April 11, 2013
(++++) ON THE CAREER PATH
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. By Adam Grant. Viking. $27.95.
Working with Bitches: Identify the 8 Types of Office Mean Girls and Rise above Workplace Nastiness. By Meredith Fuller. Da Capo. $14.99.
Here are two books that attempt, by classifying people in the workplace into specific categories, to make it easy for readers to find their way through the perennial thickets of creativity, office politics and everyday challenges that collectively make up the modern white-collar workplace. Give and Take uses a combination of anecdotes and research studies to argue that most professionals fall into one of three classifications: takers, matchers, or givers. The names alone make it pretty clear what Wharton School professor Adam Grant thinks of the three types. Takers, he says, spend all their time trying to get as much as possible from others in the workplace. Matchers have no problem giving as well as taking, but they are looking for a balance between what they offer and what others offer them in return. And then there are the givers, clearly the best group from Grant’s perspective, who make contributions to others without expecting anything specific in return – and therefore end up, he says, receiving far more than they give. The proposition is arguable, and Grant certainly does argue it. He acknowledges that some givers are exploited and others keep giving until they burn out, but he says that most of them succeed admirably across a wide range of industries. Grant believes that his categorization would, for example, have allowed observers of Enron to figure out years in advance that the company would fail, without needing to examine its financial statements – because the firm’s leader, Kenneth Lay, was an extremely effective taker even though he “may have looked like a giver to many observers.” Lay was an expert networker, Grant notes, and was again and again “able to dramatically improve his company’s prospects…by making use of well-placed contacts in his network.” Networking is crucial for business success, says Grant, but the “faker style of networking casts the entire enterprise as Machiavellian, a self-serving activity in which people make connections for the sole purpose of advancing their own interests.” That was Lay, says Grant, and that was Enron. But he never quite addresses how complete outsiders – potential buyers of the company’s stock, for instance – could have known that Lay was a taker disguised very skillfully as a giver. And although all Grant’s points are very well argued retrospectively, they would be considerably more believable – and more useful – if Grant would show readers how to use them prospectively to identify current companies that appear to be doing extremely well but that are in fact headed for disaster and should be avoided by investors (or sold short, for those who bet that a firm’s stock price will drop).
Much of Give and Take is like this: clearly written, well-argued and excellently presented, but somewhat difficult to use in a practical way. There are also holes in the backup research that Grant cites. For example, he talks about a study in which people could either split $12 evenly “with a taker who had made an unfair proposal in the past” or split $10 evenly with a matcher whose prior proposal had been fair. Rationally, Grant says, splitting the $12 makes more sense, since you get more money; but more than 80% of people preferred to split the $10. However, neither Grant nor the original researcher, psychologist Daniel Hahnemann, addresses the underlying issue, which is that a dollar is only a dollar. Someone seeking to “get back” at a person perceived as unfair is very likely to find it worth giving up a dollar of gain in order to get a sort of psychological revenge, to avoid giving the unfair person a “reward” for the unfair prior offer. A dollar simply is not a big deal. To create a convincing test, the numbers would have to be much bigger – say, $10,000 split with a matcher vs. $12,000 split with a taker. It is a fair bet that many people’s scruples about dealing with a taker would disappear in return for $1,000 extra.
Grant has many interesting ideas, a number of which are, to be sure, self-evident: “Givers reject the notion that interdependence is weak. Givers are more likely to see interdependence as a source of strength, a way to harness the skills of multiple people for a greater good.” Fine – then what? “When givers put a group’s interests ahead of their own, they signal that their primary goal is to benefit the group. As a result, givers earn the respect of their collaborators.” The objective of being an effective giver, says Grant, is to create a situation in which takers do not feel they need to compete with you; matchers feel they owe you something; and other givers recognize you as one of them. Again, all this is arguable, but Grant certainly does present his views forcefully and in clear, often convincing prose. What makes this a high-rated book is the clarity with which Grant delivers the message and the insights associated with seeing the business world (and the world in general) from a new and interesting perspective. However, increasing the number of givers, or turning yourself into one, is no simple matter. In the artificial environment of Wharton or another graduate school, there are ways to try to do this: Grant talks about Reciprocity Rings, which he uses but did not invent, in which each student asks the whole class for something – and remarkably, says Grant, there turn out to be proto-givers (not his word) even at a place as competitive as Wharton. But being asked to make reciprocal requests in a classroom environment while your teacher is observing your behavior is nothing like trying to generate reciprocity in the everyday workplace – besides which, if you do try to generate reciprocity, you are by Grant’s definition a matcher, not a giver. The whole subject is considerably more complex in the real business world than in the training-for-business world – a fact that does not make Grant’s thinking any less interesting, but does reduce its practical applicability.
Meredith Fuller, on the other hand, is all about practicality in the office environment. Working with Bitches, with its deliberately provocative title, is intended to help women (not so much men) identify the grown-up mean girls whose malice can make every day in the office uncomfortable at best, horrendous at worst. Fuller, a psychologist and corporate consultant, says there are eight types of office Bitches: Excluder (avoids anyone from whom she cannot gain something); Insecure (trust-no-one micromanager); Toxic (two-faced; should never be trusted); Narcissist (self-serving and self-focused); Screamer (yeller and intimidator); Liar (excuse-maker and manipulator); Incompetent (lacks knowledge and ability; takes credit for your work); and Not-a-Bitch (disagreeable and hard to handle, but really just trying to do her job). The categorization is imprecise – is the Not-a-Bitch a Bitch? – and Fuller acknowledges that people may blend two or more of these sets of characteristics. But like categorization in general, her list of types makes it easier to figure out how to handle the people she describes. For each type, Fuller explains how the person behaves and suggests ways to manage if your boss, colleague or subordinate fits the type. For instance, if your boss is a narcissist, never expect her to keep promises; get everything in writing; and develop your own workplace network, so you are not wholly plugged into her. If a colleague is a liar, assume she lies about everything; get everything you can in writing; try to get facts elsewhere; and try to avoid being alone with her. If you manage a screamer, talk quietly to her so she has to strain to hear you; slow her down by asking her to repeat things; and keep meetings with her short. Fuller’s ideas, like Grant’s, are very good; but also like Grant’s, they may run up against some unfortunate workplace realities. What is the real-world chance that a narcissist boss, whose whole style involves self-focus, will give you information in writing that will let you later come back and prove her wrong? Even if she provides something in writing once, what are the odds that she will do it again after you use the written material against her? Similarly, what are the odds that a colleague who is a liar will give you information in writing, which you will later be able to use to disprove her lies? These coping notions are absolutely worth trying, but the idea that they will solve the problems of working with or for Bitches is overly optimistic.
It is worth pointing out that Fuller makes a distinction between Bitch and Bully – and this is one reason she creates a book targeted at women, not both women and men. Bullying, she says, is a matter of power and control and is easily recognized, often taking off from or hiding behind organizational policies or procedures. Bitchiness, says Fuller, is sly and insidious, with enough ambiguity so that even the target may not be sure of what is happening – indeed, Fuller repeatedly asks readers to ask themselves, “Is it possible you’ve got it wrong?” Bitchiness, says Fuller, is supposed to be something with which women, but not men, are familiar, and something that women can handle; men, she says, may not even be aware of it, much less of its impact. This is perhaps a little too facile – men also have to deal with workplace people who lie, take credit for their accomplishments, scream, and otherwise behave like the women whom Fuller labels Bitches – but certainly men handle issues like this one differently, although not necessarily any more effectively than women do. Fuller, like Grant, offers a combination of anecdotal and research-based information, and in fact says that her research has shown that the three most-common Bitches in the workplace are the Excluder, Toxic and Screamer – so arming you against those, in particular, would seem to be worthwhile. However, it is worth pointing out that for all her supportive rhetoric and careful analysis, Fuller sometimes comes to the conclusion that “this is unlikely to end well,” and there may be nothing to do except look for a way out – out of the department, out of that area of the company, even out of the firm altogether. That is an unfortunate reality of the workplace: all too often, the people who make other people’s lives a living hell are the ones who stay on, bolstered by the success of their invidious techniques, while their victims end up being the ones who take their knowledge and competence elsewhere.