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What If Successfully Managing Workplace Politics Doesn’t Bring Balance?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 18 (Conclusion)

This chapter I’ve shared stories that illustrate how the people at work can contribution to corporate idolatry.  But as the following story illustrates, even the best of people, working for the most admirable of Wolves, are subject to strong influence from both circumstances and the workplace culture.

One senior product manager we’ll call “Jill” had a Fox manager who pushed and pushed in private to get the product out, and then publically pointed the finger at her when disaster struck.  According to Jill, after leading the team for a year “it felt crappy to sit in the room, and watch everyone look to my boss to find a solution.  They acted like I wasn’t there.  But later in the meeting there came this moment when my manager gave me a look that seemed to say ‘what do I do next?’  I looked him in the eye, and although I knew exactly what needed to be done, I said nothing.” And the outcome?  The Fox manager was soon moved to a backwater of the company, while Jill delivered a solution and recovered her reputation.

After that time, Jill was able to manage the politics much more effectively, and while the environment wasn’t exactly supportive, it wasn’t hostile either.  But the story does not end there, because Jill was still in a very poor situation.

Jill’s competition released a product that the customers liked better, and her marketing programs and sales pep talks were not going to change that.  Circumstances were beyond Jill’s control, but she pushed herself to the edge of ruin in a futile effort to regain market leadership.

Jill believed that her heroic efforts could result in a major change in the marketplace.  Psychologists call this the “Illusion of Control.”  I call it another face of idolatry.

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How Do Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves At Work Relate To Idolatry?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 17

The chapter primarily describes a way to categorize people into Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves to help you determine another persons motivations and by proxy their values.

Motivated by Strength Weakness Suggested Approach
Scorpion Strict set of ideas Execution & vision Inflexible, polarizing Avoid or exit situation
Fox Self advancement Talking, motivating Poor execution Force them to do more
Wolf Getting it done for self, company, ideas Execution, relationships Too trusting Cooperate, partner

So what does all this have to do with idolatry?  As a reminder, I’ve defined corporate idolatry as the adoption of a value system that puts the company ahead of all else, including your family and your own well being.  And as we saw in Chapter 2, idolatry is defined by actions that do not put people first, and is something one can adopt for personal gain or by mistake.  So really, the SFW system is something to help you determine the degree to which a colleague is following people-first values, and if they are not, trusting them could lead to an increased risk of corporate idolatry.

Lets review some of the stories – Vijay early in his career was misled by a scorpion to submit an incorrect method for tracking inventory, which eventually cost him his job. Had Vijay recognized that it was a Scorpion was making the request, he would have been much less likely to comply and could have avoided the issue.  Plus, Vijay mistakenly thought the company had a value system that would reward people for doing the right thing, when in fact it kept the dishonest person.

We met Liz and Jack who did not recognize the spoor of a Fox, which had negative career consequences, and Harry who did identify a fox and proactively removed him from the organization.  Of course understanding the values of the people you work with is only part of the issue.  In the next post, we’ll meet Jill, someone who masters a fox but remains in a difficult situation.

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Should a CEO Fire Someone For Being Manipulative?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust Work? Part 16

In the last few posts, I have been writing about Harold T. Lobo, a CEO who makes coffee for his employees, and is considered too nice by some board members because he is reluctant to lay people off.  But that doesn’t mean that Harry won’t dismiss an employee if he thinks it is warranted.  Harry shared with me a story about a time he identified a fox in his organization, and how he then dealt with him.

When Harry started as CEO in his current organization, he was quite deliberate in how he evaluated the people, and was careful not to make quick decisions.  Harry described a vice president who initially looked like a star.  “Everything was presented very slickly and efficiently.  But as I talked to people around the [company], I found that he was managing communication both upwards in the organization and downwards in a very manipulative way, so that he retained a lot of power by being the communications broker.  I took action there to actually part company with the individual.”

Note that unlike the wolf in the parable of the fox and the wolf, Harry did not have a probation period, or give the fox a chance to gain the upper hand. In the parable, even after he knows the fox is up to no good, the wolf allows himself to be manipulated a second time, at the cost of his life.

What do you think would have happened if Harry had gone to the VP to discuss the situation and ask for a change in behavior?

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Is a CEO Who Is Reluctant To Lay People Off Being Too Nice?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Post 15

In the last post, we met Harold T Lobo, a CEO who abolished his parking space and made coffee every morning for the office.  But make no mistake, Harry set a high bar for performance.  According to people who worked for him, Harry was direct, and could be intimidating.  But he was always professional and never personal.  So I was surprised to hear Harry say that some people thought him too nice.

“On several occasions in my career when in a CEO role, the board took a view that I was being too soft on employees in terms of cost reduction.  Part of the role of a non-executive [board member] is to be much more ruthless and much more cold minded in terms of cost reduction, reducing heads.  As a manager you know these people day to day, and you’re the one who will be sitting opposite the desk telling them they haven’t got a job any more.  There were occasions [where they thought] I should be taking a stronger, more disciplinary stance with individuals.  I spend more time trying to see things from their point of view.  I have met very few individuals, I can count them on one hand, where they are out to deliberately put themselves ahead or to sabotage other people.  Usually it is different views about what is best for the company.”

This last passage is telling in several ways.  First of all, we can see the tension between Harry’s personal values, and the value system being pushed by the directors, to focus on numbers and not people.  Second, Harry’s belief that very few people are deliberately trying to “put themselves ahead” is consistent with a wolf’s propensity to be too trusting. Harry thinks that people just have “different views about what is best for the company.”  As we discussed earlier, not everyone shares Harry’s values about treating others fairly. In addition, “what’s best for the company” tends to frame issues in a way that inherently puts “what’s best for people” as a lower priority, which is a characteristic of corporate idolatry.

While Harry has a Wolf’s bias towards too much trust, he did not get to be CEO without developing methods to identify a Fox, and deal with him effectively.

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What Happens If You Have a Wolf As CEO?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 14

In the last post, I shared the story of the Fox and the Wolf as the third way to classify people according to their values at work.  The Wolf is a pack animal, who is strong, can get things done, but can be a tad too trusting.  Let me introduce you to one.

“Harold T. Lobo” comes across as smart, confident and open, even about his cockiness that has faded, but not disappeared as he approaches sixty.  Harry has the pedigree to back it up: a thirty-year history that includes a stint at McKinsey and management positions at a string of successful companies.   Unlike some who have come out of consulting, Harry is an effective operational manager who understands what it takes to get things done, and how to set the tone in the organizations he leads.  Harry describes his motivations:

“In a simple nutshell, it’s about making a difference to whatever organization I am in, and feeling that I am being challenged to learn new things all the time. I’ve seen too many people who get to the top of their pyramid and then go into takeover mode.  [They think] ‘I don’t need to learn any more and I know it all.’  But I find myself always learning.”

As the CEO in two different organizations, Harry was quite cognizant of the values he wished to instill in the organization.  The first part rests on good business practice, setting clear goals and following through.  The second part, he explains, is “how you treat people.  I try to treat people how I’d like to be treated myself.”  According to Harry, most important are “the incredibly small things that give signals about your values.”  For example, he abolished his dedicated parking space.  In addition, he arrived early and made coffee for everyone.  Although he didn’t realize it till later, this sent a huge signal.

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