Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bloated: A rant on arrogance and competing self-identities

Arrogance is nothing new, and as such should have no particular reason for bothering me now more than...say...5 years ago. It's probably been around since shortly after the first social, political and academic organizations formed. Nix that - the trait likely first emerged as soon as there were sufficient people around to impress. Cockiness, conceit, and (oftentimes false) bravado - while these descriptions have traditionally and more heavily been associated with (or socialized into) men, they still occur in the female variety. Sometimes arrogance is founded - though it would more effectively be left alone as self-confidence. But more often than not, it's without substance. Despite its varying forms and age-old existence, why is arrogance a trait that publicly gets a bad rep, but still seems to be encouraged behind closed doors? And more tellingly, why is its source often left unquestioned?

One of the richest (and most comical) places to see this dynamic at play is in the workplace. With all that's been written in the press lately about the sense of entitlement that generally characterizes Gen Y at work, it's likely that we all know at least one of "that guy or girl". The one that states opinion as fact. The one that answers questions about issues he/she has had little involvement in - ones that are better answered by someone else. The one that recounts client expectations, reactions, and discussions with the assumed tone and delivery of a first-hand participant - even when he/she wasn't involved. Even when he/she has been on the job for a matter of weeks. (I also wrote about this guy/gal in my last posting - see "Archetypes at Work").

What misguided management book - or mentor from the school of seagull management - encouraged this person to use this self-assumed level of authority as a persuasion strategy and power play? Yes, human nature and common sense indicate that people tend to listen when you speak with confidence and authority - no surprises there - but authority on a subject is gained through experience and research - not by assumed tone and perception. Someone is bound to eventually question what the source of this person's presumed authority is - if not because they possess some intelligence and discernment, at least because the perpetrator of this ultimately annoying "authority" will likely begin to irritate the hell out of most colleagues within a few weeks. Common sense and ancient advice tell us that confidence, doing your research, taking calculated risks, and trusting your gut are effective strategies, but they don't preclude actually doing the research and gaining the experience that serves as the foundation for that confidence. At the expense of sounding crude - this "perception is reality" attitude takes on the swagger, demeanor and voice of someone that's full of s--t. And that particular scent will always give you away.

Of course, arrogance isn't limited to the office. Socially, arrogance is oftentimes dressed up, tarted up, and allowed to sneak in unchecked if it makes up the right backstory. Perhaps it's our American tendency to supersize everything that encourages what would otherwise be a healthy self-confidence to push moderation aside, indulge and bloat up into full-blown arrogance. There are several examples of exagerated, bloated confidence and authority in the social realm - the cruel but popular high school kids that govern by fear (of your being the object of their mean-spirited jokes), the proverbial "bad boy" that's adulated for his me-first carelessness, the cheeky tees that let everyone within eyeshot know "I'm kind of a big deal". Much more subtle and passive than these, it's one-upmanship that I find the most fascinating and amusing. Because sadly, at one point or another, we've mostly all gotten caught up in it before realizing what we're doing (and why).

Who got invited to or learned about a promising shindig first. Name dropping, who-knows-who, and how well. How many obscure indie rock bands or film references you know. What artsy publications you cite as your sources. Who's first to wear a new designer or style. Drawing the line between a conversation that is sincerely based on the open, sincere exchange of opinions, ideas, and personal interests - and one that turns into a very subtle competition or comparison of who is better-informed or connected - can be an extremely vague exercise. The subsequent inquisition on who told you, or how/where you learned of it. The look of unease and discomfort at not having an equally informed response or reaction. It's not exactly something you can define or prove, other than describe it as a distinct impression that you're being evaluated or compared against someone else's self-identity.

What makes most of us susceptible to letting what should be an open, honest exchange of ideas turn competitive? Is it the feeble, transient nature of the criteria we're often using to define our identities? Is it our well-veiled insecurity and fear of no longer being interesting or desirable company if we aren't always uniquely-dressed, well-versed on emerging talent or quick with an obscure literary or film reference? Is this sense of competition and arrogance over ultimately incomplete factors in our identity really masking our insecurity?

Before I get any more critical with my observation or hypothetical with my questions, let me add that I know I'm guilty of it, too. After all, it might be a tad trite, but applicable - noone can make you feel inferior unless you let them (or yourself). My concluding comment on what I recognize was a rather "dynamic" subject (for those of you still following, it was originally arrogance, but ended as insecurity and competing self-identities) is just how ultimately ineffective and incomplete certain criteria are in developing our self-identity. There will always be someone better connected in a particular circle, more experienced in a particular field, better informed in a particular subject, more stylish or even smarter than you. I can't believe that to be the worst thing ever, or a challenge to my self-identity - particularly not when what's the most difficult to replicate are the collective characteristics that make someone so unique. A seeming contradiction of Barbie-doll looks and witty intelligence. A consistently positive outlook on life, despite some otherwise skin-thickening experiences. A penchant for dirty jokes and foul language, but a virginal-till-marriage existence. That's much tougher to compare or compete on, vs. an encyclopedic knowledge of anything you can devise a Top 10 list of.

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.