People subconsciously conform to inoffensive behaviour standards in order to fit in at the office. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert contends that you never know who a boss really is until you surprise them.
It seems that I owe several readers either one or two apologies for my 3rd August column The Drapes of Wrath. After that piece posted, I received two batches of complaints. First, admonishments that the piece was ‘too long’. I understand that; 2,500 words can be a bit much for a blog post, and can get a tad unwieldy if you’re reading it on your mobile. I apologize for getting wrapped up in the subject; believe it or not, the final product on the web was a little less than half the size of my initial draft. I struggled to cut it down… but I clearly didn’t cut it down enough. Sorry about that.
The second – and equally valid, I think – complaint was that I insinuated to a bunch of readers that I was writing about their current company when I discussed ‘large companies’ in the general, abstract sense. This line in particular convinced five different readers that I was making a thinly-veiled criticism of their specific workplace:
‘Once it’s clear that there’s nothing to be gained – and everything to be lost – from accepting risk, most people in leadership roles in a large company will actively do everything that they can to escape attribution up until the opportunity arises to seize credit for a success. Managers become like jackals: cowardly scavengers, skulking at the fringes of the fray, refusing battle and only emerging to filch scraps from the wounded.’
To set the record straight, yes I was and no I wasn’t. I apologize for the insinuation; I wasn’t trying to ‘out’ any specific company – yours, mine, or otherwise. The fact that so many people felt sure that my description was an accurate portrayal of their own dysfunctional corporate culture actually helps to make my point: this is something that all large businesses experience (to varying degrees) as an inherent and inescapable cultural flaw. Everyone who has served in a massive company or in a large organization has likely experienced this.
Strangely, I’ve only spoken (so far) to one reader who said that she hasn’t ever encountered a situation like this. She told me that her managers have always been reasonable and supportive, and have never taken out their frustrations on their employees.  For her sake, I wanted to clarify a crucial point: just because it hasn’t happened to you yet doesn’t mean that it isn’t a real phenomenon. One or more of your superiors could be a metaphorical jackal ‘passing’ day-to-day as a loyal hound; you won’t know the truth about them until and unless things get rough.
These personality revelations shouldn’t come as surprises. If people were upfront about who they are, what they believe, and what they want, we’d all know that a given Bob is inclined to lash out at his or her people whenever he or she feels threatened. The thing is, people usually aren’t honest with one another. Most people don’t reveal much (if anything) about their ‘true’ selves to their co-workers. Most people slog through their working lives play-acting; inhabiting a contextually-defined and wholly-artificial personality in order to make their interactions with co-workers as smooth and as drama-free as possible. Work is, for all practical purposes, a type of performance art.
People instinctively conform to demonstrated social norms. It’s part of our makeup as social creatures. No matter how much we love to pretend that we’re all ‘dashing rogues’, the vast majority of us unconsciously strive to integrate with whatever our collective culture is rather than buck it. There are always some ‘office rebels’ – people who push the limits of acceptable behaviour – but these would-be iconoclasts often aren’t very daring; they might wear a garish outfit, or dye their hair a nontraditional hue, or make an off-colour joke, but they still largely conform to the vast majority of social rules most of the time. The envelope doesn’t get pushed so much as gently nudged.
What’s important here is that managers instinctively conform to these codes of behiavior, too. Everyone, from the CEO to the car park attendant, feels a disquieting urge to ‘fit in’ with the tribe. It’s true that the more power you have, the less beholden you feel to the company’s rules. That being said, conformity is a natural impulse … so long as the costs of compliance remain low. It’s like VAT for social stability. It’s only when things go suddenly wrong that a person’s default camouflage drops away and some degree of their actual personality comes out to frolic. Jeckyll gives way to Hyde when the **** hits the fan.
Managers  aren’t inherently different from non-managers in this respect; they, too, play-act their way through the workday. We all do. Managers are also no different when it comes to reacting to threats – everyone shares the same biological fight-or-flight response. The key difference between managers and non-managers is that managers hold a measure of power and authority that allows them to actually do something to try and mitigate a perceived threat. Those managers who lack the maturity and/or the experience to restrain their base responses tend to reflexively lash out at others, like a dog that bites a stranger’s outstretched hand. It’s a primal reaction to perceived danger – an atavistic artifact that helped our forbearers survive to procreate. Unfortunately for all of us, those hard-wired reactions aren’t always helpful in the (relatively) tiger-free office block.
Depending on the nature of the ‘danger’ experienced, a person’s response might manifest immediately (like a temper tantrum) or might be triggered quickly and then continue to manifest over time (like a witch hunt). What’s consistent about these counterproductive fear reactions is that they represent the displacement of a manager’s fear and dread into some spiteful harm that he or she inflicts on someone else – someone that they can get away with hurting. Further, it’s often only in moments like these where workers can see a superior for who they really are underneath all of their casual charm: craven, vicious, frightened, and confused people, wholly out of their depth, and bereft of personal honour.
In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, there’s a powerful sub-plot about this phenomenon that appears in the third of the novel’s five books. In Chapter 30, the Austrian Army has just broken the Italian lines. In a self-destructive rage, some of the Italian officers begin interrogating and executing their own officers for trumped-up ‘treachery’, as if their army’s defeat was somehow the product of willful betrayal rather than honest failure. The prospect of a pointless death inspires Hemingway’s protagonist to desert the army and save his life (thereby advancing the larger plot).
In the context of a worker in a large company, consider Hemingway’s Lieutenant Henry to be an individual contributor assigned to a major product roll-out. The deployment fails for many complicated reasons, and the company is embarrassed. The executives are furious, so the middle managers become desperate to avoid being held responsible. Just as the ‘battle police’ in Farewell captured many of the officers and summarily executed them after a sham trial, so too in our context some desperate managers ‘make redundant’ and dismiss everyone associated with the failed product launch. Just as Farewell’s Lt. Henry dove deserted the army, our corporate Henry would quit the company one step ahead of the inevitable pink slip. In this, Hemingway’s story isn’t so much a story about the insanity of war, but an examination of essential human psychology.
A large company – one where responsibility is diffused rather than defined – makes this sort of managerial misconduct both probable and profitable. The men and women with the fewest scruples initiate a Darwinian culling of the troops in order to preemptively protect themselves from potential censure. Innocents may have to suffer, but that’s fine; a terrible manager never sees his or her victims as ‘people’… only as ‘expendable resources’. And expend, they do. It’s their nature.
I want to stress, though, it’s unfair to brand all leaders in a large company as bad leaders. People being people, you’re just as likely to uncover a great human being as a deplorable blackguard when you expose someone’s true(er) self during a moment of crisis. Everyone subconsciously masques their ‘real’ self in order to fit in with the crowd. That principle applies to the honourable, compassionate, responsible, and forthright men and women in the office as much as it does to everyone else. Often (I’ve found) you don’t recognize who your greatest leaders are until you shock them into revealing themselves.  Sometimes, that revelation is wonderful. The modern workplace isn’t all pointlessness and despair.
The point that I want to drive home here is that everyone has the potential to reveal something unexpected when they’re shocked into reacting (rather than just acting). It’s crucial to remember that people will often surprise you if you passively accept that their casually-presented work-self is who they really are at heart. Most people aren’t, because most people lie about themselves to get along. What we see in the workplace is a social construct, partially real and partially feigned, worn to help a worker blend in to the herd. If you want to know who a person really is and how they’ll react when threatened, you have to invest the time and effort to learn about them as a whole-person… not just as a two-dimensional caricature.
 No, I won’t tell you where she works. Also, I already checked, and they don’t have any posted vacancies.
 By ‘managers’, I mean all workers holding formal leadership authority; supervisors, shop bosses, directors, Chief Whatever-the-Hell Officers, etc.
 I argued this in my first book, Why Are You Here?, when I advanced the aphorism that ‘you don’t truly know a man until you put hum under stress’.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.