According to Jackie, he should at least get some credit for acknowledging he could “sometimes be a bit of a player.”
He was telling me this as we sat at the picnic table outside the Facilities Management building on the Thursday before his final day at work. He’d resigned rather than be terminated. Jackie has a “big” personality, and for a decent stretch it looked like it was all working. Everybody knew Jackie, and a lot of fellow employees actually thought Jackie was higher on the food chain than he really was.
“This happened so fast. I thought I knew what I was doing, but… turns out I was clueless about the politics.”
Actually, for awhile there Jackie looked like a political maestro, but the story of how it all fell apart boiled down (according to Jackie) to “realizing too late that I’d pissed off somebody who I thought had my back.”
Jackie was promoted from the line because he had lots of energy and what looked like a “can do” attitude. He became a crew chief. He got some mandatory supervisory training that “probably did” emphasize workplace performance, but probably didn’t emphasize enough the importance of editing what comes out of one’s mouth.
The specifics will never be known. Jackie’s version may even be somewhat true – there are always workplace dynamics people can choose to call “politics” – but his version is also self-serving cynicism: I’m not being let go for valid reasons, it’s because I didn’t play the game well enough, and someone who didn’t like me took me down.
The thing is, even people who never got past 8th grade have a worldview – personal ideas about how the world really works – especially including economics and the workplace. But that worldview may include cynicism that misreads the actual situation. Some people are consciously aware of their own thinking, but a ton of people tend not to think about what they truly think (and whether they’re right or not) until they’re forced to.
So from there it’s morphs into some version of:
Who really runs the show here? Who’s got the real power or direct access to it? What will it cost me if I stick my head above the foxhole and say out loud whether I’m for or against someone’s idea? What will happen if I’m more loyal to person A than person B? Who can I actually trust to say what I really think? How much real autonomy to do the work my way do I have? Who should I go to when I really need to deal with a problem? How much is it true in this workplace that honest mistakes are accepted and not punished? Is the real (but unspoken) job about making the boss look good – and is there a price to pay if I don’t?
It’s not that a person shouldn’t have any of those thoughts, it’s that those thoughts shouldn’t get the upper hand to the exclusion of knowing that work performance matters. True, being a strong performer at work doesn’t protect everyone from office politics, but it sure helps. Most organizations in fact don’t casually toss away good work performance. Really.
Jackie’s organization had a written policy requiring a paper trail and a long timeline for “corrective” action, and Jackie did have letters in his file stating what the problems were. Jackie wasn’t an outright terrible supervisor, and he wasn’t lazy, but he put a lot of energy into schmoozing. He liked the limelight, and wrongly thought it was about navigating the workplace politics. But people notice things like that. Jackie’s coworkers saw him as a “player” who couldn’t quite be trusted. Jackie’s fan base was a mile wide and an inch deep.
Work is a huge piece of anyone’s life, but still only a piece. We all need to pay our bills, and some compromising with the less-than-ideal is something we all have do. But for the long haul it truly is about more than surviving. Cynicism is corrosive. People who take the high road don’t have zero problems, but they sure have a whole bunch fewer than Jackie.