Thursday, 1 August 2013

What? You have an opinion?

After some introspection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a 'dickish' bully. Not in the classic sense of the word; ‘A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.’ I’m more of an intellectual and social bully of my peers. I like getting one over them and take delight in the fact that I’ve come out on top in a confrontation with an equally matched opponent. I’m 'dickish' because I could be much nicer about how I go about it.

As a thirty-something year old man, it’s worked well for me so far. The trick is knowing when you’re beat and gracefully conceding that defeat. However, like I said, I only do this to people who I deem equal or superior to me. That’s important and I’ll explain why. I’m sure many of you reading can relate to this experience, or at least some part of it.

Eager returnee, ‘great’ opportunity…
Upon returning home in December 2010 after 8 years being away, I landed my first ever job in Ghana. (I’d had previous work experience outside of Ghana). The company and opportunity looked exciting. A small start-up with a big idea; an idea to revolutionize the internal workings of an entire key economic sector. No one had ever tried anything so bold and the task, although overwhelming, was an exciting one.

Besides me, there were some pretty intelligent and enthusiastic people who were willing to dedicate time, energy and intellectual property to tackle the unique set of challenges we were facing. I’m talking about really strategically and operationally smart people. The stage was set and the opportunity was ours for the taking. I quickly discovered a problem though, a bottleneck of sorts. Almost every attempt at reform to help inject momentum was thwarted.
  • No idea was good enough
  • No opinion was valid
  • No process/procedure was robust enough
  • No report or document was thorough enough
  • No design was acceptable
  • No font, colour, icon, arrangement…nothing one did was EVER good enough!
The reason?

EVERYTHING, I mean every single thing had to conform to the standard and get the approval of a single individual.

In effect, a potentially great company with an equally great idea was, and had been moving as fast as a dead snail. An entire management group of young, smart, eager and dedicated people had been reduced to a group of bobbleheads. Reluctant yes-men who were powerless to inject some real positive change to the mostly normative way of thinking. In my opinion 'normative' in this context, was a stale and mostly regressive way of thinking, but one could argue that point.

To make things worse, the entire company had not only become hyper-aware of a messy internal political ecosystem but had also become infected by it's leaders' dysfunctional way of working.

'The company and product have suffered because of this and will continue to do so if things don't change.'
                                                                                 Quote from current employee

Source: - Slightly changed from original material
Now I come to the point I was trying to make about bullies, bullying and a corporate culture that seems to encourage it. There was an alarming amount of bullying being meted out at all levels because the example being set by the leaders. Some of it was intentional;
  • Exclusion from decision making.
  • The vicious ‘blame game’.
  • Public and often heated verbal altercations whose effects went far beyond the board room.
  • Managers given the appearance of authority but undermined at every turn.
  • Overly aggressive and unnecessarily punitive HR policy and person.
Other symptoms were more inadvertent;
  • Sudden and often sharp changes in direction due to a lack of clear focus/vision. This resulted in a colossal amount of good work done but left unused or completely abandoned.
  • Favouritism/Nepotism – ‘Untouchables’, individuals who were clearly and openly regarded in higher stead than other managers, not necessarily based on performance but a more personal (out of office) relationship.
  • A ‘them vs. us divide between management and staff.
Over a relatively short period of time this behaviour gave birth to its own ecosystem of fear, mistrust and apathy. It systematically eroded trust, self-confidence and willingness to contribute or participate. It instilled fear in managers; the fear of making decisions because they would be undone. Fear of committing to work because your efforts would be undermined publicly and eventually undone. It also introduced such apathy to the extent that managers would frequently submit reports late so as to avoid being asked to change it (font, format, colour etc.) a million times. People simply ‘gave up’ and waited to be told what to do and how to do it.

By the time I left, my sense of worth had been reduced to almost nothing. My psyche had taken such a consistently forceful beating that I almost chalked my prior stellar professional career successes to dumb luck.

At the lowest point, I was actually told, and I quote;

‘You’re good at dinner table conversations and outings…(insert additional verbal placatory nonsense here)…but not much else!’

**Note: Only a couple of months earlier, the same person had congratulated me on how I was doing a great job managing the fast pace, limited [human] resources and demonstrating leadership and maturity. 

People left. Others came. Like me, others were eventually forced out. And the company continues to exist.

But here’s what my stay at this company taught me about being a bully, corporate or otherwise;
  • It’s damaging to the growth, continuance and prosperity of a group of people who should be pulling in the same direction.
  • It cripples innovation and progress.
  • On an interpersonal level, it breeds resentment, malice and social dissonance.
  • It destroys people’s sense of worth and stunts personal and professional growth.
And the lesson is...
In short, I learned how not to manage a group of people, how not to build a company. I’ve learned that trying to achieve anything innovative or progressive an ecosystem of bullying, fear and apathy is akin to p*ssing into the wind. I've learned that companies go through austere times but a lack of money does not justify a lack of scruples, a disregard of decency or an abandonment of ethics.

I've learnt that people are the life-blood of every successful organization and those organizations that remain successful put people front and centre of their culture…NetAPP, Google, etc. They demand more from you but in return provide the right tools, challenging environment, personal/professional development, empathy, respect, decency and so much more…

Most importantly, I've learned NEVER to let ANYONE (company nor individual), get me to doubt myself nor my proven ability as a talented manager and IT professional. NEVER AGAIN!


  1. speechless! this is so great and so true. I never realize some things after reading this. like they always say.."A word to a wise...."

  2. Hmmmmm! :) Well written - and on point...

    1. Thanks Clemence. It simply needed to be said. Too many people have fallen victim to this unnecessary corporate behaviour.