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Are we all faking it in the office?

Dec 07, 2009 Business Daily, Management

“…by far the biggest workplace taboo is the truth – or at least any truth that punctures the self-importance of work. A friend tells me that she was recently on a global conference call and each person in turn introduced themselves and said where they were. One person said she was in a meeting room in London. Another said he was on a corporate jet. My friend said she was sitting in the kitchen at home in her pyjamas having a piece of toast. There was a brief silence followed by embarrassed laughter.
Equally, there is a taboo over ambition. One must never own up to having either too much or too little. You can’t say to your boss: I’m just sitting it out until retirement. Neither can you say: I want your job. Indeed, when speaking to one’s boss, almost everything is taboo. It is very risky to make a joke. It is risky to be chummy. Honest feedback is always a bad plan. So is irony.”

LUCY KELLAWAY, Financial Times (11 October 2009)

Lucy Kellaway’s recent article on workplace taboos got me thinking: is there anything that is really sincere in the world of work, or are we all just wearing masks and mouthing platitudes? And are we doing it so often that we can no longer tell anything is wrong?

First there is the fakery about how important we all feel we are. This syndrome gets worse the higher up we go. The suits get more expensive and exclusive, the language more abstract and noble-sounding and filled with jargony sound-bites. As we fly business class to more and more international events, we start to imagine we are a cut above, part of an elite priesthood, indeed masters of the universe.

That kind of hallucination is exactly what brought the international banking system down. The egos inflated themselves until they burst, leaving the rest of the world to carry the consequences.

You think you are something special just because you sit in the upper echelons of the corporate clergy? Give it a break. You are swayed by emotions just like the rest of us. You make errors of judgement just like the man in the street does. Most of what you achieve is just good fortune. You are as insecure, vindictive, jealous and petty-minded as anyone. Your stomach makes the same noises as anyone else’s; you sit on the toilet worrying just like your juniors do. You just hide it better behind that big desk and that too-confident smile.

Why is there so much to disguise in the place of work, and why are so few of us able to say what we REALLY think? Listen to the artificially, painful loud laughter whenever the boss cracks a joke. Watch how peons rush to open a lift when the big man strides out. Look at how all executives in the room just sit on their hands when a big decision needs to be made, waiting for the boss to show the politically correct direction before committing themselves.

We hate our work but can never admit it. We are always looking for more money for ourselves but pretend it’s all about being true to the collective mission. We get kicks from giving away company money to worthy causes when we would never cough up a cent of our own funds.

All this insincerity matters. If we are all faking it in the boardrooms, we will never be authentic anywhere in the rest of our lives. Chicanery is a bad habit, and it’s not easy to shake off once it becomes routine. Organisational leadership is not a role in a play – it’s a calling. The people most worthy of respect are the ones who are what they are and speak the truth plainly for all to hear.

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