superman when we are faced with some task that’s seemingly impossible–like when we must react to the organizational news-flash of the latest catastrophe that the boss says threatens the very existence of the organization, i.e., the latest fire-fight that we are obliged to enter if we want to be seen as a “team player.”

In these crisis moments, we may see ourselves as a superhero, but what happens when we aren’t able to fulfill every “world saving” aspect of our daily job? The fact is we can’t be Superman every day and all the time. Even Superman knew he couldn’t be Superman all the time, hence why he assumed the persona of Clark Kent. The fact is all of us are more like Clark Kent than Superman. Unfortunately however, most of us are expected to do the work of a Superman, while being paid and treated like Clark Kent.

Another reason it’s tough to be Superman is that we all have our own Lex Luthor to deal with at work who’s trying to torpedo us. And, in most cases, that’s probably our boss. Lex Luthor was the wealthy, power-mad business magnate–the supervillain who is the archenemy of Superman. I find it somewhat interesting that Luthor was depicted as a typical sociopath at the top of a big corporation–LexCorp.

As it works out, bosses–the organizational Lex Luthors–are a big reason why people can’t be Superman at work. That’s because they usually see their underlings in the same way that Luthor saw Superman–an obstacle to achieving their megalomaniacal goals. The irony lies in the fact that, no matter what organization you pick the management will undoubtedly voice their want to have nothing but Supermen on staff, i.e., the “best of the best” however, in reality they can’t really handle having nothing but supermen–they are just way too threatening.

So no matter how much you think it’s in your best interest to strive to be Superman every day, the fact is it’s both unsustainable and not in your long-term best interest. Superman knew this and spent most of his time as Clark Kent. And there’s nothing wrong with being Clark Kent. The funny thing is that no matter how Superman-ish you become your boss will search for every conceivable excuse, come performance review time, to prove to you you’re not Superman. The performance review process is as kryptonite was to Superman.

We all will get the occasional opportunity to be a Superman but those opportunities are really few and far between. We need to be content with that. As I’ve written about before, your career path is more a jungle-gym than a straight shot up the elevator–no matter that you may see yourself as a superman. The fact is that it’s after you leave work when you really should want to be Superman–just as Clark Kent only became Superman after he left the Daily Planet.

February 22nd, 2015 by William

There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

The phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute” is often credited to Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum (1810 – 1891), an American showman and businessman remembered for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. However, the phrase most likely came from a banker named David Hannum, who coined the phrase in criticism of P. T. Barnum’s typical customer. It simply means that many people are gullible and there’s no shortage of them. Fact is being gullible, or a sucker, is quite the norm in our society. That’s why scam artists abound and there are so many telemarketers and cyber-scams (like the Nigerian money transfer scam) that it’s a daily topic on the nightly news. This all is enabled by the fact that there’s no shortage of people who will fall for these scams.

None of us think we can ever be fooled, let alone fall for a scam, yet ironically the man (Hannum) who was critical of Barnum’s customers was in fact a sucker himself. As the story goes, back in the 1860s, tobacconist John Hull created an elaborate, money-making hoax in which he had a 10-foot-tall stone statue of a man carved and then buried in Cardiff, New York. The giant stone man (referred to as The Cardiff Giant) was then dug up again and Hull planned to sell it as an archaeological oddity. In 1869, Hannum and four business partners took the bait and paid $37,500 ($657,894 in today’s dollars) for the worthless artifact thinking that they could turn a profit by charging people to get a glimpse of it.

A lot of buzz was generated about the giant, and as thousands of people began to pay good money to see it, it looked like Hannum’s investment was actually going to pay off quite nicely. That is, until P. T. Barnum entered the picture. Seems Barnum built a giant of his own and claimed that it was the true Cardiff Giant. When people flocked to see Barnum’s creation, hapless Hannum supposedly mused at the on-lookers, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Hannum was talking about the masses that are easily deceived and will “fall” for any lie. What Hannum and Barnum did was to perpetrate a grand lie. While lying is part of the fabric of our culture, in today’s workplace world, I’m not so sure it’s the most damaging behavior. I’m convinced that more people practice plain old bullshitting more than lying.

Why do I think the average worker partakes more in bullshitting than flat-out lying? First, understand that most people use these two terms interchangeably to describe the typical behavior they see and practice in the workplace. Let’s take a closer look at the art of bullshitting, how it compares to lying, and the effect it has on the workplace.

Dictionary.com defines a lie as: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood; something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture; an inaccurate or false statement; the charge or accusation of lying. For Hannum and Barnum the false statement was that their statues were the real thing. In contrast, the definition of bullshit is: foolish, deceitful, or boastful language; something worthless, or insincere; insolent talk or behavior; to speak foolishly; to engage in idle conversation.

In the definition of lying, the word “false” appears numerous times, yet in the definition of bullshit, it doesn’t appear at all. Since a falsehood is defined as an untruth, a lie is therefore the telling of an untruth–just as both Hannum and Barnum did. On the other hand bullshitting is boastful, worthless, insincere language. There’s a big difference. Boastful, worthless, insincere language doesn’t necessarily equate to an untruth.

Here’s a timely example. Everyone who utilizes the professional social media site LinkedIn probably has numerous “skills” and “endorsements” listed on their profile. Along with each skill there are a number of people who supposedly vouch that the person actually possesses that skill. None of those skills are necessarily untruths as we all gain a wide range of experience from what we’re exposed to during our careers. But with all these supposed skills it’s really a matter of degree. Remember one of the descriptors of bullshit is “boastful language” and that’s all those skill lists really are. If we wanted the list to reflect true skills that we’ve gained though our career we’d be listing such things as: “firefighting,” “sabotaging colleagues,” “ass-covering,” or “regurgitating buzzwords.” The list goes on.

An interesting infographic titled, “The Lies We Tell on Resumes,” details the not so surprising statistics on the pervasiveness of lying and bullshitting on resumes. Please visit:

In his 2005 essay, “On Bullshit,” philosopher Harry Frankfurt presents a very detailed contrast of these two concepts: lying and bullshitting. Frankfurt postulates that, “to tell a lie; in order to invent a lie at all, [the liar] must think he knows the truth.” That’s an important point. The liar knows, or thinks he knows, the truth, and then consciously elects to present the opposite–fits Hannum and Barnum to a tee.

Interestingly, according to Frankfurt, “a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is false, as long as he himself ‘believes’ that the statement is true and intends, by making it, to deceive. It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such condition.”

While both lies and bullshit can either be true or false, bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements. As Frankfurt notes, “this indifference to how things [really] are is the essence of bullshit.” Fact is in the workplace bullshitting actually better serves our purposes, especially when we want to change another’s perceptions of us.

Why is understanding the difference important? Because, as Frankfurt explains, “bullshitting one’s way through [life]; not merely producing one instance of bullshit, [but] producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require” is common behavior.

People become masters at this “art,” and it proliferates throughout the workplace because, as Frankfurt tells us, “the risk of being caught is about the same in each case; [however] the consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar.” If you lie on your resume about having a college degree, for instance, you’ll probably get fired. However, nothing happens when you list bullshit skills and experience.

Frankfurt explains, “bull pertains to tasks that are pointless in that they have nothing much to do with the primary intent or justifying purpose of the enterprise which requires them.” In other words they contribute nothing toward the general goals of the organization. Just as in the long run skills listed on your resume or on LinkedIn have little bearing on being successful in a job.

In this way the bullshit flung around the workplace creates an environment that’s not based in reality. We may think that bullshitting is harmless and only a sucker would believe all he hears. However, Frankfurt explains there’s a further bad side effect to bullshitting. As he tells us: “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources; in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore [we] reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which [the worker] might hope to identify as the truth about things, [the worker] devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

What does that mean? It means because there’s so much bullshit flying around the workplace, it clouds reality, and as such, people can’t trust that reality and thus they become focused only on being true to their own nature. It helps explain why our society is so self-absorbed. Bullshitting thus becomes one way in which people practice what’s called “impression management,” since the only thing they can truly control (or so they think) is their own image.

However, the bigger problem is that being suckered by bullshit becomes the motivation for someone to bullshit in retaliation. This perpetuates the bullshit syndrome that has overtaken many a workplace. Bullshit then becomes the primary factor in defining an organization and molding the culture. In fact, one might say that bullshit is the fuel that powers the engine of business. For this reason, Frankfurt claims, “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

In 1928, sociologist W. I. Thomas formulated a theory of sociology called “The Thomas Theorem.” Simply stated, it says that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Said another way, if men define their reality through bullshit, then their reality is bullshit. This can also be viewed as the “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

The bottom line is that we all get suckered by all the bullshit we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Its human nature to believe others’ bullshit and at the same time spew the same bullshit with the hope that others will be suckered into believing. All this contributes to a workplace reality based on dysfunctional bullshit. Is your workplace a self-fulfilling prophesy of dysfunctionality waiting to happen because you actively contribute to the bullshit syndrome? This is why workplace life is “the greatest show on earth.” Just sayin’…

February 6th, 2015 by William

Barnacle of Mediocrity

The 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross depicts two days in the lives of four New York real estate salesmen and how they become desperate when the corporate office sends a trainer “Blake” (Alec Baldwin) to “motivate” them by announcing that, in one week, all except the top two salesmen will be fired. To get his point across Blake tells them: “As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture?”

Let’s face it. There are some people in the world who are smarter, stronger, more beautiful, etc. than others. We are not all the same and we should stop pretending that we are. And because of that inequity the fact is that some of us will succeed, some will fail and the majority will scrape by as average–or to use a term most people don’t want to hear: mediocre. And this is ok–it’s reality. But that’s not the reality we as a culture seem to be willing to accept.

Our politically correct, don’t offend anyone, everyone’s a winner culture is our way of supposedly leveling the playing field and in a way “legislating” that everyone is equal. In our striving to be equal we’re not admitting to our own very real mediocrity. The fact is we try to pump everyone up into thinking they are way to the right on the bell curve of human capabilities. Because of this mentality there are no more mediocre people in the world–everyone’s a winner.

I guess it’s an esteem-boosting technique brought on by our innate need to pump ourselves up in the eyes of others. In today’s world everybody plays, everybody wins, and everybody gets a trophy. Those that really try hard to actually excel, and who should be the only ones getting a trophy, stand beside those that couldn’t, or flat out didn’t, make an effort but will also get a trophy. We give a trophy to the winners, the losers and all those who are mediocre in the middle.

According to Michael Sigman’s 2012 article, “When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins,” “America’s ‘everyone gets a trophy’ syndrome has become a national joke.” In the article, Sigman cites some startling statistics reflecting how absurd the situation has gotten. As he tells us, “‘A’ grades, which once conveyed excellence, are now given to 43 percent of all college students, according to a study by grade-inflation gurus Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. This is an increase of a staggering 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. The study also reveals how easy it is to buy college credentials: a scandalous 86 percent of private school students, it turns out, get nothing lower than a ‘B.’ Some public schools refuse to allow anyone to get a grade below ‘C,’ so no student will ever fail.”

The sad truth is that with this mentality we, somewhat ironically, get just the opposite of what we, as a culture, are striving for. This “everyone’s a winner” mindset actually creates mediocrity. People who have given their all only to see the flunkards receive the same praise is nothing short of demoralizing. That’s because in the workplace the difference between working your butt off and just doing the minimum requirements of your job will most likely make only a 1-2% difference in your pay raise.

And it’s not just those that excel that become demoralized. So do the exact average people that this whole absurd mindset is supposed to benefit. The sobering reality is that once these “average” people enter the workforce they will face constant negative feedback on their performance. And the first career event that offers a rude awakening is when they receive their first performance appraisal. The typical performance review process is founded on the belief that the only way to motivate people to excel is to point out to them their shortcomings. Of course this “belief” directly conflicts with basic human nature in that we don’t like to be criticized. And more importantly it flies directly in the face with how most people entering the workforce have been conditioned, i.e., they are winners despite average results. They have been told repeatedly that they are special and deserve unbridled praise. Their first performance appraisal will truly be a rude awakening where many will find out way to late in life that they’re not as special and gifted as they’ve been told.

Society needs to fess up (just as business world has known all along) to the fact that people’s capabilities/intelligence/skills, etc. follow the classical bell curve. The whole performance review process is firmly founded in that fact. The typical performance review process is based entirely on the fact that we all perform according to the bell curve. People always have and always will follow the curve no matter how many trophies we give out for just showing up. The result is that by rewarding mediocrity we create a culture where mediocre is OK and that we don’t really need to push ourselves to be the best at whatever we’re doing.

And that’s not the worst effect of this cultural mindset. What’s worse is that we create a population that believes they “deserve” success regardless of effort. Unfortunately not everyone can be a success–certainly not in the workplace. This contagious mindset does nothing more than create an unfounded perception about who we think we are. Of course this plays right into, and reinforces, the “illusion of superiority” that we all have. That’s why the “everyone’s a winner” mindset has spread like wildfire.

Today brainwashed individuals enter the workforce and expect to rise to the top simply by showing up. But to thrive in business, it’s the exact opposite. You’ll never make it far if you believe that you can win just by coming to the game. To climb the corporate ladder you need to break free of this everyone “deserves” to be successful bullshit. It’s OK to work hard to outdo everyone else–in fact it’s almost mandatory if you want to climb the pyramid. Many years ago if someone was faced with a tough challenge, it was common for them to be told to suck it up–hard work is “character building.” Fact is it’s true. Much more so than showing up, taking a trophy and then going home believing you deserved it. That sounds more like a character flaw.

Believing that even though you’re truly only average yet still deserving to be successful, despite your effort, makes you nothing more than what the title of this article implies–a “barnacle of mediocrity.” You become nothing more than like a barnacle that clings to the hull of a ship. In the end this is bad for you and bad for the organization in which you work.

When a ship has too many barnacles they get in the way of steering the ship and actually slow the ship down. And an organization is just like a ship. And just like real ships, organizations collect barnacles. In this case the barnacles are those mediocre people who just put out the minimum to stay employed, yet somehow feel entitled to praise (and a raise) right up there with those that really excel. And ships regularly go into dry dock to have the barnacles removed–analogous to the “reduction in force” events that most organizations have at periodic times.

The bottom line is that no one should be content with being a barnacle of mediocrity. In fact what needs to happen is that society must give up this false dream that equality can be legislated simply by giving everyone a trophy regardless of their effort.

If you’ve been indoctrinated into the belief that you’re somehow special and expect the Cadillac El Dorado or the set of steak knives for whatever you do–no matter how good or bad–let me tell you what the real life workplace is like. The barnacles of mediocrity eventually get third prize.