A questionable ethic?
A few years ago, after developing a relationship with the CIO of a major American corporation and successfully working with a number of his subordinates, I was faced with a challenge. Another consultant, call him John, was edging into my info tech territory from corporate marketing. As soon as I saw what was happening, I set up an appointment with the CIO. I assassinated John with truthful rhetoric and precise data. It was a barrage of sophisticated, critical, agitating rhetoric by which I intended to maintain control. By no stretch of the imagination did I wear my usual nice-guy hat. The next day, the CIO canned John’s ass.
While hard to accept and admit, on occasion it’s necessary to become hitmen because of threats to our career by others. Indeed, plenty of people go into business unprepared for a larger reality that can be supportive, constructive and fun, but occasionally requires them to work with somebody who is dangerous to their career. They may be highly deceptive rivals, indifferent and lazy assholes who won’t carry their weight on a project, or clueless incompetents who need to be brought to their senses.
But my consulting experience reveals that a surprising majority of people hold an ethical and/or religious commitment to life that plays havoc with their feelings. Feelings that certainly would keep them from becoming the mean and calculating hitman depicted above.
As an ordained minister, a former parish pastor and seminary professor, it’s imperative to point out that these quaint religious ideas often sabotage not only your career, but also your life. And even more significantly, these “nice guy” feelings lack a rich understanding of what it means to be fully human. In short, the baseline of normalcy in the “religious” reality structure is often profoundly dysfunctional and false. A serious confusion exists between what people think they should be and what actually is. And it’s understandable that many haven’t come to terms with those differences given the predominant, though skewed, religious perspective.
In stark contrast to much I hear today about organizational “nice guys,” the biblical text paints the person of faith as a mix of saint, sinner and hitman (and, yes, hitwomen) taking on the competition. They are not lily-white, idealistic or naïve nice guys. They work in the same human, screwed-up organizations we work in today. Joseph, he of the “amazing technicolor coat,” engages in deception, manipulation and trickery. He frames his younger brother, tossing him (temporarily) in jail to demonstrate his cruel power. But Joseph also rescues his entire dysfunctional family, including his jealous older brothers who conspired to have him murdered. King David screws his general’s wife and has him murdered to cover his behavior, and engages in trickery and political skullduggery throughout his reign. But he also guides, loves and protects his people. Neither David nor Joseph could ever be considered innocent or naïve. David is punished for his murder, yet the biblical text affirms the godly faithfulness of both Joseph and David. Intriguingly, those ethics differ significantly from the religiosity I hear from many. These characters know how and when to become hitmen, willing to take on others to achieve their objectives.
The biblical ethic is about what business folk would call big picture stuff: radical justice, the common good and food for all, including the outsider, the poor, the widow, the foreigner and the sick and homeless. Its devil word is “oppression.” And the text doesn’t fool around with small potatoes. There’s little to nothing about such things as my trickery of another edgy consultant. Fact of the matter, the biblical text confirms trickery as the action of a person with entre to the establishment, a person who’s both fully human and powerful. I suspect, therefore, that Yahweh got a good laugh out of the whole comedy. And I laughed all the way to the bank, knowing full well that I’ll still win some and lose some.
Shifting the paradigm
At the heart of this blog is an attempt to shift the paradigm regarding business relationships and personal success. As my experience revealed, the reality is far larger and more complex than many are willing to admit. Talk about the current fad of servant leadership all you wish, but reality is not just about nice guys. So I emphasized the biblical reality, not because I’m especially religious, but because it provides a phenomenally valid reality structure: a perspective that can lead to mastery of one’s career, but more significantly one’s life.
In short, reality demands that if we intend to succeed in business and life, we must be willing to use our human power. Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer has dealt directly with this issue in his classrooms and his consulting for many years. In his latest book, Power, he analyzes the resistance of many folk to even try to become powerful. His analysis is worth its weight in gold. Even in his Stanford MBA classrooms, students find the necessity of power tactics and strategies phenomenally difficult to accept. Why is that? Both Pfeffer and I think it’s because of the wacko reality structure subscribed to by most of the population. Most accurately, he writes that we
conspire in (our) own deception about the organizational world in which (we) live. That’s because people prefer to believe that the world is a just and fair place and that everyone gets what he or she deserves. And since people tend to think they themselves are deserving, they come to think that if they just do a good job and behave appropriately, things will take care of themselves. Moreover, when they observe others doing things they consider to be inappropriate, self-aggrandizing, or “pushing the envelope,” most people do not see anything to be learned, believing that even if those people are successful at the moment, in the end they will be brought down.
Pfeffer goes on to reveal that this naiveté keeps people from learning from difficult situations and especially from people whom we don’t like or respect. Furthermore, it anesthetizes us from the need to be proactive in building a power base and dealing with the inevitable competition. Pfeffer summarizes the research, and concludes that reality is far different than we thought. It demands that we engage in power-building activities, without which we are seriously limiting our potential for both survival and success.
The messy deed
Stanford’s Bob Sutton is another of those writers who takes on a full-orbed reality. But he narrows his focus to organizational assholes in his book, The No Asshole Theory. Toward the end he devotes a chapter to the realistic, but painful task of becoming a “temporary, strategic asshole.” Sutton writes that his book “would be naïve and incomplete if I didn’t talk about the upside of acting like an asshole.”
Unfortunately, even if you aren’t a certified asshole, and even if you despise people who deserve the label and avoid them like the plague, there are times when it is useful to play the part of a temporary asshole to get something that you need or deserve. Polite people who never complain or argue are delightful to be around, but these doormats are often victims of nasty, indifferent, or greedy people. There is much (research-based) evidence that the squeaky wheel does get the grease.
The victim, who Sutton calls a doormat, completely ignores reality.
What this means is that at least 98% of the time my colleagues can be trusted not to knife me. I can be a nice guy working with other nice guys. But I’m also aware that there are times when I fuck up and when my colleagues fuck up and given half the chance, may fuck me, forcing me to become a hitman. Significantly, I’ve found that my lack of innocence about reality relieves me of all kinds of life and career anxieties. When you know what you’re going to be dealing with, you’ve got a leg up on the situation. But note also, that full-orbed, biblical reality of life and organizations inevitably keeps me from being jaundiced and terribly cynical.
The ethics of my decision to occasionally take on the activity of a hitman are not black and white, but gray. And this is highly reflective of reality. It demands of me that I stay alert for the sociopath while not becoming one. It reminds me also that sociopaths screw themselves over because people won’t want to work with them. So, when faced with a jerk, an asshole or an untrustworthy competitor, stand your ground. Draw several lines in the sand about work expectations, responsibilities and scope of authority and take him on. Don’t be afraid of rhetorical trickery. Otherwise, without those rather sophisticated activities, your rise in the ranks will come to a halt. That’s not only smart power politics, but it’s also appropriate ethically and religiously.
Picture fm flickr.com: by emorse04