Saturday, June 4, 2011

Successfully working around 'suck-ups' at the work place

In a recent training vendor meeting, the vendor discussed a methodology of using painting to capture participants'  attitudes, especially in conflict situations. Guess what most drawings for suck-ups at the workplace could be? 

Yep, you guessed it right! A dog with a furiously wagging tail.

Suck ups ("SU"s) are easy to come by and hard to deal with if one gets angry, frustrated, irritated with them. What instead helps is rising above the situation and looking for work arounds. The first step could be understanding the nature of relationship that the person sucked up to and the person carrying out the ritual share. In most cases, it is not a one way relationship or a single person's need!

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith in his book on 'What got you here won't get you there' has a wonderful example of why people seem to like their dogs more than their family! In short, it is something like this - as soon as you enter the house, who do you want to pet the first? Your daughter who is probably upto her own business, or your dog, who runs up to you, wags his tail, jumps up and down and expresses deep, unconditional love for you (and possibly a scooby snack?)

When you want to successfully workaround a situation that involves SU, it helps to check for the conditions in the environment. Condition one, as and when two opposing and mutually supportive motives are present among the boss and subordinate. Take for example a fresher who joins and is not too competent, but has a high need of dependency. Put him with a boss who has a high need for control and you have the perfect pair for SU. Condition two, when both of them are trying to cover up either their own incompetency or not wanting to adapt to a changed situation -  something that could affect their own 'leisure' - vs. a positive work intent.

A case in point. In one of the organizations I was closely observing, the CEO surrounded herself with eight to ten of her 'favourites' while she continued to ignore sales and revenue generation. Both conditions discussed above were met. The SU phenomenon continued till the CEO was fired.

When looking at working around a SU pair at work, try to find out the motives that drive the pair. It is usually control-dependency or that both have affiliation. Very rarely have I found those with achievement motives indulging in serious SU. Once you can identify it, try and find out if there are functional ways of engaging the subordinate. It is hard work, but worth a try.

One word of caution, if the boss starts missing the SU because of you, it could lead to a nasty backlash against you. It may be a good idea to keep your supervisor informed about your efforts if the SU pair is a peer pair.

Something more you can do is help create small successes for both the boss and subordinate. Achievement is a good thing, but takes a little work. The hope here is to move the pair into a achievement oriented mindset.

(Those of us wanting more info on the psychological processes possibly at work, you can read about Narcissistic supply on Wikipedia. In simple words, it is when the SU supplies either or both individuals with psychological comfort that they are addicted to. Compare it with the 'happiness pills' used by people when genuine well being through exercise and a healthy life style isn't something they want to put effort towards.)

However, before beginning to work around SUs, first question I ask is whether you really want to invest your effort. If it is just an irritant, ignore it by focussing on the positives that the pair have. If that is not possible, try to have an honest conversation that focuses on specific instances. Do not use the word feedback in such conversations. Hiding behind the pretense of giving feedback when you are actually sorting out conflicts is cowardly and most likely leads to more conflict. Provide concrete instances of observed behaviour that has affected you. Use the STAR framework (Situation, Task, Action, Result).

Remember, working around SUs is not as much for you to 'cure' the phenomenon. It is to allow you to work in peace and allow you to progress in your own career, with possibly the help (atleast not to be bothered) by the SU pair. Be very clear about the desired outcomes when you work with the pair.

It's one life. It's usually shorter than a couple of centuries. Make it a happy one.

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