We are on the same team


We are on the same team. Sounds like words of wisdom from a football coach goading his players to work and play together as a team. And this could easily apply to the corporate world but with a cunning twist.

It is often, perhaps always, that different departments in the company work at loggerheads with one another, often with diagonally opposite, self-serving objectives. But, in line with the cloak and dagger principle of corporate culture, everyone pretends to be working towards a common purpose, often that of the ‘other guy’. To leave no room for error in conveying this pretension, all quarters keep reiterating, ‘we are on the same team’.

Take the classic case of completing a major IT project for a customer. The sales department, right up to the VP of Sales, has promised the moon to the client. As the project team, with a well defined project plan consisting of 2000 activities, kicks into high gear trying to deliver to their mantra of on-time-on-budget mission, they are presented with innumerable deviations from scope by the client, who insists that these were promised to them by the company’s sales team. A classic tug of war ensues and internal ‘escalations’ in the company result in endless meetings. This is where the VP of Sales, Ben, steps in and announces to the Director, IT, in the presence of the CEO, “David, are we all not on the same team – trying to satisfy and retain the customer? Why do you not want to listen to the customer?”. David sarcastically replies, “Yes, we are on the same team of losing money for the company”. The CEO loses his cool and shouts, “Ben and David, get this mess sorted out” and what does he conclude with – you got it – “we are all working for the same company”!

This amazing principle of vehemently disagreeing while repeatedly expounding the exact opposite is found at all levels in the organization. Between engineering teams and their nemesis, the dreaded quality assurance team. Between the Controller, Finance and the CEO who wants a favorable portrayal of the company’s financial results. And between the Office Manager, who is desperately trying to furnish the new C-Suite conference room for the upcoming annual executive meeting the following week, and the Purchase Manager who is trying to negotiate a 10-dollar discount with the supplier.

Fun is always round the corner in the corporate world.   

Idiosyncrasy at the top

There is many a perk associated with rising up the organization hierarchy – corner office, expense budgets, free lunches with clients and so on. But, perhaps the most coveted one is not measured in monetary terms.

One can generously refer to this as ‘being yourself’. ‘free to do what you want’ and other similar terms. However, the correct notation would be to call it out for what it actually is – idiosyncrasy. The most visible aspect of the C-suite executive  – how one behaves – is also the most privileged part of the position.

There are the simple behavioral patterns such as not (never) being on time or not reading any reports. Get a bit more aggressive and you have exhibits like texting or calling up subordinates at ungodly hours and assigning (non)urgent tasks; or disturbing people at work to discuss imaginary business scenarios or trivial matters. 

Many times, it feels like the very things that you are told not to do when you are a lower level minion in the organization become badges of honor when you are at the top. ‘Do not yell when someone else is talking’, ‘Don’t fall asleep while you are in a meeting’, ‘Don’t swear at others’ – are some of the low level thresholds that are routinely breached at the top.

But, wait … there is more (of course). Not being focused, known as multi-tasking in corporate jargon, is a major privilege at the top. Whether it is reviewing the sales strategy for the next year(s) or attending a meeting for the introduction of a new software system in the organization, the rule remains the same – don’t come prepared and don’t focus on what is going on. Keep texting and look harassed (remember, the C-suite is always solving serious world problems). And to keep others on edge, randomly ask questions like, “Why do you say that?”, “Isn’t there a better way to do this?” and send people and topics into a tailspin.   

‘Innovation’ is another powerful weapon used by the C-Executive to dispatch people down endless rabbit holes repeatedly. Under the garb of making matters worse, I mean better, the hapless subordinates – Directors, department heads, programmers and janitors – could be asked to redraft presentation material, improve business models, redesign offices or rehash company product lines without a clue as to what the objective (if any) is. It keeps everyone working, often at cross purposes, without achieving any results – for which they can be blamed later.

By far the greatest idiosyncrasy, in terms of collateral damage, is when the boss decides to ‘connect’ with people in the organization. These highly undesirable incidents happen in the form of town halls, by barging into meetings where there is a critical mass of people or simply by descending on a group of unsuspecting employees in the break room. Starting with a simple, “Hey, how is it going?”, the conversation quickly moves up a notch to, “How did the customer receive the latest release of our product?” and, after a few minutes of not listening to what is being said, ends disastrously with one of the following outcomes:

  1. some essential meetings are cancelled
  2. a tangential, incompatible or even infeasible change is made to an established product or process
  3. a bunch of senior executives are assigned (in absentia, of course) a set of initiatives that will distract them from all of their regular duties

No wonder there are designated individuals – often with titles such as Secretary and Executive Assistant – in every organization, whose job it is to minimize the effect of the idiosyncrasies of their bosses by eliminating the flow of information to and from their masters! 

Management by (not ‘of’) Conflict

Conflict Management – the manna from heaven for business schools and management strategists for providing endless advice and, of course, fertile ground for earning handsome fees. Be it words of wisdom from Peter Drucker or the guy in the next cube, conflict management is never far from one’s mind.

While conflict may be viewed as something that is natural in its occurrence prompting one to try and figure out ways and means to resolve (or prevent) the same, the shrewd corporate wizard knows and puts into practice the full potential of conflicts as an effective management tool.

Let us look at a software manager controlling (in the name of ‘coordinating’) the work of two developers under her. One of them mentions in a casual conversation with the manager that the other developer, Mary, is having a tough time finishing a complex program that she is working on. Subsequently, the manager calls Mary and informs her, “John was complaining that your code is not up to standards and that is affecting integration with his programs”. Thus is set in motion a period of eternal rivalry and conflict between John and Mary making them point fingers at each other and lose no opportunity to ‘impress’ their manager by – yes, you are right – putting down his/her colleague, while the manager herself has the luxury of sitting and twiddling her thumbs.

At a higher level in the corporate hierarchy, the conflict tool is used with even more telling (and, needless to say, disastrous) effect. The CEO of a consumer products company could easily sow the seeds for a series of conflicts between the Product Manager and the head of R&D by saying to the latter, “Hey, the Product Manager thinks you guys should be in the baby food business, the way you come up with trashy perfumes!” The CEO clearly is looking to take advantage of this deliberate incitement while seeming to induce competition (more like combat).

Another shining example of benefiting from the creation or encouragement of conflict is in dealing with prospects or customers and the intra-company turf wars that exist. Say, you are trying to sell a new medical device to a hospital. The head of medical practice is at loggerheads with the chief of engineering who feels that the existing devices in the hospital have a life span of 5 more years. You, the supplier, could help by digging up dirt on their engineering department regarding non-existent inefficiencies and arm the head of medical practice to berate and demean their engineers and win his case for ordering new equipment, resulting in predictably unwarranted expenditure for the hospital. Clearly there are many paths to corporate survival, I mean, success!

Adaption, Corporate Style

Amongst all the celebrated ‘virtues’ in the corporate world, ‘Adaption’ ranks right at the top. It could be mistaken by a simpleton to mean the much commended habit of being able to adjust to one’s surroundings and environment. However, the heights (or depths, if you prefer) to which this behavior can be taken and the results achieved will leave you spellbound.

As a newcomer to any company that qualifies to be in the corporate league, you are told, if you have not already thought through it, to adapt to the prevalent corporate culture. This sets you off on a wild goose chase of the elusive phenomenon that conveniently defies any objective definition. You hear passing remarks such as, “…. you got to rise up to it”, “…it is in the genes of this company”,”….this is precisely what I love about this place” and ”….the culture here is unique”. You are baffled and frustrated at the same time and decide to give it some time to sink into you.

A few weeks and several faux pas and mishaps later, you are gradually beginning to understand the adaption game. You can certainly be excused if you get the feeling, more than once, of being an adopted child in the organization. You have adapted to the chaotic habit in the company of copying a minimum of 25 extraneous people in every email and responding to only such emails where you are a ‘cc’ and which do not pertain to your area of work; you have fully embraced the culture of 120-minute meal breaks; you have quickly become adept at putting yourself on mute during most conference calls, and doing your real work.

You try valiantly to find out what is valued in the company – punctuality, working late, meeting deadlines, more/less meetings, sending thank-you notes and emails, sharing work, small talk and so on. You draw a blank when you confront people with these questions – they just shrug or grin. After racking your brain for several months, you give up and decide to go with the flow – and thus adapt!

Some of the adaptations are not easy to come by and this is where you really earn your keep. You should be intuitive enough to know which other departments and managers are on your boss’ favored list. This determines, in no uncertain terms, who your friends and non-friends (you never label anyone as your ‘enemy’ in the corporate world) are – and remember this is a dynamic list that changes often, all part of the culture that you are trying to adapt into. Likewise, you need to know the limits to which information and facts can be stretched – these are obviously elastic in nature – without breaking the proverbial bank (read, your job!). And then there is a plethora of nuances and subtleties of how to do tasks that put yourself (and your boss, of course) in the best light, how to avoid the pitfalls of being associated with a failed project, how not to make any recommendations that may come back to bite you ……. and so on. Yes, adaption in the corporate world is not a joke!

Reflection – a powerful tool for Inaction

OK, you are intrigued by the title. No? Read on anyway! Hint: We are not talking about the philosophical introspection – pensively looking into yourself or the issue on hand and coming up with a solution to a tricky problem, through the wisdom of experience. We are, rather, talking about reflecting (more like deflecting) back a problem or a question like rays on a mirror.

Have you ever gone up to your manager and asked, “I have these two conflicting tasks – what should I do?” …. And received a response like, “What would YOU do, Jason?” followed by a stoic silence for a very long time till you correctly get the message as, “Go deal with it yourself”. Welcome to the world of the ‘reflective manager’.

The art of reflection (also referred to as ‘playing tennis’ in less sophisticated circles) is best practiced when you potentially have a large audience. Say you are training a large group of young management trainees. You can, with confidence, bounce every one of the questions raised by each one of them right back to group ….. and make it appear like you are giving them a chance to exercise their grey cells. You can even make project assignments of the silliest question and send them into endless circles.

A manager’s true capabilities lie in performing multi-directional reflection across different departments and sections of the organization. For instance, when your boss asks you what the status of an IT upgrade project that you are responsible for is, you immediately run through a mental checklist of all people who could be targeted – the janitor on your floor, the purchase department guy who helped you order the cables for the project, even the secretary who prepared your last powerpoint deck – and finally end up ‘pinging’ the heads of various departments that are not part of the upgrade project. By keeping your boss copied on all your ‘deflections’ you create a huge aura and perception of working hard to gather facts, while shielding yourself from actually providing any response of your own.

Reflection involving people outside your company – vendors, customers, contractors – is even more entertaining, with near zero risk. A scene that would be readily familiar to everyone is the runaround given to a supplier while trying to get an overdue invoice paid. As the person directly responsible for approving the payment, you could bounce the hapless supplier representative in many a direction – ‘oh, I have asked for the purchase order to be reissued’, ‘I will check if you have been set up on our Accounts Payable system’, ‘Have you submitted form XR-896D to my Tax department?’, ‘I have just asked my contracting department for the terms of payment’, ‘I will check with my finance department when their next payment cycle is’…. and so on to eternity!

The Status Quo Heaven

Status Quo is a wonderful thing. For those pundits who need a definition for everything, let me define status quo as the result of an act (more like an art) of preventing anything from making forward progress of any kind – if, inadvertently, things move backward, it could be treated as an added bonus.

The degree of difficulty in maintaining status quo is inversely proportional to the size of the organization. Further, in large organizations it is next to impossible to ascertain with any level of confidence that anything has changed or not – whether it is the number of meetings that you have to attend (endure), the number of such meetings that result in any tangible outcome or the number of times you have to clarify (or categorize) an item on your expense report.

For the average mid level manager (and at other levels too), status quo is the gold standard, the pursuit of which tends to be relentless. Take a look at the deft maneuvering by the seasoned professional in the following conversation:

Karen (Chief Operating Officer): Thank you all for coming to this meeting at such a short notice. We have selected a new expense management system that will enable tracking of various expenses by categories, by departments and more. This will help us…….. yes, Tim, you have a question?

Tim (Manager, Administration): Is this SATGH 1010, KUSNK 201 certified?

Karen: I am not sure what those acronyms are but this product is being used by the majority of Fortune 500 companies. So, Mary, I would like you to come up with a plan for speedy implementation.

Mary (Head of Information Systems): Yes, Karen. Sounds interesting. We should be able to…….

Tim: But the risks and costs of introducing high tech systems in our organization may be formidable. You will all remember the disaster when we tried to quickly automate the process for cafeteria menu management 10 years ago – people had to go without chicken sandwiches for 2 full days.

Karen (getting irritated): Tim, what are you implying here – that we should not change from a 20-year old, paper based system that is obsolete?

Tim: No, Karen. I only want to recommend that we should be very careful in selecting and implementing any new system. We should initiate a full training program for all our employees to be trained in the use of a computer mouse as well as the correct use of their fingers on touch screens. This obviously could take a few years to accomplish. And then we should have parallel runs for the new system for a period of …….

Karen (barely able to control herself): OK, Mary could you get with Tim and come up with a plan that is workable. Let us meet again in 3 months.

Tim is back in his cabin, satisfied at having succeeded in preventing another risky move to make things better in the organization.

The Magical Quadrants

There is a panacea for all evils – or is it the other way (evil in every panacea) – in corporate management. Its name is ‘the magical quadrants’.

A corporate quadrant diagram has four boxes (surprise!). Every issue, situation, behavior, result, forecast, procedure and (name anything you wish) is nonchalantly fitted into one of these boxes and, before you can say, ‘hey, presto’, the problem is ‘solved’!

As an example, let us analyze a situation where your company’s sales figures are declining while other comparable companies are doing very well. Bring on the quadrant wand and slot away as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 7.24.40 PM

Armed with the above tantalizing display, the Head of Sales can easily make the following presentation to the company’s senior management:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am aware that you are all worried about the company’s performance (or lack thereof) over the past few quarters. But I have been tracking the progress of our company through the company performance-employee morale correlation represented in the picture shown above. This has been taken directly from published results from extensive research on leading global companies by the industry watchdog, XYZ Unlimited. Last year, we were in quadrant I. Thanks to tremendous efforts by our management to expand and grow our lawn, with active support from the CEO, I am proud to say that we are now in quadrant II. We do not ever want to be in quadrant III which is where all our competitors are – with low employee morale that is easily correctable. We have put aggressive plans in place to move directly to quadrant IV. With our highly motivated workforce and our continuing investments in maintaining and growing greenery around us, it is just a matter of time before we find ourselves at the top of quadrant IV that remains a mere dream for all our competitors. Thank you all!

After that fiery speech, everyone goes back to work with renewed resolve to seek out more correlations and generate new quadrant diagrams!


If you thought the words ‘delivery’ and ‘deliverable’ belonged to a branch of medicine pertaining to women and children or associated these words with the responsibilities of your local Post Office, you may be excused and even offered a free course on an important facet of corporate nuances – read on and become wiser.

A ‘Deliverable’ in corporate speak covers anything and everything – a sandwich for lunch, the Bridge on the River Kwai, an idea to confuse people and, well, even a plot not to deliver anything. With the right imagination, accompanied by a crafty but indecipherable description, each and every (non)activity can be mysteriously turned into a ‘deliverable’.

One must concede that management gurus like Peter Drucker may have invented the ‘deliverable’ as a means of providing an objective way to measure success or failure upon completion of a nebulous task. However, true to the ingenuity of corporate scholars of today, the exact opposite effect has come to stay – converting simple and intuitive outcomes into incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo.

The idea of a deliverable may be used to convert a simple result into a monumental outcome. Thus, a simple orientation session for new recruits in an organization can be positioned to ‘deliver’ the following:

  • welcome new hires and make them feel at home
  • help them become familiar with the nearest restrooms and fire exits
  • infuse the sense of belonging and commitment to the organization
  • create an appreciation for the nutritional values of different lunch options
  • ….and so on

In case the reader has failed to notice, the above deliverables are carefully defined to defy objective measurement of any kind. An added benefit of such definitions is that, where an external agency is involved in providing such complex deliverables, what may otherwise look like an exorbitant consultancy fee can readily be projected as a fair reward.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘deliverable’ phenomenon is used by veterans to remove any semblance of clarity in what is being delivered. Thus the objective (sorry, ‘deliverable’) of an expense reporting system, with simple functions such as the ability to enter and approve expenses, could be turned into a ‘system for simplification of workflow to control costs’ immediately creating a situation where implementation of the said system can be neither completed nor assessed for success.

Just imagine the extension of this corporate style to your every day activities. What is the deliverable for the plumber who fixes your leaking pipe? Eliminate discharge of water from the pipes other than at permissible outlets? Or, say, for your hairdresser – achieve a ratio of 1:3 between the amount of hair remaining versus the original quantum?

The next time you sit in a restaurant, waiting for food to be served, try and define the deliverable for the waiter (other than, of course, the actual items of food ordered). The fun is endless.

The Budget Cycle

Fair Warning: This is not for novices and beginners. You need to have gone through several “…101” courses (Evasion 101, Misleading 101 and Cover-Up 101 to name a few) to be admitted to this Game of Budgets.

Every organization believes that if every department and every area of business is tied to a strict budget, things will automatically be under control. The corporate mantra for governance is ‘budget versus actual’. It is therefore no surprise that seeking and getting sumptuous budgets approved feels like a real life enactment of Hunger Games.

Though the budgetary cycle is only an annual affair (incidentally, ensuring job security for hundreds of spreadsheet-wielding finance wizards and their deputies), if you are responsible for running anything at all in your company, you do not rest for one minute from thinking about past/future budgets. The cornerstone of your planning should always be more ‘projects’ on your list than anyone or any organization can dream of completing in centuries. For example, if you are a Facilities Manager, you need to have an endless array of ‘to-do’ items such as ‘repaint the underside of shelves in the records room’, ‘enlarge the company logo displayed all over the office’, ‘increase the number of water fountains in the cafeteria’ and ‘change the ringtone on all phones in the office’. Moreover, to ensure that you get noticed at the right time by the right people, you also should have a sprinkling of projects such as, ‘change the color of the one-month old carpet in the CEO’s office’ and ‘replace the coffee maker in the Board room twice a month’.

A golden rule in budgetary exercises is to be aware of past ‘performance’. As a departmental head, you never want to be in a situation of having underspent or underutilized the previous year’s budget. This is like signing your own death warrant by inviting a lower budget for the coming year. Therefore, you keep a very close eye on what you are (not) spending throughout the year, especially accelerating your spend, if needed, towards the end.

A common topic, which is inevitably linked to monetary budgets, is the issue of headcount. Managers fighting for an increase (or against reduction, during desperate times), is a familiar scene in all organizations. The savvy manager stays ahead of the pack by using colorful presentations of the innumerable tasks (refer earlier description of ‘list of projects’) that her team has to take care of. For good effect, the resources are divided and subdivided into minute ‘buckets’ to project an image of insufficient staffing for every task. For example, the above-mentioned Facilities Manager would classify her mail-room staff into those responsible for sorting Fedex packets; sorting UPS packages arriving in the afternoon; delivering confidential, priority mail to ‘C’ level executives; and so on. Divide and Conquer of sorts, I suppose.

The grand finale of any budget exercise is the meeting of the apex committee for final approval. Needless to say, several sub-committees would already have done their work and filtered out the less fortunate departments’ requests. Interestingly, significant budget allocations are in order for these sub-committees themselves. Many a time, these committees are master show pieces to demonstrate company wide ‘participation’ while all the shots are, by default, called by the ‘Chief of Staff’, who has the ear of the CEO and others on the top floor.

In line with all corporate meetings, the apex committee uses a randomization algorithm to cut or approve various budget requests – such randomization ensures an atmosphere of luck and chance, rather than one of need and purpose. And then, everyone moves on to preparations for the next cycle, providing an opportunity for the losers to have one more try.

The Nosy Parker

Nosy Parkers are everywhere. Your talkative aunt, the neighbor with prying eyes, your chatty hairdresser and sometimes even your best friend are all variations of the same theme. When it comes to the corporate world, nosy parkers present you with a problem (for them it is an opportunity though) that is simultaneously amusing, tiresome, annoying and also a potential threat to your ability to survive and do your job.

First, nosy parkers exist at all levels in the organization. It is wrong to assume that the practice of this special art is limited to the lower levels in the organizational hierarchy – clerical, secretarial and similar jobs. If you have the nosy-parker gene, you carry it to your grave and if the journey to your end passes through various levels in the organization, tough luck on your subordinates, peers and superiors. Sometimes, these genes can also be acquired during the above mentioned journey, defying traditional biological theories.

A nosy parker starts off as a very friendly and pleasant individual, especially if you yourself are shy and reserved and incapable of initiating a conversation. A “hello”, followed by “looks like you are new around here” progresses to, “where do you live?”, “how many siblings did your great grandfather have?” and quickly moves up a notch to, “when did you have your last colonoscopy?”. You are waltzed through increasingly intense sets of questions in a mesmerized manner where you are answering questions in spite of yourself. You reach a borderline hypnotic state where you lose the power to say ‘no’ to any question, however intrusive. In a matter of minutes, your life becomes an open book to the friendly nosy parker who files away the information for future use elsewhere.

Some roles in the company naturally lend themselves to be a good fit for nosy parkers – front desk/receptionist, HR Executives (with whom other staff have ‘personal’ conversations by necessity) and finance executives (who deal with all types of expenses and hence can keep tabs on what is going on), to name a few. This, by no means, implies that an ingenious individual in an obscure department such as Archives & Records cannot beat everyone to the ‘Chief Parker’ title.

Armed with unlimited details about infinite numbers of people and situations, the professional nosy parker plies his/her trade by providing an opportunity for information exchange. For example, the Manager, Operations might overhear (eavesdrop on) a partial conversation between two Project Managers, in the break room or in the parking lot, regarding possible delays in some customer deliverables and ‘report’ this to the Director of Projects. This could in turn result in a variety of outcomes, ranging from a pat on the back for the Manager, Operations to admonishing of the Project Manager(s) or even replacement of the PM’s in question.

Nosy parkers pose special challenges to their managers. Take a look at the following conversation to understand the travails of such a manager:

Nosy Parker (NP): Good morning. May I have a minute of your time?

Manager (desperate to finish a report due in half an hour): Yeah… what is it?

NP: I heard that we are signing a big contract with Customer-A. I would …..

Manager: Who told you that? We don’t have any such contract ……

NP: The salesman concerned has invited us to drinks this evening, so I thought something must be cooking.

Manager: The only thing cooking at present is my brain. I have to finish this report quickly. So, if you don’t mind…..

NP: Well, I would really like to manage that project. Anyway, Liz, the only other project manager in our department, might be pregnant and so I am ……

Manager (walking out, looking at her watch): OK, ok. Let us deal with this when it happens. For now, can we do some real work?

Nosy parkers contribute liberally to the creation and spread of rumors. Blessed with exceptional imagination and extraordinary extrapolation skills, a simple, ‘…Jane is at the doctor’s office’ becomes ‘….Jane has had a nervous breakdown’; ‘customer A is asking for a lot of information’ becomes ‘customer A has canceled our contract’; ‘Tom, the CFO, may be taking a short vacation’ turns into, ‘Tom may have been fired’; and so on.