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Tattletale Tales

Be honest now: Has anyone at your workplace ever told management that you are the most obnoxious, most difficult, most boring employee in the entire company?

If the answer is no, it could be because you are not the most obnoxious, most difficult, most boring employee in the company. It could be, but what is far more likely is that your co-workers don’t want to tell on you.

People who work together do not like to play the role of tattletale. That’s something you would do in a heartbeat, Mr. or Ms. Difficult, but most people have been taught to keep their opinions to themselves.

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It starts in preschool, when we learn not to go running to the teacher with the news that Jimmy pushed us. And if you didn’t learn this lesson in pre-K, you will certainly get the message at institutions of quality learning. No Stanford Business School graduate gets their MBA without learning the basic economic rule, “Tattle tale, go to jail, stick your head in the garbage pail.”

Given the worldwide prohibition against tattling, I was surprised to see a letter in Rob Walker’s Workologist column in The New York Times. As the anonymous letter writer explained, “I have a peer I’ve been working with for almost 10 years who is extremely difficult. He’s hard to get along with – a control freak, a roadblock. He also has a very poor sense of boundaries and is constantly getting involved where he isn’t needed or wanted.”

The situation that sparked the letter to the Workologist was the arrival of a new boss, “two months into her role,” The letter writer believes she is “starting to see what most of us already have,” and he wonders “if it would be worth giving her this feedback more directly.”

Not unexpectedly, the Workologist replied to this query by serving up his usual hash of bad advice.

“Certainly if the boss asks you or your peers for a take on this individual you can be honest,” he responds.

And when, may I ask, has a boss asked for your opinion on anything? I believe in was in 1752 when the CFO asked if you wanted to switch from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian.

If you do decide to be proactive, the Workologist cautions you to “stick to concrete examples of problems with specific projects rather than broad-brush complaints.” In other words, “he held up X because he was busy intervening on Y” is more acceptable than “he’s an annoying jerk who sticks his nose everywhere.”

This is very bad advice, though pretty much what I’d expect from the Workologist, who is an annoying jerk and sticks his nose in everywhere. What if the boss is of the opinion that it was very important to hold up Plan X, a horrible plan to outsource IT to a pack of Boy Scouts in Pacoima, California, while Plan Y, the re-vamping of the annual Christmas Party, needed a major intervention, lest you have another “Oh, my heavens, the entire HR Department is naked” situation, like last year.

It’s a basic business truth. Support for any given plan changes, but an “annoying jerk who sticks his nose in everywhere” is forever.

The Workologist also recommends that you “make sure you and your peers are aligned. You don’t want to leave the impression that this is mere office politics.”

Office politics is not something to disdain or dismiss. How successful you are at your job really doesn’t matter. The entire secret to getting ahead in business is to master office politics.

That’s why I say it’s OK to be a tattletale. Just make it seem like you’re tattling on the tattletales.

In other words, make all the complaints you want, but act as if you are merely repeating what you hear around the water cooler. Be specific. Name names and identify parking spaces. “I don’t know why everyone is so down on Ed,” you might say. “Julie in accounting and Jim in marketing are always out to sabotage his work. I think Ed is an important player on our team, boss, unless, of course, you don’t, and then I do have to point out that Julie is having an affair with the copier repairman and Jim steals office supplies that he ships to North Korea.”

Trust me; your new boss will see immediately what a sneaky, underhanded, amoral tattletale you are.

Or, as we like to call it at Stanford Business School, management material.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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