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Lay of the land

September 27, 2010
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Work is a game. I’m not one of those people happy to keep plugging along and doing good work, wanting only a solid job and decent assignments. I was born to play the corporate games, or at least it seems second nature once I understood it was all a game. How competent/hardworking you are is so less important than how you are perceived to be.
You and your peers are all being evaluated on a constant basis. You may be on the same team with one another, but in a way you are competing with each other. You’re sizing each other up, trying to decide which amongst you you want to work with, who you like or don’t like, and your superiors are doing the same. Rarely does an engineer stay at the bottom rung for his/her whole career. Some may be satisfied to do so, but those that are not pushed into the next level of the hierarchy or some specialist position have already been passed by. And there are a few of these people around, having to keep tinkering away with the same things, happy to be an oldtimer but still on the front lines. Overall though, the kinds of people who move into management have excessive ambition and so they do not tolerate those who lack in it.
Each level, young engineers, mid-career engineers, etc is evaluated as management continues to hand out new responsibilities. Actual moving up can be slow since baby boomers and old Xers dominate management and nobody seems ready to retire fast or pass on their level of expertise. Still, new levels can be carved out inbetween old ones and new departments created.
So it’s been with totally selfish interest that I keep an eye on my fellow infantrymen. I’ve seen NiceGuy be given opportunities almost solely on his university and commonalities with The Boss. I’ve seen CompetentMinority overlooked for new opportunities, supposedly poorly handled a project at some point in the past and now not trusted again by superiors. I wonder how much is true or how much is perception, notably that he is different. There are some midcareer engineers as well, but it’s clear I’m not being evaluated against them. They already have fixed opportunities and will either succeed or not succeed based on their movements against each other. So I’ve scouted NiceGuy as the one I need to be wary of. Ever move he makes I need to be sure I am making a stronger move.
I was recently given an opportunity for a new project. I knew it would be high profile and if I did well would really be a gamechanger for me. However, it was assigned to me in backhanded way. Confused I followed up, assuming that this was because The Powers that Be wanted to evaluate me first, didn’t want me asking for more money or anything like that. Wanted to sneak the responsibility to me without letting me know there would be some authority and some opportunity as well. But my game was totally off. Apparently I was the last choice for this. The Powers that Be couldn’t agree amongst themselves on who would actually be good at this role, and so last minute it was thrown at me. Nearly everyone else’s name had been thrown into the hat first, only they couldn’t agree. Still an opportunity, but not what I was expecting.
And The Boss ranted on about NiceGuy and how he can’t finish any of his projects or get anything done. What does that mean? When your boss gives you an apparently honest and negative assessment of someone else, what’s the angle? I thought I’d feel relieved, to know I was still a step ahead of this guy for now. Or at least confident that I knew what was important to The Boss. But I don’t know whether he was being truly honest, or using NiceGuy as an example to what he needed from me. Not showing confidence in my work, but warning me off of someone else’s bad example. I imagine it’s like when an interviewee speaks negatively about a former employer. The interviewer is probably wondering if he/she is trying to flatter them, but really worrying whether this negative talk is a part of the pattern. Whether they’ll be the target next time. Am I being brought up as a negative or even a positive example to others? Either way makes me uneasy.
So my view of the board has changed a little, but I’m no more confident than I was before. I’m only trying to make my pawn a queen: because a queen can move in any direction.
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