Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Back From Maternity Leave, Mary Is Undermined By Subordinates

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 13

In the previous part of the chapter, we looked at Mary’s experience as a newbie out of grad school.  Like many people in their first corporate experience, she got totally caught up in the company mission, and as  result spent many hours working at the expense of her personal life.

Fast forward ten years. Mary was several companies down the road, and did not love, or even like, her company.  Yet she found herself once again overly devoted.

Mary has grown in seniority, and is managing an experienced team.  However, she had not yet made director, which is troubling and painful to her.  As was usually the case, Mary was working on the most high profile and high pressure project in the company.  This was no start up, but rather one of the largest in the life sciences research industry.  Once again, the product was billed as (and in fact was) a game changer in the world of cancer detection.

Challenges presented themselves right away as she came back after four months at home with the baby.  The senior managers she was managing had been reporting directly to the director in her absence, and they resented and resisted being pushed back down a level in the hierarchy.  What was particularly challenging was a culture of after-hours discussions and meetings, where decisions were often made when she wasn’t present, by either her reports or her manager who did not share her level of expertise.  “Decisions could be made where you wouldn’t know [the impact] for a few months.  You could really dig yourself in [such that customers would be livid].”

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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 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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Is a Scorpion At Work Evil, or Just Inflexible?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 8

Let me be clear about one thing: the Scorpion is not evil, just inflexible.  I use Scorpion as a description of a type of behavior to help me figure out a person’s motivation, and then to devise a strategy to deal with him or her.  A Scorpion is someone who believes something so strongly they can’t help but act in a certain way.  And once you understand that your co-worker is a Scorpion, it becomes relatively straightforward to predict how they will react to a situation.

Here, a Silicon Valley Vice President describes what I call a Scorpion:

“People get an evangelical zeal for the cause they are trying to support.  [They] almost won’t let anything get in their way and will steamroller people to drive for the particular thing they believe in.  When you get individuals like that, the battles get certainly very political and end up being very personal as a result, even though the individuals are often quite mild [outside of work].”

[For example,] “when I first got to know him{the CEO] in interviews and semi-socially, he could be a very genial, very humorous individual.  But then as you began to hold views that were different from his own about how the technology should evolve or [be] rolled out, he would pigeonhole you into being you’re either with him or against him.  You couldn’t disagree with him in any way.

Another VP describes the same CEO in a similar way.

“An innocuous statement suggesting another technology as a possible solution was taken like a ‘dagger to the heart.’  Moreover, if you presented market data that contradicted his vision for the next step in the technology, his answer was always ‘you don’t believe.’  That lets someone else step up and say ‘well I believe.’”

In the next post: how to deal with a Scorpion.

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