A couple of days ago, The Metro published an article by one John Lees, apparently some kind of careers adviser, on how to win yourself that coveted promotion at work (because, of course, you do covet one, don’t you?). His advice, in a nutshell – manage your reputation. Make sure that if your colleagues are asked about you by the boss, they will say favourable things about your “working style” (“Yes, Barry favours a Cubist approach to filing, with some Expressionist overtones.”). “Let go of traditional ideas about how people get on in organisations,” advises Mr Lees, “…getting good appraisals simply flags you up as ‘competent’. It takes something extra to be a frontrunner.” And that extra is making sure your colleagues say good things about you, especially the senior ones, since your image is shaped by “short moments of visibility when you are seen by key staff.”
Now before I unleash a big old cynical rainstorm on Mr Lees’ parade, I must say that his approach has one major advantage. It works. If you want to get ahead in advertising (or whatever), it is undoubtedly an advantage to have persuaded your colleagues and bosses that you’re something special. And to be fair, self-improvement gurus have been saying similar things since Dale Carnegie was telling us How To Win Friends and Influence People. However, saying that it works, for me, is much like saying that it works to get a wheelchair when you’ve lost both your legs. It’s true, but you and the world would be better off with the legs. In this case, this system is perfectly suited for a world where slick-talking bullshit artists and narcissists who love putting on a performance are the ones who win promotion over the genuinely talented but less manipulative.
Unfortunately, this is that world, which is why so many of the senior managers you meet come across as such dickheads – they rose through their skills in manipulating people, impressing their boss, charming other senior people, massaging the figures so their performance always looked good, probably far more than it deserved, whilst probably not being so nice to those they didn’t have to impress. In extreme cases, Mr Lees’ recommendations are tailor-made for the sort of corporate psychopaths people now write books about, who are great at making people think highly of them. They also help explain why the world is full of CEOs who manage to convince shareholders and boards that they’re a corporate messiah, then leave a few years later with the company in a worse mess and a huge pay-off, and why they always go on to another job. They’re brilliant at managing their reputation. The problem is, they’re being paid to manage a business.
This approach to office life is really just an extension of the general obsession with self-presentation and looking good which has manifested itself in various ways – the growth of the fashion industry, the never-ending stream of self-improvement books, not to mention the increasing reliance of politics on “spin”. In many ways, Mr Lees is a kind of Peter Mandelson for the squeezed lower middle class. Like your betters, you too can get ahead by making yourself look good, whatever the underlying truth. It’s a further sad indication of society’s addiction to the art of surfaces. Personally, my recommendation for any company boss would be to spare no pains in seeking out those in the company with ambition, drive and energy – and then fire them all. The last thing any organisation needs is a bunch of people who spend more time thinking about their next job than their current one.