Corporate Career Advancement Depends on Exercising Your Individuality and Creativity
Of all the comments and questions I receive in response to various blogs I’ve written dealing with corporate culture and career building, by far the most consistent theme expressed deals with job dissatisfaction. People write complaining, “I feel trapped in a company that seems neither interested in my future nor willing to recognize my potential value. What should I do?”
The prevalence of such attitudes should not surprise you. In a January, 2010 report, The Conference Board confirmed the obvious when it reported, “U.S. job satisfaction is at the lowest level in two decades.” Lynn Franco, director of the Consumer Research Center of The Conference Board wrote, “While one in 10 Americans is now unemployed, their working compatriots of all ages and incomes continue to grow increasingly unhappy. Through both economic boom and bust during the past two decades, our job satisfaction numbers have shown a consistent downward trend.” In fact, a Conference Board survey indicated that fully 55 percent of employees are dissatisfied with their jobs.
The Conference Board (a global, non-profit membership organization that survives by selling its research to businesses) did not (or was unwilling to) list the reasons for employee dissatisfaction. However, the reasons are obvious.
When young people begin their business careers – particularly if they do so with large organizations – they are led to believe that career advancement is based solely on their talent, effort and commitment. When they discover that – especially in large, bureaucratic corporations – this is not the case, is it any wonder they become dissatisfied?
You see, what business schools never tell the bright young people they are preparing for a career is that life in the corporate world is, in reality, a game. Their success and speed in scaling the corporate ladder will not be based on their talent or effort, but by how well they play the game.
While those starting their careers may feel they are joining a company that makes and sells a product or service, in reality most large organizations become nothing more than bureaucracy factories. The primary objective of the organization becomes the codification of rules, processes and procedures. A cultural bureaucracy is a complicated, misleading and shadowy game with layers of obfuscated rules. Very few are prepared to play this game.
Most disheartening to those who naively enter the corporate world ready to apply their talent and effort in order to advance is when they discover that the essence of a corporate bureaucracy is to weed out those with intellect and imagination with a system that favors toadies and the mediocre.
When those within the corporate world discover that they have become trapped in such an environment they have two options. They can fold their cards, learn the rules and play the game the way most do or they can expose the game for what it is and make their own rules.
Going Along to Get Along
The easiest way to survive and advance, of course, is to capitulate and do what the system expects. And the best way to do this is to become a sycophant: you renounce your own will in favor of that of your superiors. You accept this self-abasement as the price for furthering your career. This also means giving up your individuality and the ability to shape your own opinions and set them against the opinions of others.
Those who are willing to sublimate their talent and sacrifice their individuality on the altar of career advancement can – and often do – move up the organization just the way that Dr. Laurence Peter predicted in his bestseller, The Peter Principle, wherein an employee “tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” But they do so at the high price of dissatisfaction not only with their job, but with their own self-respect.
There is another way.
You can fight for your right to think. You can recognize that life in the corporate world is a game—and then expose it as the game by questioning and challenging the rules of corporate life, amply demonstrated in the Apple “1984”commercial. When this type of culture is exposed as “just a game,” everything that is happening within the organization suddenly appears in a different and refreshingly irradiating light.
In effect, this type of individual action mocks the entire premise of the actions taken within the organization. When the actions begin to look silly, then the power of these actions begin to disintegrate. Those in charge begin to lose control over the individual who has retained their personal integrity. And, one should never forget that bureaucrats always fear mockery above all things.
Of course, one who lives within the corporate world, but outside the game, does so with risk. They will not likely move up the organization in the manner that those playing the game do, but they will retain their self-respect and individuality. In addition, they position themselves for even greater success, on their own terms.
That’s because bureaucratic corporate cultures, by their very nature, will eventually fall into crisis. During normal times, it is the mediocre who rule these organizations, but in times of crisis, opportunity is created for bright, talented individuals who confidently step from the crowd of those playing the game, of going along to get along. When group-think fails – as it always does – opportunity opens for those who have maintained their individuality and have the ability to develop independent thought.
And the Moral of the Story . . .
To survive, maintain your dignity and self-worth in most of the corporate of world, you will need to recognize that it is all a game, a business PlayStation of hierarchiological science. Once you see it as just a game, you gain a perspective that few others understand. Holding this knowledge enables you to see the silliness of many of the rules where “very employee in the bureaucratic chain tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
This point of view not only allows you to retain your individuality and self-respect, it gives you the confidence to mock the absurdity of most of the rules of the game – even if only in the privacy of your own thoughts. The irony is that, in and of itself, this understanding positions you for the real success that will come, and along with it, the ultimate in job satisfaction.