Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why We Work With Jerks

BRITANNUS (shocked). “Caesar, this is not proper.”

THEODOTUS (outraged). “How!”

CAESAR (recovering his self-possession). “Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.
— George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II, (1900)

If you're surrounded by difficult people, you may wonder why the organization doesn't take more of a lead in dealing with difficult people in its midst?

Surely the costs of inappropriate behavior should compel the organization to action—and yet it’s seldom the case that the organization acts except in the most egregious of situations.

Sometimes it’s because the organization itself is part of the problem.

You may have noticed that a lot of people describe their office environment as if it’s a war zone. We take flak, someone gets shot down, the boss is out for blood, someone’s getting the ax—it’s a pretty violent place. And, of course, some people work in offices that are all too reminiscent of a war zone.

There’s the official corporate culture and the real culture. The official culture is usually embodied in a vision or mission statement: “We value honesty, diversity, and hard work.” If in fact people are praised and rewarded for honesty, diversity, and hard work, then the match between the official culture and the real culture is close.

But sometimes there’s a mismatch. If honesty is punished, diversity nonexistent, and nepotism is rampant, then the official culture isn’t real. You often still need to give lip service to the official version, but the real culture is reflected in the behavior you actually witness day in and day out.

Look at the very top of the organization. Does verbal abuse start there and go down through the ranks? If so, it’s hardly surprising to see the same behavior reflected in middle managers.

If you are part of an organization whose culture rewards difficult behavior, your attempts to modify the behavior will be less effective, and may not work at all.

If that’s the case, your options are limited. Depending on your organizational rank and power, you may be able to force a change in the corporate culture.

If the difficult behavior violates laws against harassment and discrimination, you may be able to force change even if you’re in a lower-ranking position. Be extremely careful with the threat of legal pressure. Even if you succeed in forcing the organizational change, you may suffer negative career consequences. It’s all too common for other people—not you—to reap the benefit for such a sacrifice.

If you can’t change the culture, or the cost of forcing change is unacceptable, the two remaining choices are (a) learn to live with it and (b) get out. If your decision is to leave, prepare your exit carefully. If you’re going to stay, make sure the consequences to your mental health and happiness are within an acceptable range.

One word of caution: If you’ve generally had good working relationships and this job is poisonous, it’s probably them.

If, on the other hand, you encounter the same difficult behavior over and over again, it’s probably you.

From: Work Smart: Dealing With Difficult People (2nd ed.), William Lundin, Ph.D., Kathleen Lundin, and Michael S. Dobson (AMACOM, 2009)

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