When Your Office is Like High School

Some departments have the nerds, others have the jocks.

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Kurt Vonnegut once observed that “Life is nothing but high school... .”

For those of us who hated high school, that comment is mildly depressing. In our eyes, high school serves as a handy benchmark of unpleasantness against which other experiences can be measured. A job may be bad, we reason, but at least it’s not high school. Things have improved.

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At the same time, old Kurt may have had a point. Look around your workplace. Some departments have the nerds, others have the jocks, a few have the brooding rebels and the dropouts, and sprinkled throughout are student body presidents, Homecoming kings and queens, cheerleaders, and members of the Chess Club. Hidden between those groups is a silent majority of people who, for four long years, learned to be invisible.

I’m only half joking about this. If you are a nerd, don’t expect to get hired or promoted by the jocks unless they can tuck you in the corner and have you do their homework. If you are an eternal student body president or a cheerleader, watch for the slight gleam in the eye of some of the oral board members when you walk in for a job interview. I suspect that Bill Gates has gotten no small amount of pleasure over the years by watching jocks and student body presidents fight for his attention.

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This is only another way of saying that those who advocate hiring and promoting by merit have a constant struggle on their hands and anyone who ignores the impact of the superficial is living very dangerously indeed. I recall an engineer-type saying that organizations only care about the bottom line. He was overlooking the tribal aspects of many workplaces and the underlying desire to select and retain people who look the part. Decision-makers often look for their clones.

Unfortunately, there is no tribal group that has a monopoly on nobility. Nerds can be just as petty as cheerleaders and those rebels who rail against the inner circle simply want to replace it with their own.

There is something scary in how easily we can revert to form and either embrace or reject based upon superficial type-casting. Still, many of us cheer when the underdog gets the job or wins the award. Those cheers may have started in high school.

Michael Wade writes Execupundit.com, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.

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