We sat next to each other, our phones and tablets spread out in front of us. We hadn't met or spoken. But we shared the same need: we were both hungry for power. We had a long flight ahead of us, a great time to catch up on emails, listen to music, review documents or maybe play online games. So we sat shoulder to shoulder sharing one of the scarce boarding gate outlets airlines provide as a convenience to their plugged-in passengers. With my earphones lost somewhere in my briefcase, I couldn't help but hear my power mate's one-way conversation. I got a primer on today's workplace.
She led a corporate sales team and needed to fill a key vacancy. She had two candidates—I'll call them Victor and Carla—and she shared her assessment with her colleague, me and anyone else close by. As for Victor:
"He's been with us a long time. But he's negative and hard to work with. I don't know that he has the patience to get along with customers. It's been a challenge for him to get along with some on the team. I'm not sure he has the attention to detail and follow through that's needed either. We've talked to him about this so I don't see the logic in putting him in the job. He's having enough trouble in the role he's in right now. But we need to consider him for the position."
I wondered why Victor was being vetted for a promotion; termination sounded like the wiser personnel action. I wanted to intrude and say, "Fire him. Victor's a disaster that's already happened. Why make it worse by giving him a customer-facing, revenue-critical sales role?" But I said nothing.
Then I heard about Carla:
"She's got the talent. Customers love her, and she gets along great with the team. She hasn't been around as long as Victor, but she has the basic skills we need and can learn quickly. She follows through on details and works well with the team. But I know there'll be a problem. They'll say she is going to have kids soon, then she'll be on leave, then she'll be gone or come back and just go through the motions. I know, I know—that's so last century. But it is something we have to deal with."
As to Carla, I thought, "Are you nuts? Apart from being at the cusp of a myopic business decision, aren't you aware that you're on the verge of violating the law and likely your organization's standards?" I concluded that she spoke her candid truth in what she imagined was the privacy of the airline boarding gate away from her office and other colleagues.
Here's what my power mate's conversation taught me.
- There is no way to distinguish between the workplace and private worlds. Every conversation is public when other people are around. A plaintiff's lawyer could have been right next to her using his smart phone app to record her comments. The reality here is that the workplace is everyplace in terms of what we say and communicate. To think and act otherwise is a prescription for disaster.
- We talk about performance as being the key metric which drives decisions. But too many choices are still guided by irrelevancies or illegalities. We can have every smart device available—or soon to be created—but they don't eliminate our own biases; they magnify and reveal them.
As for solutions, our thirst for instant communication outpaces discretion and judgment and they need to be brought up to speed fast. More to the point, we all need constant reminders and discipline to focus on business criteria and leave our biases with our typewriters, carbon copies, and dictating machines—real remnants of the last century.