Hard work and faithfulness are supposed to guarantee success in the workplace. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert challenges the faerie tale notion that business environments are somehow inherently fair and just.
Workplace culture is transmitted through the stories that we tell one another: interpretations of executive pronouncements, apologies for failed initiatives, department creation myths and all sorts of explanations for who we claim that we are – and who we insist we aren’t. Culture is the ultimate result of the weight of those stories that we tell one another to make sense of how our world functions. We each act on those stories, conforming to our office’s perceived expectations, thereby making our admonitions into self-fulfilling prophecies. An rules begins as an apocryphal story, then is transformed via commonly-obeyed practice, into to simply becoming how things are… even if the commonly-accepted story was never actually true to begin with.
We all grew up on stories, starting with the snuggly-wuggly faerie tales that our parents, teachers and babysitters read to us when we were all wee tots. Each of those tales attempted – subtly or overtly – to inculcate specific ideas and virtues into our impressionable minds. Our adults related the stories to us in the hopes that we’d retain their core principle and would act accordingly once we grew up. In many respects, the tales that our elders shared with us were well-intentioned, but wholly counterproductive for the world that we grew into. Living according to faerie tale principles actually puts us at a critical disadvantage compared to our peers that somehow missed the message.
A perfect example of this comes from Aesop’s famous story ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’. People have come up with a bewildering number of variations on this classic over the centuries.  Still, the core maxim imparted in the original should be familiar to most everyone:
- A tortoise grows exasperated with a hare’s boasting, and challenges the hare to a footrace
- The hare knows that he can outrun the tortoise. Overconfident, he blows off the race
- The tortoise takes the race seriously and ‘wins’ because the hare lost track of time and forgot to participate
When I was little, my teachers stressed that we should always work hard: even when we were utterly outclassed, they said, we’d always have a fair chance at winning if our opponent made a mistake. Therefore, we shouldn’t ever give up. When I became an adult, some of my corporate managers tried to use the same tale to encourage us minions to toil faithfully in pursuit of our company’s goals since, they promised, our hard work would always be rewarded. I listened politely, looked around at the evidence, and quickly realized that these managers’ were all fundamentally barmy: in the allegorical race, the hare has all of the advantages. The only way that a hare can lose the race is either to refuse to participate, or to somehow be rendered unable to compete. Therefore, no matter how hard the tortoise struggles, the only way that the tortoise can win is for his adversary to lose by default. The hare can always wait until the last minute, put on a token burst of speed, and thereby ‘win’ the completely unfair ‘competition.’ Or, the hare can declare himself the winner despite all evidence to the contrary and upper management will award him the prize – because he’s the hare.
We see this situation all the time in the modern corporate workplace: Betty (our tortoise) is a hard worker with all the right skills and experience, but lacks some crucial political mojo. Bob (our hare) has an unbeatable edge: he might be a blood relation to someone in upper management, or might have attended the same boarding school as the CEO, or else has some other non-work advantage over Betty that has nothing at all to do with actual work. No matter how lazy, slipshod or incompetent Bob is in the pursuit of his official duties, he will always out-compete Betty simply by showing up. Whatever his unique advantage might be, it allows him to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat at the last second, every single time. Meanwhile, Betty can selflessly keep her nose to the grindstone for more than 80 hours a week, toiling righteously, and it will never matter because Bob will always beat her whenever the two ‘compete’. If Bob wants to win, then Bob gets to win, full stop.
In Western society, we generally consider this to be a travesty of justice and fair play because it is exactly that: it’s an inherently unfair situation. Our allegorical players Bob and Betty aren’t judged on their character, their labour or their loyalty to the company; their success comes solely from factors that neither of them can actually control. If this were due to the players’ differing races, genders, ethnicities or religions, we might decry the situation as the result of unlawful prejudice. Betty might be able to sue over the unfair race in civil court. If, however, the deciding factor in their competition can’t be attributed to a legally-protected category, then Betty’s options largely evaporate. A just and good manager would hear Betty’s grievance and make things right… but, then, a just and good manager would never allow such an unfair condition to exist in the workplace to begin with.
In a fundamentally unjust environment, our Betty has only two realistic options for overcoming Bob’s overwhelming advantages. She can faithfully follow the principles that Aesop’s tale taught her as a wee lass and keep struggling ever-forward, eyes on the finish line, and hope that Bob is too flighty or too arrogant to bother competing… or she can trip Bob and then shiv him while he’s vulnerable. Option one is an unrealistic long shot that’s doomed to fail because it depends entirely on Bob irrationally deciding to act contrary his essential self-interest. Meanwhile, option two actually works. In fact, it works very, very well. Logically, then, the only rational option that Betty has is to actively remove Bob from the equation. As the saying should go: if you can’t beat ‘em, stab ‘em until they stop twitching. Then dispose of the evidence.
That’s not the sort of fable that we want to tell our kids – or our employees. It suggests instead that the world is an inherently unfair and brutal place, and that what we call ‘civilsation’ is really a fragile façade concealing a comprehensively rotten core. While George R.R. Martin and HBO are making a fortune off of this premise with the runaway hit ‘Game of Thrones’, I understand why they’ve shied away from publishing a whimsical children’s version. It’s a bit… dark. Most people don’t generally like dealing with dark subjects, even when (especially when) they might be true.
When it comes to the workplace, we claim (by and large) that we expect our employees to be wholly rational actors. Each employee is expected to provide faithful service to the best of his or her ability in return for a fair wage, for the opportunity to advance, for earned praise, and for the promise of future reward. Management assigns work, labour performs work, and management fairly rewards labour’s good work. In an MBA course simulation, this vision of Generi-Co. always works like a perfectly-tuned and well-oiled machine, with nary a moment of drama interrupting the pure bliss of ideal capitalism. That’s what we say we want, anyway; by which I mean: ‘These are the lessons that we impact when we tell our employees stories about who and what we say that they are.’ It’s akin to mummy telling five year-old Betty that she can be anything in the world that she wants to when she grows up, even though mummy knows better: it may be true in storybooks, but it’s laughable nonsense for everyone who isn’t already a member of the elite billionaire class.
In practical reality, people don’t live like MBA simulations expect most of the time. Leaders say that we want our employees to be rational actors, but then condemn and punish employees for acting rationally, logically and appropriately when they find themselves trapped in an inherently unfair operating environment. When Bob’s public school connections repeatedly trump all of Betty’s hard work and faithfulness, and when the system itself is heavily invested in denying Betty justice for Bob’s unfair treatment vis-à-vis her lack of opportunity, it logically follows that Betty’s only rational response is to take deliberate steps to eliminate Bob from the equation. If she can’t fix the game itself, she can remove her competition from play (assuming that she can get away with it).
By pointing out the obvious, I’m not attempting to advocate for a Hobbes-ian state of nature in the workplace; quite the contrary. I’m only acknowledging that the natural state of the workplace is pretty much exactly what Hobbes argued about general society in Leviathan back in 1651:
‘…the natural state of man is not to be found in a political community that pursues the greatest good. But to be outside of a political community is to be in an anarchic condition. Given human nature, the variability of human desires, and need for scarce resources to fulfill those desires, the state of nature, as Hobbes calls this anarchic condition, must be a war of all against all. Even when two men are not fighting, there is no guarantee that the other will not try to kill him for his property or just out of an aggrieved sense of honour, and so they must constantly be on guard against one another. It is even reasonable to preemptively attack one’s neighbour.’ , 
Sound familiar? It should. Just add ill-fitting suits, crappy coffee and cubicles. Endless cubicles.
Hobbes argued (and I’m summarizing a bit here) that civilisation and strong leadership can overcome mankind’s natural state of every person’s entirely rational fear of and hate towards everyone else. The workplace is no different in that respect: civilisation – in the form of leadership, structure, rules, culture and precedent – imposes order, stability and safety, thereby neutralizing the probability that any given actor will try to inflict harm on his cubicle mates. With sufficient leadership pressure and commitment, Betty’s selfless labours actually can be rewarded. Justice and fairness can exist for everyone equally. The allegorical tortoise can have a fair, fighting chance to win… Hobbes himself would likely agree that these positive changes are possible only if the company’s leadership commits to make that reality manifest. Leadership at all levels must consistently take swift, decisive, and observable action to identify, and (when necessary) to root out impropriety at all its forms in order to make the new culture ‘stick’. Once leadership fails to correct an egregious breach of civilised conduct, the artificial bubble of office reality will invariably collapse.
This isn’t just an academic construct. I’ve seen it in multiple workplaces. I’ve deliberately engineered it in a few as well. I want to make it clear that it’s immensely difficult to maintain a bubble of un-reality within a larger organisation that doesn’t believe in what you’re trying to accomplish… but it’s also immensely rewarding for as long as you can pull it off. Creating a safe and transparent environment where every employee has a fair shot at success is what we all want from our workplace. That makes it worth fighting for. Yes, it’s ultimately doomed – the moment that leadership takes its hand off of the controls, the whole thing flies apart. While it lasts, though… it’s glorious.
That being said, most of us don’t actually work in an artificially constructed bubble of fairness and accountability. Most places exist somewhere on the spectrum between Hobbes’ state of nature and Hubert’s state of integrity.  Companies that might publicly espouse fairness and equal opportunity in their marketing copy usually have (either deliberately or through corruption) come to favor one or more ‘special’ groups of workers unfairly over all others. Sometimes this is systemic throughout the hierarchy; other times each manifestation is limited to a certain office or division.
In all such environments, the Bettys of the world struggle to play fair by the company’s official rules. They slowly grow bitter and disillusioned as they come to realize how severely the deck is stacked against them. They yearn to succeed, but realize too late that they hadn’t entered the competition with whatever advantage the powers-that-be decided it takes to qualify for the insiders’ club. Our Bettys can’t advance, no matter how hard they try. Bob will always win, whether he tries or not. That’s a damning epiphany… and also a terribly liberating one.
Bereft of realistic options within the bounds of her workplace culture’s expectations, our Betty rationally and coldly does the one thing that she can do in order to change the equation and get ahead: she waits until her anointed competitor is vulnerable… and then strikes Bob’s unguarded flank. It’s often personal the first time – a specific Bob personifies the inherent unfairness of the larger system. Eventually, the stabbing becomes routine and impersonal. Those possessing the unfair advantage simply have to be excised from the story by whatever means necessary.
To be absolutely clear, I’m arguing that the workplace should not be this way! That it so often becomes like this is a damning indictment of our collective failures as supervisors, managers, directors and executives. If this is the corporate culture that we’ve created, then we’ve failed our people, our shareholders and our communities. I argue that all of us occupying leadership billets share an absolute moral obligation to stop this from happening within our respective spheres of influence.
I submit that we must acknowledge a fundamental truth of office culture: that is, the more that we take away a worker’s options, the more that we drive that worker to attempt desperate and destructive measures in the pursuit of workplace justice. Conversely, the more legitimate options and protections that we provide to all of our people in the workplace, the less likely it becomes that any given rational employee will risk making such a dangerous move. The consequences of failure (e.g. reprimand, termination and lifetime disgrace) simply aren’t worth the gamble when safer alternatives exist. Knowing this, it behooves every leader at every level of the organisation to do everything in his her power to create the realistic avenues that all employees – not just the anointed few – can employ to get ahead. The workplace is only as fair as we make it, therefore we must make it fair.
If our workplace culture is the logical result of all the stories that we tell one another about who and what we are, then we owe it to everyone in the office to dial back the idealistic fantasy in favor of some stark realism. Suffering is only entertaining in fiction; drama has no useful place in the office. As a leader, I implore you to craft a true story for (and about!) your employees that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to read to your small children. If you can’t or won’t rise to the challenge and become the champion that your people deserve, then get the hell off of the stage.
 My personal favourite variation is Lord Dunsany’s version, where the forest creatures mistakenly believed that the tortoise really was the faster runner. When a forest fire starts, the council of animals foolishly dispatches the tortoise to warn everyone because they really believed him to be faster than the hare. Things worked out in that version… pretty much exactly as you’d expect.
 Quoted verbatim from the Wikipedia entry, complete with hyperlinks as they appear in the original article (Part I, paragraph 4).
 As Thomas Hobbes phrased it, ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’. Try tossing that line out the next time you need a conversation starter.
 I think every writer wants to create their own amazing fantasy world like Tolkien’s Middle Earth; apparently, mine has a lot fewer elves, and a lot more PowerPoint and basic human decency. To each his own, I guess.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.