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Big fish, small fish

July 12, 2008

Office fights are ugly things. In my last corporate job, as a department manager I spent (wasted) one-third of my time sorting out these fights.

When you put a bunch of people in one place, things happen. The introverts – the small fish – get eaten by the big fish, the extroverts. The introvert grits his teeth until the pressure cooker explodes. Then come the playground fights. US collegiates have a neat way of solving this. They buy a rifle and shoot down 20 people before they kill themselves.

If popular books on handling workplace problems actually work, we’d have a peaceful world. There’d be no regional tensions, no wars, no arguments. I don’t read much anymore. Don’t get me wrong, some of the ideas are good but you need more than books to sort humans out.

I learnt that you can’t change the behavior of a shark because sharks act on gut instinct. They’re born that way. To change them, you have to gut them. But there’s a much easier way. Prevent them from joining your workforce in the first place. There’s been plenty of talks – and books – about EQ assessment which aims to do that. Local companies don’t practice it. Some say the search for profit overrides EQ. The ‘brighter’ ones say EQ testing is for women. I’m just being cheeky there.

Its a catch-22 situation. Management says, “We are desperate for profit so let’s go hire this shark to kick some ass.” So the shark joins and bites everyone in the company. People start fighting and deadlines get missed. So the shark does a Sun Tzu, twists a few arms and breaks a few knees to send a message. Then anonymous sabotage starts creating sinkholes in projects. The company ends up worse off than it started.

Still, the popular wisdom is if you want quick results, get a big stick. And since we all want instant results, we come home every day cursing and swearing with blue black marks all over.

But if you want sustainable results, a big stick will kill you. Only a finely tuned ecosystem will do that but creating eco-harmony requires a tremendous feat of social engineering that jarrs everything from gatekeeping (recruitment mechanism) to culture building and succession planning. Of course no local HR will touch that because its more fun to process claims and record annual leave. Furthermore the ceo himself grew up whacked by a big stick and believes it’s the only way to go. That is, until he works in a different land and miraculously changes his mind and doesn’t believe in the big stick any more. So until things change, I think its better to be a big fish than a small fish.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2008 11:56 am

    It appears to me whether it’s a local 3-person company or MNC with thousands of people I’m yet to see a perfect system that works all the time. The only constant being change, one has to keep changing with the situation and the social and political climate. As employees, we just need to learn how to swim with sharks because they always exist. Not all these are destructive, but the top guys must know which direction to point them. If they point them towards the real problems, these will be taken care of. Pointed inwards, they’ll be torpedoing themselves.

  2. Damien permalink*
    July 14, 2008 10:42 am

    Haha, sharks in dolphin suits. You are right about change. While workplace ‘harmony’ can technically be achieved, change makes it impossible to sustain. Things that worked so well last year can be a dismal failure this year. And dolphins turn into sharks. So yeah, rather than be caught in a never ending struggle, its easier to come to peace with the effects of change. Adaptation is nature’s #1 lesson on survival.

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