In defence of sycophantic wage slaves

Egos need to be managed, which inevitably means tiptoeing works better than barging

“People end up as entrepreneurs for different reasons. Some, like Sir Richard Branson (above), are dyslexic and do so badly at school that the usual careers are closed.” Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“People end up as entrepreneurs for different reasons. Some, like Sir Richard Branson (above), are dyslexic and do so badly at school that the usual careers are closed.” Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 01:01

If you are reading this, the chances are that you are a sycophant, an arse-kisser and a phoney.

The majority of readers spend their working lives climbing the greasy pole at big companies, which makes them craven, insincere brown-nosers. This is according to the entrepreneur Luke Johnson, who argued in his Financial Times column last Wednesday that the corporate world is fake from top to bottom.

Wage slaves, he said, learn early on to be phoney for a living; the phoniest make it to the boardroom, where they visit their backbiting and guile upon each other.

The only way out of this cesspool is to do as Mr Johnson himself has done and become self-employed. In his early 20s he had a swearing fit at his buffoon of an investment banking boss and within a year had freed himself of the sycophantic corporate world for ever.

Now sucking up is mostly a thing of the past. He is a straight-talker who can (mostly) say what he thinks.

I read this without comment over breakfast last week and handed it to my husband. “Excellent! Quite right!”, he said when he’d finished it, just as I was sure he would. When I met him, my husband was a journalist on the FT, but as time went on he found the modest amount of forelock-tugging that the newspaper demanded of him too much of a burden. Shortly after we married he quit and set up his own magazine instead. Mr Johnson’s version of events tallied perfectly with his own.

Flattery
My career has taken a different path. I have continued to take the corporate shilling, and continued, when called for, to tug my forelock with equanimity. Mr Johnson’s view doesn’t tally with mine one bit. Four things are wrong with it.

First, I am prepared to admit that I’m a phoney, sycophantic arse-kisser and that I’m more of one than Mr Johnson (or my husband). But I’m not sure this is altogether a bad thing. The phrase arse-kisser is horribly vulgar; I prefer the word flatterer. I’m proud to be a flatterer and only wish I was better at it. Flattery is a vital part of charm, crucial to survival not only in the corporate world but in any encounter with anybody that involves getting what you want.

Second, my experience of big corporations is that flattery is only one of many skills required to do well. Others include diplomacy, hard work, conviviality, deviousness, ambition, ruthlessness and talent. Large companies are complicated places where people who are emotionally sophisticated can end up doing very well indeed. The traits required for advancement are a mixture of good and bad; and while some companies are more dysfunctional than others, all inevitably require compromises to be made. Egos need to be managed, which inevitably means tiptoeing works better than barging. Yet to dismiss all the skill required in this delicate game as phoney brown-nosing is to miss the point entirely.

Third, I object to the populist idea that the man who sticks two fingers up to the corporation is necessarily a hero. Just as likely he is a bolshie misfit who hasn’t quite learnt how to behave in polite society. My husband, like Mr Johnson, had a similar foul-mouthed tantrum at his boss, involving tennis racquets being slung across a court. When he told me about it, about 30 per cent of me was proud of him. The remaining 70 per cent thought he needed to learn to get more of a grip. But he never did, as he isn’t built that way. In the end it is a matter of personality.

Different reasons
People end up as entrepreneurs for different reasons. Some, like Sir Richard Branson, are dyslexic and do so badly at school that the usual careers are closed. Others start businesses because their personalities haven’t evolved enough to fit the corporate type. It’s nothing to do with their moral tolerance for dissembling. It is like speaking a foreign language. Some people have the gene and others have not.

And, as with languages, learning corporate behaviour takes practice. When you do it every day it gets so easy it causes no strain at all. But those who get out of the swing of it get more and more rusty and solipsistic until they are not employable at all. Is that a sign of moral superiority? I don’t think so.

The final objection to the thesis is that the person most resistant to kissing the arses of others may be the keenest on having others kiss his own. Mr Johnson mentions this in passing as a minor risk. But I see it as a major weakness of any theory that sets out to prove the moral fibre of the go-it-alone entrepreneur. There is not much value in straight talk, when you are the only person allowed to do it. Ask anyone who worked with Steve Jobs. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014 )

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