Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

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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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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What Can the Parable of the Fox and the Wolf Can Teach Us About Betrayal At Work?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 13

So far, in this chapter, I’ve described two types of untrustworthy people:  The Scorpion who will “steamroller people” in pursuit of his personal vision, and The Fox, who manipulates others to get ahead.  One of the prime targets of the fox is the wolf, as illustrated in the parable of the wolf and fox [i]

One day, the fox suggests to the wolf that he should go help a village prepare a festive meal. Yet as soon as the wolf arrived, the villagers drove him off with clubs and stones.  The wolf returned to the fox ready to kill, but he allowed the fox to explain himself.

The fox explained that the wolf’s father betrayed the villagers’ trust by eating everything (and everyone) after they had prepared a meal together some years before.  Imagine the stunned look on the wolf’s furry face. 

The fox continued. “If you are hungry, I will bring you to a place where you can eat your fill.”   The wolf followed the fox to a well, attributing that flutter in his gut to hunger.  A rope with a bucket on each end was suspended from a pulley.  The fox, without hesitation, jumped into one bucket and dropped into the well, saying  “This is where the great feast is hidden.”

The fox pointed to a reflection of the moon in the water.   “Look at that wheel of cheese!” At the fox’s instruction, the wolf climbed into the remaining bucket at the top of the well, which simultaneously lowered the wolf into the well and raised the fox to the surface.  So enthralled was the wolf that he did not immediately recognize his folly.  “Where is the food?  What have you done to me?”  As he departed, the fox left the wolf with this explanation “The righteous is delivered out of his trouble, and the wicked cometh in his stead.”

The fox in this story presents a chilling combination of cruelty and persuasiveness. Though the wolf was lucky to have survived the encounter with the villagers.  Yet he allows himself to get betrayed again, this time at the cost of his life.  In my opinion, the wolf made a fatal error when he chose to talk to the fox.  The wolf should either have killed the fox outright, or walked away. A wolf’s strength is action, a fox’s strength is talking.

So what would happen if the Wolf were CEO?

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[i] Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah  Legends from the Talmud and Midrash Edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky. 245:194

How To Deal With a Manipulator At Work

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 12

In the last post, I shared stories of people who had negative experiences dealing with a Fox.  While a Fox can talk you into anything, the great weakness of the Fox is execution.  If you don’t do the job for him, he can’t get it done by herself.   I asked Liz how she dealt with Susie, who was taking credit for her work.

“When someone gets a promotion before me, I don’t mind, no sour grapes.  But when they lied and cheated and misrepresented themselves, I have more of an issue.  You get to a point where it’s not benefiting me to get all riled up about it.  At a certain level you will be found out.  [If you choose to live that way], you will be the one looking over your shoulder waiting to see who would stab you.”

For the record, Susie was eventually demoted and later let go.   Liz was promoted several times, and went on to run a group of more than fifty people.

Another Senior Marketing Manager shared the following with me, which led me to a strategy for dealing with a Fox. Sometimes “the guy who takes the hit is the guy trying to execute on unrealistic, jackass plans.  Two to three rounds [of layoffs] later, it eventually it gets figured out and cleaned up. In the meantime there is a wake.”

So my takeaways from both stories:

1. It can be more stressful to be the fox than to deal with a fox, because a fox is always worried about being exposed or disempowered.  So don’t worry too much about them “getting away with it.”  You wouldn’t want to live that life.

2. A fox survives by manipulating others.  Once you understand a fox, they lose their power over you, and you have a decent chance of outlasting them.

Often the person being manipulated  by a Fox is a Wolf, which I will begin to illustrate in the next post with the parable of The Fox and The Wolf.

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