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The Stepford staff: How a boss is cloned

The Stepford staff: How a boss is cloned
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First Published: Sat, Aug 18 2007. 12 29 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Aug 18 2007. 12 29 AM IST
There are two ways clones are propagated in a company: Managers hire versions of themselves, signalling to everyone the value of aping the boss; and staffers take it upon themselves to ape the boss. Peter Ireland has seen both. He thinks he lost out on a job he sought because he failed a sports quiz. The boss was a jock and liked to discuss sports with clients and, thus, the quiz asking Ireland, for example, what team won the Super Bowl last year.
But he has also felt the tug of conformity. Twenty years ago, when he worked at a consulting firm headed by a Brit who commuted in a Rolls Royce, he acquired a taste for tweed jackets. He even tried unsuccessfully to import an old English taxi cab “to have something uniquely British to show off”, he says. At least, he didn’t join the local yacht club or take up tennis, the way some of his colleagues did. “You wanted to be like the boss,” he says. “By the end of the first year, everybody had the same look.”
Any number of reasons can account for an outbreak of two-legged facsimiles in the office. Employees may remake themselves out of ambition, survival or a tribal will to belong. Managers may hire in their own likeness out of comfort, fear of differences or maybe because, brimming with narcissism, they’d like to spend twice the time with themselves.
But often what’s alike in both manager and staffers is a cluelessness about the ingredients for success. In other words, if you’re not sure what propelled someone to the executive suite, you might as well also dump carbs, lease a Lexus and pretend to listen, too, just in case any of those things had something to do with it.
“Because bosses are very bad at articulating exactly what it takes to be successful, people below them are left guessing,” says Jennifer Chatman, professor of management at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who has conducted research on recruiting and ingratiation. Bosses and staffers “assume there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between completely irrelevant behaviour”.
Yet, managers, or anyone recruiting, are often the last to recognize the irrelevant behaviour. Chatman’s research shows there’s no limit to the “suck up till you die” approach to authority. That means flattery, including its sincerest form, is lapped up by bosses who view it as a sign they’ve successfully influenced their people.
That may explain why “people who have no interest at all in golf, or in walking around a pollen field of a golf course in the springtime, take up golf”, says executive search consultant Patricia Cook, who estimates that as many as 70% of executives look for a version of themselves when hiring.
Richard Noxon, a retired accountant, joined a pandemic obsession for golf spread by a former boss. He ended up winning a trophy at a company tournament for the worst score. “It probably did worse for my career than if I didn’t play at all,” he says.
Stuart Creque worked for a high-tech firm in which a manager’s right-hand man started smoking a pipe, four-wheeling in jeeps and sporting a beard. One could hold it against the copycat, except his success depended on the approval of his manager. “The more the subordinate bought into the boss’ way of doing things, the more he was praised and rewarded,” says Creque. “Everybody else wasn’t happy about the fact that this clone got promoted over other guys who were capable and had more experience.”
Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, believes it’s legitimate to let skills take a back seat when hiring. He says values trump skills because people’s values don’t change after their late 20s. The problem is when managers mistake simple taste for real values.
“If they’re recruiting on the basis of similarities of baseball teams, hairstyles or latte taste,” he says, “that’s going to be a mistake.”
Dentist Marc Lowenberg learned that you have to be careful what you ask for. He worked hard to find junior dentists he saw as having the same warm chairside manner he possesses. At first, they all started enjoying playing tennis together. But then he noticed that they started sounding alike, which Lowenberg admits now creeps him out. “It’s mortifying when we show up at work and two of us are wearing the same colour sweater,” says the dentist.
Sometimes, thankfully, a boss will nip personality plagiarism in the bud. Teresa Habitan, a government fiscal policymaker, has an employee with the annoying tendency of talking like her, to the point where her own family members often can’t tell them apart when they call.
Habitan had to warn her employee when she started to address a close colleague in the same friendly manner she did. She told her to keep it professional, which was another way of saying, “One of me is enough, thank you.”
(Write to Jared at cubicleculture @livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, Aug 18 2007. 12 29 AM IST
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