Incoming!

April 23, 2007, 6:09 PM UTC
Fortune

This blog has been up in what they call a “soft launch” for about a week, and a gratifying number of you have been poking around here, reading stuff, looking for things I’m doing wrong, making me feel both good and bad about myself. Sounds like life at any office, doesn’t it? Sure, this one is virtual, but then so many of them are, you know?

A couple of you have posed questions and posted comments for me to think about, and I thought I would pass along just two, for now, because, well, it’s Monday morning and right now the sound inside my brain is that of the wind blowing through an imaginary tree. 

An interesting correction comes from EGM of Norton, Massachusetts, a very nice community I had a drink in once, which I guess could be said of a lot of towns between here and Petaluma, only as I recall, Norton has a lot more class. I could be wrong, though. It was night.  

Anyhow, EGM took small issue with a point I made in my column on Hot Nuts, which has garnered the most attention of any of my postings so far. “One technical error,” he or she writes. “The nuts are not nuked. Aircraft galleys do not have microwave ovens. They’re heated in something much like a conventional toaster oven.”

Thanks, E.  I’m glad you wrote. Over the weekend, by the way, my upgrade didn’t come through and I had to fly in coach. I was lucky enough to get a bulkhead, however, and one of the flight attendants from Business recognized me and brought me a cookie one hour out from Kennedy. The warm chocolate chips tasted even sweeter, knowing I wasn’t really entitled to them. There was a moment, however, staring into the cabin up ahead, that did cause me pain. You know when. The hot nuts were rolled out, and I couldn’t have any, which was bad enough, and knowing they were not, in fact, nuked at all, but baked lovingly by hand in a toaster oven made things even worse. I got over it though. Life is long. I’ll be back.

Of more head-scratching profundity comes a jab from Joe in New York City, who might for all I know be in the workspace down the hallway from me, not simply down the street. Here’s what Joe writes:

Not so much a question, Stanley, as an observation. Your “advice” to people on how to manage issues in the workplace not only does not contribute to productive solutions, but rather fans and perpetuates the original office borne malaise. While this may be comforting in the form of a regular paycheck, it is disheartening to witness an obviously talented writer such as yourself sell out for the short-term, smarmy buck. Please put your clever mind to use SOLVING workplace issues, not exacerbating them.

There are several erroneous assumptions here. First is that I have sold out for the “short-term, smarmy buck.” I resent that very much. I see myself as a courageous representative of the embattled middle manager, and as such, if I have sold out at all, it is not for the “short-term, smarmy buck” at all — it is for the long-term, self-aggrandizing buck. While this may still be a form of “selling out” a priori, it is an age-old strategy that clearly mimics that of a person who is simply working for a living in difficult circumstances posed by the nature of the business universe. 

True, I am not defaulting to one of two other options. 1) I am not quitting in a huff and repairing to a small shack in Humboldt County, California, even though I might really like to now and then, and 2) I am not advising people who are either foolish or desperate enough to take my advice to “fight the power” or, on the other hand, to “get along.”  I’m not sure if those alternatives represent the counsel that Joe would like me to offer. On the one hand, Joe seems to be suggesting a more active, radical posture that produces productive solutions and does not contribute to the original office-borne malaise. This would suggest a truculent, pro-active stance. On the other hand, Joe puts a premium on solving things, going so far as to PUT THE WORD IN CAPITAL LETTERS, which is the equivalent online of screaming at the top of his lungs.  An emphasis of this kind on solving – as opposed to confronting – would appear to lean toward a less in-your-face approach. So I don’t know.

Joe raises an interesting if somewhat oblique point, however.  He feels, in some way, that my advice to people is unhelpful in some way, and that I should employ my energies not exacerbating things. This is a fair criticism, and one which I feel I should answer. I think I can do so by taking  a short minute to offer my overall attitude toward organizations and the individual’s role in them, since that’s what guides my strategic approach to most issues.

In general, I think organizations are good for people. They help to mold the personality of each individual to certain standards that give it shape and form, and provide a path for action and recognition that helps us forget, on a day to day basis, about the meaninglessness of existence and the inexorable passage of time. The organization gives us something bigger than ourselves to love and hate. It puts bread on our table and fire in our hearth. It helps us to define good and evil, provides friends and enemies, gives us reason to get up in the morning and go to bed at a reasonable hour every night.

Things go bad, however, when the needs of the organization, and the irrationality of the management that run it, work to overwhelm the individual that lives inside it. That’s when people need help. By help,  I mean a strategic stance that asserts the well-being of the individual over that of the organization and the forces within it that are working against him. Or her.

The central problem most people face is the crazy boss. But there are others: noxious co-workers, irrational operating demands, boredom, rage against the machine, all kinds of stuff. Over the course of a career, those who can cook up a coherent, active strategy of some subtlety – both long-term and short-term – do better than those who simply suffer, lash out, blow up, or just react.

Everybody’s strategy will be different, since each of us is unique in a variety of ways and posseses a variety of skills and detriments. But a cold, analytical approach that takes in the reality of organizational life is the beginning of any such effort. Morality has little to do with the exercise, since the forces of senior management are essentially amoral, narcissistic and brutal, and the organization itself is above human considerations.

I don’t know everything. I have the benefit of never having been to business school, of course, so that’s given me a leg up. I’ve also worked for more than 20 years in the corporate trenches and still go there every day to fight and, if necessary, die. There is no day that dawns when I truly know what’s going to happen. My bosses are as crazy today as they were when I first joined the Organization way back when. It is only I who have grown significantly crazier. That’s probably helpful in the formulation of appropriate strategies too.

Thanks for writing, Joe. And thanks, above all, for your assumption that things can be SOLVED. I’ll keep on counting on that, too.