Interaction at Work: Don’t Game the System

So I read a great post from Mark Phillips over at Vertabase about the importance of making people feel included. “By excluding people, you create impediments to your project’s success,” he says. I thought that was a fabulously concise way of saying that.

More importantly, Mark notes that when you marginalize people, they move on without you. The very people you snubbed along the way may turn around suddenly with amazing, wonderful things. But unless they’re the forgiving sort, you’ll only be able to look through the glass at them and watch at a distance. You already demonstrated what you thought of them.

Working Girl
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Oddly enough, while I was in full support of Mark’s observations, they also reminded me of a line from the 1988 movie, “Working Girl” (yikes I guess I’m dating myself now). Sigourney Weaver plays a truly repellent businesswoman who says, “today’s junior prick, tomorrow’s senior partner”. She’s referring to her own behaviour, treating someone she despised as if he were her best friend. But I hated Sigourney’s character in that movie. Why would I relate her comments to Mark’s point?

After thinking about it, I decided it all depends on how you approach it. There’s a big difference between genuinely including someone and kissing their ass. In a way, ass-kissing is an attempt to “game the system”. The ass-kisser doesn’t really believe in what they’re saying; they’re behaving this way with a specific end in mind.

If I’m allowed to put my “zomg meganerd” hat on, think in terms of “black hat” vs. “white hat”. These are terms used by search engine optimization professionals. The white hats are trying to get search engine attention by genuinely creating good content; the nefarious black hats are trying to get search engine attention by faking-out the system. They use all kinds of tricks, but never actually try to add any real value.

Social interaction is a system like any other. And just like a system, it contains within itself the potential for abuse.

White Hat “Good” Black Hat “Evil”
Adjectives Associated Traits Adjectives Associated Values
down-to-earth
genuine
sincere
inclusive
earnest
friendly
honest
frank
wholehearted
  • Actively solicits ideas from anyone, including “lower-downs”. Listens to all opinions.
  • Disagrees (in a non-confrontational manner) with “higher-ups” if they have a contrary opinion.
  • Genuinely wants to understand, but also be understood. Leads to fabulous work results.
obsequious
sycophantic
sleazy
unctuous
insincere
slippery
fawning
servile
smarmy
  • Looks down on / snubs “lower-downs” because they couldn’t possibly have anything of value to contribute.
  • Waxes effusively about how fabulous “higher-ups” ideas are. Incapable of providing an actual opinion of their own.
  • Leaves a trail of slime in their wake slippery enough to cause injury when stepped in.

 
“Black hats” have a marked tendency to put down or dismiss those they see as beneath them. I find it peculiar, as outside of the workplace, there is no above or below. If a black hat were in a car accident and the company janitor was the first person to happen by the scene, would they dismiss or reject the janitor’s help? Why then, the moment they step into an office do they transform into self-serving monsters? (Apologies to janitors for using their profession as an example)

In a project environment, particularly, the organization is flat. If an executive is two weeks late giving an approval, or a clerk is two weeks late updating the latest requirements with notes from the business analyst, the project is delayed by two weeks. The source is quite irrelevant–only the result matters.

The thing that most “black hat” people fail to grasp is, generally speaking, we can see right through them. Of course, there’s the odd person who loves to be buttered up, but most people with a pulse recognize the slime trail for what it is, and choose not to step in it. Speaking as a former executive, I find I want to surround myself with people who will dissent with me, and actively discuss matters critically. Attempts to kiss my ass, quite frankly, creep me the hell out and I’d rather not have that kind of behaviour near me: it adds no value and only makes me want a shower.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • PatrickRichard

    Great post! I have two comments:

    • Inclusiveness is necessary but it has limits; everyone should know the directions and goals but not everyone should expect to participate in the decision process. Many, if not most, fall in the follower category and their needs are met by having directions and goals communicated to them. I’m afraid this will sound bad but, if so, chalk it up to my lack of mastery of the English language. Shakespeare I ain’t…
    • If there is one thing that is worst than office or project politics it is BAD office or project politics. When I witness that, I always think the culprits believe I am actually dumber than I look…

    Patrick Richard ing., PMP
    http://www.thehardnosedpm.com
    @hardnosedpm

  • Thanks for the kind words.

    As usual, you've taken an interesting angle and expanded it further.
    I like you phrasing that an organization is flat from a project point of view, as well as your table of adjectives and traits.

  • Thanks so much for your comments, Patrick! As always I'm way grateful for your support here! 🙂

    HAHA you were very clear so no need to apologize for your English. I think it's great.

    However, I have to say I disagree with you (which is okay) that not everyone should expect to participate in the decision process. I was at my folks' for a long weekend and I got your comment in my e-mail right when I was talking with my dad. I read it to him (hope you don't mind) and at first blush he agreed with you. He said to me “would the city expect their sewer cleaners to participate in decision making?” I said to him, well, if the decision involved the sewers, their state, their maintenance, or the working conditions, absolutely I would consult them. Who else could possibly know better about those things than the men and women on the front lines? Would I consult those same people for a decision related to accounting? Probably not.

    Here's a very current example from my home town (which I learned while I was there this weekend) of what I'm talking about: Nurses Ignored. I'll be blogging about this shortly.

    I'm not saying decisions need to agree with the input of line workers. I'm saying that if you don't consult the line workers (or at the very least, a true representative), you don't have all the information which which to make effective decisions. How work is done at the line level is exclusive to the line level. “How” directly influences cost, time and quality. It also defines work done at the line level. Suggesting line workers “just do as they're told” without taking the time to understand the consequences of those instructions will have a significant impact on the business at hand.

    Regarding your point about BAD office or project politics, oh my goodness, I totally agree with you there! 🙂

    Cheers,
    Geoff.

  • LOL Thanks heaps for your comment, Mark. I swear my “interesting angles” are generally more “stream of consciousness” that finds me in random and strange places than any actual critical thought. LOL

    But thanks tons for your support there. 🙂

    I do believe that an organization is flat from a project point of view. I try to get my clients to understand that it doesn't matter who is involved in a project, or what they do, or what kind of power they wield in an organization…in a project (and really, in any setting), it's only the results that matter. A delay is a delay…a cost overrun is a cost overrun. The source is irrelevant to the results. And just because it was a senior executive who created the problem…hey it happened on your watch. So who's accountable?

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  • PatrickRichard

    Geoff,

    Let me disagree that we disagree…

    I guess that my comment left the impression that I don’t see everybody’s contribution as useful or important. Far from me to think that way; I do believe that everyone’s contribution must be considered when making a decision but that the actual decision taking is the job of the leader.

    If decisions are made based solely on inputs from the almighty managers we are running head first at a brick wall.

    Patrick

  • I think that's bang on, Patrick. It's not realistic to ensure that everyone's wishes are granted…if that were the case nothing would ever get done. But collecting all relevant contributions ensures at least that decisions are informed. I'm with you: if the managers are the only ones providing input into critical decisions, it's game over man, game over! LOL

  • shahedakhtar

    Great Post!
    and I agree that when it comes to the impact to my project, the source is not relevant.

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