The office jungle
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes hell as a place 'where everyone has a grievance and ' lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment'. From that description, hell sounds a whole lot like the typical workplace. Studies show 80 percent of offices around the world display the all-too-obvious signs of dysfunction. Maggie Tiojakin gives some pointers on making it through the office jungle.
It's moving day.
'Yulina' has been promoted to the position of new regional manager of an international shipping company's Jakarta office. There are bouquets of congratulatory flowers crowding her desk, chair and floor, swamping her already cramped tiny cubicle that sits among dozens of identical gray cubicles manned by her soon-to-be ex-colleagues.
With their eyes boring holes in her back, Yulina methodically packs her belongings into boxes. She knows what's on her colleagues' minds. She's been made aware of it for the past three weeks, ever since two senior executives at the company announced her promotion in a mass-mailed memo, congratulating her and urging others to do likewise.
Unfortunately, most of her colleagues aren't in a congratulatory mood. They don't think she deserves it. A rumor's spreading that she used 'special measures' to land her promotion.
'It's unfortunate that the people I used to confide in suddenly turned on me like this,' Yulina says, describing the scene of her departure from the third-floor office. 'But I understand how they feel and I recognize the resentment, because I used to be the same.'
At 37, Yulina is no stranger to the office politics in which employees are often mired. But she admits that even after more than a decade of experience, she's still learning how to take it all in stride.
Many of the issues that corporate employees need to hash out with each other, she says, are directly attributable to the nature of office competition, which sometimes leads to greed, gossip and unfair assumptions.
'The way these competitions are set up is the root of the problem,' Yulina says. 'Valuing individual achievements over group achievements is not necessarily an exemplary team-building move. Because when you lose that sense of togetherness, you lose a sense of belonging.'
Even so, says psychologist Ratih Ibrahim, competition in the workplace is not only necessary ' it's inevitable.
'As companies jostle for the lead in their respective industries, employees have to join in the competition,' she says. 'I think it can be a great opportunity for employees to improve their skills by learning how to be more creative and efficient at what they do.'
Inherent in this is the notion that as the competition intensifies, so does the risk to the workplace dynamics.
'There's always that risk of over-intensifying the whole idea of having a competition, driving employees to lose their humanity in the process,' Ratih adds.
Pitted against one another, even the least ambitious individual will eventually join the race and play the necessary hardball to reach the top. The corollary is that this qualifies as a good thing, because what matters is that people are striving toward success, regardless of what ignites it. When it comes to team morale, however, such fierce competition among team members can be lethal.
Over the years, competition in the workplace has gotten very bad press. While employees do seem to perform better in a competitive spirit, they also have the tendency to get overstressed, overworked and overzealous. Depending on their personality, it is not uncommon for employees to do everything in their power to win and land themselves the incentives promised for the completion of a given task. Some incentives are in cash; others, in promotions.
Nevertheless, some competitions are ingrained in the corporate structure, even with no incentives promised.
'Nita' has for the past three years worked as a junior editor at a Singapore-based publication geared toward women. An attractive woman with an edgy personality, Nita is not the type of person who quickly fades into her surroundings simply because she has a desk that looks exactly like everyone else's. In fact, she likes to stand out, speak her mind and keep her business to herself. So it didn't surprise her that on her first day at the office there was some friction between her and the rest of the junior staff.
'I'm a very competitive person because I like to excel in what I do,' she says. 'And I know a lot of people see this as a negative thing, but I think it's a necessary tool for surviving in this [corporate] climate.'
Entering her second month at the magazine, Nita was called into the managing editor's office for a talk. Her boss was impressed with her performance, and promised her a tangible incentive should she continue to excel in the next few months: a position as the magazine's feature editor. Nita was excited. Unable to keep it to herself, however, she shared the news with the junior fashion editor in the next cubicle. Wrong move.
'She completely shut me out,' Nita says, raising her voice to emphasize her frustration. 'And the day after that, she asked to move to a different desk. Unbelievable!'
What occurred the day after is what Nita likes to describe as the icing - or rather the frosting - on the cake. Pretty soon, everyone treated her as though she was a leper, with the exception of her managing editor, who thought such behavior among her colleagues 'absolutely acceptable' in light of Nita's exceptional achievements so early on in the job. It was normal, the managing editor assured her, that others would envy her. She should take it as a compliment.
'I love to compete,' Nita says. 'But I hate going against people who can't compete healthily.'
However, not every workplace has the same competitive nature woven into its fabric. Some professional environments actually lack such competitiveness; in these offices, the driving force behind quality work always comes down to solid teamwork. When everyone is of equal status, there's no sense in working alone or getting ahead of the pack.
Karen is a 29-year-old purchasing manager at a small company that sells electronic spare parts to various manufacturing companies in Java. Along with four other staff, Karen works nine-to-five Mondays to Fridays from the second floor of a three-story rukan (home-office), toiling away on worksheets.
On Saturdays, she goes out with her colleagues, either for some karaoke or to eat at their favorite all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant. The five of them consider themselves a team both in and out of the office. They know each other's families, often go out together, and stand by each other when their employer, a vocal sixty-something man with a penchant for yelling, comes trotting into the office on days when sales are slow.
'In smaller companies like ours, the staff have a better sense of what makes a team, because we work closely with each other,' Karen says. 'I know the personality of everyone in this room like the back of my hand. I'll vouch for their integrity in a heartbeat. That's how close we are.'
In other words, no misgivings whatsoever?
'I can't speak for the others,' she says. 'But for me personally, there have never been any misgivings about the others.'
Would it be right, then, to assume that the smaller the workplace environment, the less friction there is among the employees'
Not really, says Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. In his best seller, Lencioni says the lack of team spirit in a workplace has less to do with the size of a workplace and more with the quality of its leadership. Managers and heads of offices are generally responsible for the way their employees behave in the workplace ' and it's their duty to create a sense of belonging in this environment.
'Good managers who don't act like a team create a dilemma for themselves and the company,' Lencioni writes. 'On a team, the collective ego has to rule, not the individuals'. It's harder for egos to run wild when collective results are your yardstick for success.'
And then there's office politics. Just as with real politics, office politics runs on power dynamics and strives to secure advantages beyond what one could legitimately strive for. Such advantages may benefit an individual or a group of people, and often include access to certain assets. Thus in a highly competitive environment, office politics may be the key to overriding social systems in a workplace by turning one employee against another.
'The key in every organization is to endorse its employees to act professionally, focus on their responsibility and adhere to the truth,' Ratih says of office politics. 'The rules have to be clear for everyone.'
Easier said than done. According to Lencioni, 'A hostile environment is often caused by a lack of trust ' where employees and managers are particularly harmful toward team unity and productivity.'
As a result, determined to prioritize their own individual success, people generate dual identities of themselves in the office environment; and it is not seldom that those who get promoted to leadership positions are the ones who, on the surface, seem supportive and well-mannered, yet who actually justify all types of underhandedness to get ahead, such as backstabbing and sabotaging their colleagues.
No wonder some people choose to break from corporate environments and go for something more liberating: freelancing.
Working as a freelance agent no doubt has its own drawbacks, particularly in an economic climate as hostile as the one we're currently navigating. But for those who can't take the pressure of office interrelations, what freelancing lacks in financial rewards it more than makes up for in peace of mind.
Sofyan Jap was a graphic designer at a prestigious design company in Denpasar, Bali. He worked long hours and was often at odds with his colleagues and employers. After five years of grumbling and bickering, he decided to quit and set up shop as a freelance graphic artist in Kuta, Bali. His new business is running slower than he anticipated, but Sofyan doesn't mind - he feels happier working on his own.
'I never realized this before, because that job [as a graphic designer] was the only one I'd ever had since graduating college,' he writes in an email. 'But an office environment is extremely stifling, and rather than keep me on my toes, it pushed me into a corner. I make less money now than I did at the design company, but even if they'd paid me double what I made then, I still would've quit. I just can't believe it took me so long.'
Ade Chandra, a regional sales representative at a software company in Singapore, is also quitting her US$2,300-a-month job ($3,216) to become a freelance marketing consultant operating from her Jakarta home. This is after three years of working 12-hour days in the city-state.
'I'm completely burned out,' she says over instant messenger. 'The job is OK, and the pay is great - but I can't take another day of this office drama. I can't work with passive-aggressive types, they exhaust me. Unfortunately, where I work, everyone is severely passive-aggressive!'
Even so, according to Ratih, people should be careful about projecting their own lackluster attitude onto others. She says sometimes it's better to look inside ourselves rather than point fingers at others.
'I believe employees should be able to make their own decisions and act accordingly,' she says. 'They shouldn't blame others for their discomfort and/or failure. You could change your career and office six, seven times, and you'd still have the same problems because your problem, ultimately, is with yourself.'
Yulina agrees. Now comfortably settled in her new office on the ninth floor of the company tower in Jakarta's central business district, Yulina is of the opinion that, 'How we look inside ourselves is proportionate to how we look at other people. The real battle here is not against our colleagues, but against our own insecurities. Can we do what we set out to do? Can we lose gracefully? Win gracefully?'
She pauses, then adds, 'My personal motto is to never dwell on something too long. There's never a good time to dwell; but it's always a good time to get a move on.'
THOSE CUBICLE CONFLICTS
Office warfare is notoriously common. A persistent issue in worldwide offices is the act of bullying, whereby an individual is made to feel uncomfortable based on rank, status, gender, race or religion.
Studies by various research organizations across the United States, Canada and Europe in 2008 show more than 13 percent of employees are bullied in their workplace, while 24 percent have experienced being bullied in the past.
The studies also show more than 12 percent of employees constantly witness others being bullied, while on the whole, one in 10 employees experiences workplace bullying on a regular basis.
As with schools, the workplace also has its bullies. And while it may seem harmless at first glance, office bullying has been categorized as one of the more damaging aspects of corporate culture. Because of this, several countries have passed legislation on the issue - Australia, Canada, Ireland, the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden are among those who recognize office bullying as a health and safety threat to employees.
Ratih, however, says there has to be a clear definition of what constitutes 'office bullying' before action can be taken against it.
'Sometimes what happens is we project ourselves as victims of office bullying, when in fact we've allowed all this unfair treatment of ourselves to continue,' she says. 'We can choose to take a stand, and if we don't then the responsibility lies with us. In my experience, the problem usually comes from ourselves, and not from other people.'
MAKING IT WORK
Psychologist Ratih Ibrahim offers advice on staying sane in the modern workplace.
Know your limits
It's always good to stretch and see how far you can go beyond your regular duties and responsibilities at work, but remember to keep your efforts within reasonable limits. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is pivotal in any workplace, especially when there's a bully watching from a distance and waiting to pounce on you the first chance they get.
Keep it real
Maintain a balance between work and play. Keeping things real at work is one way to keep you grounded regardless of the workload you have or the stress it's causing you. It doesn't mean you have to take a skeptical view of your office environment or, even worse, become apathetic. It means you have to create an internal harmony within yourself that allows you to see your personal and professional self as one entity.
Row your own boat
Many renowned leaders will attest to the fact that leading others is an impossible job; but it's far more impossible to lead yourself. Acquiring the right sense of self-leadership is an important milestone in self-development, because it means we're able to exercise control over our desires, wants and impulses. Once we've acquired this ability, concentrating on the work at hand becomes easy, as does performing passionately and efficiently.
A pat on the back
Self-respect is not the same as narcissism. And giving yourself a pat on the back every once in a while doesn't always translate into vanity. It's important for you to recognize your own value, rather than try to suppress it to be more like others. Having self-respect means knowing when to give others the benefit of the doubt, and give yourself some much-deserved credit. Bullies love it when their victims can't tell the difference between self-respect and vanity ' that's why they always flaunt their strengths in your face.