Jackie’s Version

by Shaun Kieran

According to Jackie, he should get credit for acknowledging he could “sometimes be a bit of a player.”

He was telling me this as we sat at the picnic table outside the facilities management building on the Thursday before his final day at work.  He’d resigned rather than be terminated.  Jackie has a “big” personality, and for a decent stretch it looked like it was all working.  Everybody knew Jackie, and a lot of fellow employees actually thought Jackie was higher on the food chain than he really was.

“It happened so fast.  I thought I knew what I was doing, but I was clueless about the politics.”

Actually, for awhile there Jackie looked like a political maestro, but the story of how it all fell apart boiled down (according to Jackie) to “realizing too late that I’d pissed off somebody who I thought had my back.”

Jackie was promoted from the line because he had energy and what looked like a “can do” attitude. He became a crew chief. He got some mandatory supervisory training that probably did emphasize workplace performance, but probably didn’t emphasize enough the importance of monitoring what comes out of his mouth.

The specifics will never be known. Jackie’s version may even be somewhat true – there are always workplace dynamics people can choose to call “politics” – but his version is also self-serving cynicism: I’m not being let go for valid reasons, it’s because I didn’t play the game well enough, and someone who didn’t like me took me down.

The thing is, even people who never got past 8th grade have a worldview – personal ideas about how the world really works – especially including economics and the workplace. Some people are more aware of parts of their own thinking, but most people usually don’t think about what they truly think (and whether they’re right or not) until they absolutely have to.

From there it’s:

Who really runs the show here? Who’s got real power or direct access to it? What will it cost me if I stick my head above the foxhole and say out loud whether I’m for or against someone’s idea? What will happen if I’m more loyal to person A than person B? Who can I actually trust to say what I really think? How much real autonomy to do the work my way do I have? Who should I go to when I really need to deal with a problem? How much is it true in this workplace that honest mistakes are accepted and not punished? Is the real (but unspoken) job about making the boss look good – and is there a price to pay if I don’t?

It’s not that a person shouldn’t have those thoughts, it’s that those thoughts shouldn’t completely get the upper hand – to the exclusion of good work performance. Being a strong performer at work doesn’t mean anyone is totally safe from office politics, but it sure helps. Most organizations in fact don’t casually toss away good work performance. Really. Jackie’s organization had a written policy requiring a paper trail and a long timeline for “corrective” action. Jackie had letters in his file stating what the problems were. Jackie wasn’t an outright terrible supervisor, and he wasn’t lazy, but he put a lot of energy into schmoozing and he liked the limelight. Jackie actually liked the politics. People notice things like that. For Jackie’s coworkers that meant he was a “player” and couldn’t be trusted. Jackie’s fan base was a mile wide and an inch deep.

Work is obviously a big piece of anyone’s life story, but still only a piece. We all need to pay our bills, and some compromising with the less-than-ideal is something we all have do. But for the long haul it truly is about more than surviving. People who take the high road don’t have zero problems, but they sure have a whole bunch fewer than someone like Jackie.

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