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October 20, 2009

Alice in Corporate-Land

Blog cartoon 10-21-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Do you know of the phenomenon no one is supposed to talk about in which a company or manager sets an employee up for failure?

Over the last 10 years I've come to realize I'm like Alice in Corporate-Land in my wide-eyed surprise at what people do to each other in the workplace. Who knew so much ill-will-filled manipulation could be contained in office buildings?  A salesperson I knew told me her company fired her by interesting means. It didn't just fire her. She says it purposely gave her unrealistic sales targets to achieve. She said she was suspicious they wanted her gone because the goals were obviously unattainable. There wasn't a reason I can think of that her bosses wouldn't want her around based on professional performance and likability. But then I thought twice, and realized I needed to take my Alice in Corporate-Land blinders off and see office politics probably were in play. In that case, the reason for her "failure" could have been anything from offending the bosses' golden girl to being too honest at meetings about what she thought of the bosses' plans.

When it comes to who fails and who succeeds, financial targets and other formal goals mean little, unfortunately. Granted, usually the employee can't be entirely incompetent and stay on the payroll (at least not to the point the company faces consequences with customers), but if the right office politics are in place, an inept worker can remain on the job for a long time, while, due to those same dynamics, a talented and hard working peer can be booted out before progressing. Have you noticed the same thing?

Not to be too Alicey, but why do you think this phenomenon occurs at companies that promote their formalized performance evaluation systems, and make such a big to-do about productivity and smart management?  Do you think it's because of middle school?  I wonder whether the politics in offices is an extension of the social politics that are played in the pre-adolescent and adolescent years?  It's really the same thing, isn't it?  The salesperson who told me her story (we'll call her "Sally"), lost her job because she wasn't in the right office clique. She wasn't friends with the "right" people (i.e. the cool kids didn't want her sitting at their lunch table), so they gave her goals they knew she couldn't reach (i.e. they teased her, or created such an uncomfortable environment for her, she was forced to leave).

Your employees, even those pushing retirement, aren't getting wiser, unfortunately. So you need to somehow (any ideas how?) figure out a way to make performance the main criteria for success or failure, and in setting those standards, you have to watch for loopholes like the unattainable goals trick. Come to think of it, most of you have this criteria about performance in place, but your more crafty and childish managers have found ways around it. When getting performance reviews back, how many of you have the resources to evaluate the goals set for the coming year, and decide whether anything looks suspicious about them?  At the same time, when an employee is fired for "performance issues," do you take the time to see if the goals they "failed" to meet were knowingly unrealistic? 

Some companies think they're safeguarded against the set-up-for-failure hazard because they have employees set their own goals. But that's hardly a safeguard because the employee may feel pushed by her boss to over-promise, or the worker may not realize what he's promising is impossible. The boss supervising (and encouraging) the goal setting, may have her reasons for not guiding the employee towards a recipe for success. I guess this is the point where you may want to say to me sarcastically: "Gee, Alice in Corporate-Land, do you think so?" 

Laugh if you will, but I'm really shocked!  I still can't believe there are (many) managers who don't want their employees to succeed. As a workforce manager, think about adding a segment to your performance review training that addresses bosses' responsibility to help workers set realistic goals, and let them know managers will be held accountable if human resources discovers during the exit review process that an out-going employee was led astray by a boss who obviously didn't have her best intentions in mind. I (now) realize there are tricks around every management "rule," but it's worth a try, isn't it?  I think if you pay more attention, you'll find at least a few managerial villains (mean cool kids) residing in your best cubicles and offices.

I guess the mean ones are little Red Queens, always eager to shout "Off with her head!"  Like Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen, the grievances of your office's intolerant (and silly) despots often lack in substance. Sometimes the grievances are more the result of a manipulative mind than a poor workplace performer. 

Looking at the world through the corporate looking glass, so much looks distorted and strange. Many employees who loom large according to their fast rise up your ranks, aren't like that at all. Many fallen at the "sword" of their own Red Queen had a work performance far greater than you realize.


What are you doing to ensure employees succeed and fail for the right reasons, and "performance" isn't a game rigged in favor of golden boys and girls?

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Comments

AM

This is a great post. When I want to enhance my performance i use Reframe, you should check it out for your workplace. http://reframeproductivity.com

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