Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Archetypes at Work

Working at an office of any sort, you're exposed to a number of different personalities, characters and politics. Entire sitcoms, comic strips and books have been dedicated to the study of office dynamics and archetypical characters. Take, for instance, the micro-managing boss who's threatened by a potentially smarter, more effective successor. The alliance of 3 or so long-term employees that lunch together, seem to be promoted together, and leave the company together. The chatty connector, who is the first to hear (and oftentimes repeat) every bit of office gossip. It can be a perfect study in human behavior to see cliques form, alliances made and unwritten rules observed.

Working in the Marketing department of a rather large company, I'm particularly amused by how consistent some of these characters are across the different companies, offices and industries I've worked in. While each character or archetype may not show up in each and every single office (industries and personnel count does factor into this), similar characterists and hybrid characters will factor into the dynamics of most every office. After a loaded office happy hour recently, it struck me how similar office life is to high school or college - after all, they're all organized human institutions, with subsequent norms, rules and expectations to govern people's behavior. Why wouldn't the same social skills required to successfully navigate high school or college and depart with the experiences that you desired (not everyone wanted to be Greek, or Valedictorian) - be the same skills necessary to navigate office life?

Let me first clarify that I am NOT implying that we need to regress to high school or collegiate culture (and maturity level) in order to become a valued, well-liked colleague at the office. I think life is all about figuring out what experiences you want to have, and then developing the skills and identifying the opportunities that will facilitate your having them. Fortunately, we don't all want the exact same experiences in college, life or at the office. I also recognize that the beauty and character in individuals is found in those idiosyncratic and unexpected characteristics - the beauty that is also incredibly observant and witty; the successful financier that happens to be a nonconformist; the studied, well-read individual that balances out his intellect with a full social life and circle of varied acquaintances. These are the people that aren't fully described by any archetype or stereotype.

But because educational and professional institutions are very human, they're also very prone to being governed by similar norms, expectations and unspoken codes of conduct (albeit more sophisticated, mature ones in the workplace - you hope). Keeping in mind that these are generalizations and that we now (hopefully) know that no one is completely defined by such a limited classification - we could take different high school or collegiate archetyples (for the purpose of dramatization, of course), consider some of the key traits that characterized their behavior in and dynamics within the high school or collegiate social structure - and apply what we knew (or didn't know we knew then) to successfully navigate, outsmart (and even get promoted within) today's place of business. Take the following:

Archetype 1: Student Council President then: Most Promotable Employee now
Diplomatic. Multi-faceted. Might have been an honor roll student taking AP courses, but also an athlete, or drama/choir/debate geek. Had plenty of friends, was nice to most everyone, and made few - if any - enemies. At the office, this is the person that everyone likes - can talk to the tech guys about the new iPhone and the merits of Macs vs. PCs, to senior management about employee morale and the strategy behind the latest ad campaign, will remember the Admins on Administrative Assistants' Day, and will be social, fun and friendly at every happy hour. This is the person that crosses clique lines. He or she is positive, diplomatic, enthusiastic and well-rounded - they score invites to other departmental happy hours. They're valued by management as having "potential". They get promoted.

Archetype 2: The Quiet Nerd then. Overworked and Unrecognized now.
Smart. Knows the material inside and out. Keeps his or her head down and hesitates to speak up about his or her opinion. The few times that he/she does, it's said with such low confidence that it tends to be easily forgotten or discredited. Doesn't get too involved in the social/political aspects of the office. All this considered, tends to get overlooked, both socially and during performance reviews. Could learn a bit from Student Council President - or from The Homecoming Queen...

Archetype 3: The Homecoming Queen then. Most Envied and Desired Co-Worker now.
Could be very smart, which only helps further her case. Might be a cold bitch. But in other examples, has also been known to be a genuinely nice person. Intelligence and quality of work aside, she's physically attractive. Gets invited to meetings (even those she doesn't necessarily belong in) and out-of-office functions. Tends to maintain some manner of distance and mystery. The women collectively like/envy/fear/admire her, the men just can't stop looking at her. Terribly effective at getting proposals approved rather quickly. Object of much gossip and discussion. Might end up dating the Student Council President.

Archetype 4: The Gossip then. The Chatty Connector now.
Knows everyone and their backstories. Has been with the company for a while. Will be with the company for a while. Tends to be female. Her best asset is not so much her talent, intelligence or aptitude for her role (which she might have), but rather how many people she knows, how much she knows about them, and how much people tell her. She knows the culture, the history, the gossip. Don't tell her any personal details that you wouldn't want the entire office to know about you. Don't make her your enemy - she'll be around longer than you will. Embodies the adage "it's not what you know, it's whom you know".

Archetype 5: The Poser then. The Full-of-S--t Salesman now.
To be fair, he may not even be in Sales. Could be Marketing, Media or even Finance. We all know this guy - cocky (usually false bravado), free with the meaningless marketing-speak or corporate lingo. Talks about himself and espouses his opinion frequently. Rarely backs it with sound reasoning, data, or any support, really - other than his opinion. Despite his clearly incomplete knowlege or limited involvement on a particular business issue, he states his opinion or take on it as fact. Interviews well. Is often disliked quickly once hired. Validates the notion that HR can't spot a lemon, even while they're driving it.

Could these characteristics be identified as a general list of what to do, or not do, to get ahead at work? Of course - but putting it in the context of archetypes is so much richer and fun.