September 22, 2012
These are some notes from a book I’m working on about surviving as a worker in a modern corporate environment.
“I don’t know (yet)” is a valid response. (And ignoring me is not). I get this all the time; perhaps you’ve experienced it once in a while too: I want to know what’s going on with something. It could be a specific task, an operational step, a job application, request for verification or confirmation of a contact or an action or my mere existence. The answer I receive is silence. So I repeat my request: I “follow up” and follow down and follow sideways until I’m so far up your ass that you get pissed off. All of that could have been avoided with a simple three-word response to the initial inquiry: “I don’t know.” You don’t even have to lie (“I’m looking into it”; “I’m all over that one”; “I’m expecting word any minute now”); all you have to say is, “I don’t know yet” and the question is truthfully answered. If you don’t want to be bothered, put a time frame around the response: “I don’t know; check back in a week or so and I may have something for you by then.”
Remember that a bull shits only when his bowel is full. We all bullshit; bullshit is the coin of the corporate realm when it comes to communication. No one is ever really upset by bullshit, because we all use it, right? But studied ignorance is repulsive to everyone. If I think you’re bullshitting me, that’s to be expected; but if I think you’re ignoring me (see above), then I’ll stick myself onto your asshole like a bad hemorrhoid and feel justified in so doing.
Another way to express this is: it’s called bull shit, not bull diarrhea. Again, we all recognize bullshit; we all accept it; we all use it. But as they say in the booze commercials, let’s all bullshit responsibly, that is, in moderation. Step one, then, is to recognize your own immoderate use of bullshit. Here’s how you can easily accomplish that:
- Buy a voice recorder. You can get one for 20 bucks over amazon or at an electronics store.
- Take a recording of yourself at a meeting or even in a setting where you shouldn’t be bullshitting, such as at the dinner table or in the tavern with your friends.
- Later, in the privacy of whatever you call your sanctum sanctorum, listen to the recording with one of those popular bingo cards at the ready, and see how quickly you fill that thing up.
- Now record the stream over again, or write it down, replacing each of your bullshit phrases with words that more accurately express what you really meant. You might come up with some phrases that will eventually become additions to the bullshit lexicon, and will go down in bullshit history (even if anonymously). Or you may even learn something about yourself. I guess what I’m suggesting here, radical or silly as it may sound, is this: before you talk about “reaching out” to anyone else, how about reaching out to yourself?
Connect with people, not titles. One day, I had just finished a meeting with some business-side folks related to an IT project I was involved with, and the project manager took me aside and said, “do you realize who you were just dealing with there — the one who came in late on the conference call side? That was the #2 man to the COO!” Her tone suggested that there was something I had missed, so I answered, “OK, that’s fine, he seemed to understand what I’m presenting, and they actually sound solid with where we’re at, so what should be the issue with him?” She settled down a little and said, “nothing, but you ought to know who you’re dealing with ahead of time.” I replied, “I knew going in that I was dealing with critical people from the business side who needed input on where we’re at, and I did my best to inform them and hear their side out. So I am concerned with who I’m dealing with, but not as boxes on an org chart.”
The point of this is that you don’t need to study up on the rankings of the people you interact with in any setting, business or personal. It’s largely irrelevant information, and the minimal extent to which it might be relevant will become easily apparent to you in the behavior of people in meetings and other interactions. But if you sweat that nonsense before you go into an encounter then you’ll be likely to miss something of what matters more. I have never asked or researched the ranking of a person I was to meet professionally, just as I have never bothered about the salary or social status of a woman with whom I was preparing to go on a date. If your behavior and communication reveal that your focus is toward the heart of the matter rather than the rank of the players, then those with power and influence will usually get it and appreciate it, too.
Once again: the only shit that “flows” — downhill or in any other direction — is diarrhea. And when that’s the case, there’s little or nothing you can do about it. So just try and penetrate the masks around you and connect with the people behind them.
Lies have short legs and loose pants. Sure, you can’t always tell the truth; and there will indeed be rare occasions where popping a corker is your only way through a situation. But lying as a habitual activity takes far more energy than you have: check the physical appearance of your average veteran politician and see how drained, depleted, and dead he looks. That’s no coincidence: any repeated act that requires great force and scheming to accomplish is going to wear you down faster than any string of merely external misfortunes or reversals. Rely on your own experience here: telling the truth is effortless, it actually adds energy to your life-space; habitual lying is just too damned much work to be worth the strain. So never mind the ethics and morality of it: telling the truth is far more practical a habit than lying. But it is also nice to look in the mirror sometimes and appreciate what you see. In fact, I’d suggest that this is precisely where the ethics and the pragmatics of this whole issue merge.
Email is not a weapon. This principle will run against the grain of many corporate workers’ experience, but those are folks who have made a choice for combat as a way of life. But remember the supporting premise of the previous principle about lying: all action that requires great force to support it over time will eventually exhaust the actor. A codicil to this, applicable to corporate warfare, is: every missile inevitably returns to the head of the aggressor.
Email has become the primary weapon of both attack and defense in corporate America. I have been its victim and have also been drawn into its malignant and petty conflicts. Like all other warfare, with email combat you lose even when you appear to win. In the long run there is nothing redeeming or even necessary about the practice of email war. Granted, we all have to protect ourselves at times; the average corporate environment, particularly in and around middle management levels, tends to more resemble a mud wrestling pit than a professional operations center. I’m only saying that there are safer and more effective means of self-defense than to allow yourself to be dragged into that pit of email shit-slinging.
Tongue, meet teeth. Whenever I’ve been in doubt as to whether to speak up or bite my tongue in a corporate setting (and in a few others as well), my experience has been that the statistical advantage lies with the cratered tongue. It is difficult, often painful, to remain silent, especially amid times when we feel as if we’re being suffocated by falsehood and superficiality. But it is here as it is with our planetary home: as climate scientists are pointing out (or trying to), you cannot clear the air around you by pumping more carbon into its fetid heat. Very often, you must follow the example of the old Chinese prince who “hid his light” so as to save its energy for a better and more receptive time and place*.
In this respect, a regular meditation practice is invaluable. Meditation teaches us the restorative and nourishing value of silence. When we thus learn to make silence the foundation of expression, we develop an inner sense for expression’s proper moment. The most eloquent gift of oratory is useless to one who can’t perceive when — and when not — to use it. For me, a single person who knows when it is right to speak and when to be silent is worth more than a hundred florid Obamas. There is a beautiful confidence of self-awareness in the one who “hides his light” that the most glaring sun of eloquence cannot match.
*The ancient story of Prince Chi — told in the 36th Hexagram of the I Ching — is a remarkable parable for our own times. The Prince had been born into the ruling family of a violently despotic regime. He came of age as one of that family took power and began imprisoning and then killing off everyone around him. Prince Chi had seen enough of this to understand what was happening when his own turn came: while in prison, he feigned madness and thus fooled his captors into thinking him harmless. Eventually he escaped and left China; the legend has it that he fled south and founded the nation that is now known as Korea.