Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

What Is The Lesson About Work From the Fable of the Scorpion and the Frog?

Chapter 4: How To Trust At Work – The Scorpion, the Fox, or the Wolf  Part 7

I classify Vijay’s nemesis, the scientist, as a Scorpion.  (See the table at the end of the last post for more). “Scorpion” is taken from the following fable of the Scorpion and the Frog.

The scorpion asks the frog to bear him across the river on his back.  “You must think me a fool,” cries the frog.  “You’ll sting me and I’ll die.” “Never fear,” replies the scorpion.  “If I sting you, we both will drown.”  The frog relents, and takes the scorpion on his back.  Halfway across the river, he feels a burning pain and the onset of paralysis.  “Why?” he croaks just before going under. “I couldn’t help it,” replies the scorpion.  “It’s my nature.[i]” 

The Scorpion at work has a single-minded vision of the world.  Just as the scorpion in the story can’t help itself when it stings the frog, the Scorpion at work can’t do anything other than act according to their vision, even when it is potentially self-defeating.  When you work with a Scorpion, your happiness or needs are not on his or her radar.  Chances are, sooner or later you will be stung.

Vijay’s Dr. Scorpion believed that her collaboration with the academic was the key to success for the product.  Without regard for budget, regulations, or protocol, she made it happen.  When things started to go awry, Dr. Scorpion took a significant risk, a bluff that seemed to disregard potential consequences for herself or Vijay.  She could have taken a conciliatory tack, blaming the inventory issue on a misunderstanding or honest mistake. Of course this would have required that she admit that she made a mistake, something Scorpions are loth to do in part because they rarely, if ever, think they have made a mistake.  Instead, she gave dishonest answers and let Vijay take the consequences.

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[i] John Malkovich refers to the fable at the end of the movie Dangerous Liaisons as he betrays the love of his life.  For more, see what Wikipedia has to say.

Is She A Scorpion, a Fox, or a Wolf? A New Paradigm For Who To Trust At Work

Busting Your Corporate Idol Chapter 4 Part 6

In last week’s posts, we met Vijay, the Indian mench who complied with an innocent-sounding request and lost his job as a result. From the perspective of many years later, Vijay told me if he had it to do over again, he would have been able to avoid the situation completely. Vijay learned by experience, and now has a story in his head that helps him make better decisions about who to trust.

I heard many similar stories doing interviews for the book. I started seeing patterns; certain types of people kept coming up. I soon found myself characterizing them according to animals from fables and parables.

Fables and parables have survived thousands of years because they communicate true insights about people, morality, and values. I call the people in the workplace who have a disproportionate impact on trust decisions the Scorpion, the Fox, and the Wolf.  The three categories are drawn from the parable of the Fox and the Wolf, and the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, both of which are easy-to-remember stories that teach important lessons about misplaced trust.  If you can understand where someone fits in the “SFW” framework, you will have an insight into their priorities and perhaps their underlying values.

The Fox, Scorpion and Wolf behave in a predictable way that reflects their underlying priorities, and by proxy their value system.  Do they put people first?  Do they put the company first?  Do they put themselves first?  If you know someone’s priorities, it becomes much easier predict what they will do, and give you a leg up as you decide whether to trust them or not.  Next post we’ll take a fresh look at Vijay’s nemesis the scientist.  Based on the table below, which animal is she?

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, talk less
Wolf Getting it done for self, company, ideas Execution, relationships Too trusting Cooperate, partner

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Who Gets Terminated When the Investigation Is Over?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust In the Workplace Part 4

Vijay’s told me that his manager and both vice presidents were friendly and supportive as they investigated the inventory discrepancy.  “I was called to present my data.  I thought we were working as a team to find a solution. … The scientist was panicking.  She was always asking me what was happening.  It was an ISO regulated place, [meaning that any change to manufacturing must be documented in a very specific way, and made available to auditors upon request].  You need to follow the paperwork, and [the scientist] didn’t have the paperwork.  She was afraid she would lose her job.”

The scientist looked over Vijay’s records in great detail.  But whenever other people were around “she would give totally different answers.” Vijay was extremely stressed. “I was by myself.  I asked my manager to go to the meetings, but she was always ‘too busy,’ saying that I could handle it myself.  Even though she said she would support me 100% on this issue, she never did come with me. It was the beginning of my career [but] I always followed the process and documented everything.  I think they knew the scientist had made a mistake, but from a corporate point of view she was more valuable.”

Without someone to rescue him from the trees, Vijay was let go in the next round of layoffs, the only person terminated in his group.  “They were trying to protect themselves from being sued for wrongful termination, and didn’t want to give me all the pieces of the puzzle.  I needed a good reference, and they gave me a good package.  They helped me find another job quickly.  To this day, I wish I had not been put in that situation.”

I asked Vijay what he would have done differently today from a perspective of ten years out.  “I would have prevented myself from getting in that situation in the first place.”

Bingo. Once the situation starts, it is often very stressful, and difficult to resolve. And what was Vijay’s big mistake?  Trust.  He trusted a person operating under a different value system.

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When Something Goes Wrong At Work, Who Has Vijay’s Back?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work?  Part 3

Vijay did not think much of it when the lead scientist asked him to change the method used to track the inventory of a new product under development.  The scientist was the expert, and Vijay rushed the change order through document control in accordance with the governing regulations.  It wasn’t until the scientist requested a second change that Vijay grew uncomfortable.  He discovered a discrepancy in the amount of actual product in inventory versus the amount in the records.  The apparent shortfall would have been further exacerbated by a second change in the inventory calculation method, and in fact could be traced to the first change, the one with his name on it.

Vijay’s first reaction was fear – will I be asked to pay for the missing product?  As Vijay learned more about what really happened, his second reaction was surprise – the scientist had been sending the product from inventory to an academic collaborator, didn’t have the budget to pay for it, and appeared to be requesting these changes to cover her tracks.  And after Vijay went to his manager for help, his third reaction was shock – his manager did not believe him.  The manager made Vijay check again and again, and then left him on his own to meet with the vice presidents of manufacturing and quality.  Leaving a novice to sort out something like this with the VPs is like having a teenager report teacher misconduct, and then explain it to the principal and superintendent without parental support.

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Meet The Earnest Newcomer. Was This You?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Post  2

While Silicon Valley is best known for their technology companies – Google, Yahoo, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Facebook to name a few, the Bay Area is also home to some of the most cutting edge biotechnology and medical device companies.  These companies include Genentech, maker of blockbuster anti-cancer treatments; Giliad, leader in HIV treatments and Applied Biosystems (now Life Technologies) that invented the technology that sequenced the human genome. The best, brightest, and most ambitious come from all over the world to make their fortune, and to make a difference.

It is to this world that “Vijay” arrived in the late 1990s with his wife, small children, and a Masters in Biology from a leading Indian university.  Vijay is about five eight, a bit stout, and an interesting mix of focused intensity and social sensibilities.  The job at a small biotechnology company was a great match for his skills.  His attention to detail and meticulous record keeping were integral within the regulatory environment, and his “can do” attitude earned him a place on several key projects.  Vijay’s performance reviews were laudatory, and his boss didn’t hesitate to pull him into important meetings.  The science was interesting, the work rewarding and it all “felt like an adventure.” Life was good for the first eighteen months, with a promising career and plenty of time to spend at home with his wife and small children.

But that changed unexpectedly after he complied with a small, innocent sounding request.

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