Rising without trace in the organization

Fraud in the workplace is far more widespread than most us will publicly admit. I am not talking about employees taking the pens home or wiring a lazy eleventy trillion from the pension fund into their offshore accounts. I am talking about that sense that many of us have from time to time that we are not as good at our jobs as our colleagues appear to believe we are – that we are frauds and sooner or later our manifest limitations will be cruelly exposed. Or is that just me!

In climbing the corporate ladder we implicitly subscribe to a model that states that the cream rises to the top, that success=hard work, emotional intelligence (EQ) and intellectual ability (IQ). We see book after book written on the topic of success in business – sharing the “secrets” and the lessons learned that will take us to dizzying corporate heights. The deal here is quite explicit – if you follow the rules carefully and diligently you too will be a corporate high flyer.

If only organisations were the meritocracies described in the pages of the self-help books and the management texts but I’ve never seen one.  Have you ever wondered why amongst the legions of such books, we don’t have a “Lie your way to the top” (I checked on Amazon, the nearest is a humourous book entitled “Claw your way to the top”).  There is a book called “Sleep your way to the top”, but to my great disappointment this turned out to be a tome on power-napping!  Books on how I sold my colleagues down the river, spread rumours and lies, and manipulated circumstances and the truth to suit my own ends are few and far between (though there are a couple such as the Modern Machievelli by Richard Demack, Allen and Unwin).  So maybe our equation needs to be modified to Success=hard work+EQ+IQ+Political skill.

However, I am not suggesting for one moment dear reader that you are one of the schemers or the sleazy, but maybe you are one of those good people who are diligent, brimming with talent, but have also been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, or for some reason, a senior colleague spotted your potential early and supported you.  Alternatively you could be in that other group which is equally talented and motivated, but you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for whatever reason, senior colleagues remain unaware of your true potential.

In other words, I am talking about the Luck Factor.  We rarely talk about luck because presumably we feel it is out of our control and therefore it is not worth worrying about.  The trouble is that luck may play a much bigger role in success than we are comfortable admitting.

Is it possible that for every story of a corporate rags-to-riches self-made person, there are at least 100 others out there who work just as hard, were just as intelligent but did not get the lucky break?   For every professional sports star, there are perhaps another 100 who may have been even more talented, but circumstances such as opportunity, being spotted, having a good mentor, injury or illness prevented them from ultimate success. There are people out there who have diligently followed all the self-help, but still have not made it.  If you look at the research on chance events in career development which consistently shows that between 60%  – 100% of people point to chance events influencing their careers either positively or negatively, it seems the Luck Factor is an important part of the equation.

So if you buy the idea that corporate success requires not only talent and diligence, but also a degree of luck, you can begin to appreciate why so many people feel they are somehow frauds in their elevated and responsible positions.  They are bombarded with messages that effort=reward, but they know that the reason they got the job was because they were in the right place at the right time, or by chance were the last person standing, or a series of chance encounters opened up a pathway that would never normally be available to them.   Consequently they feel somewhat illegitimate in their roles, and this can lead to a type of defensiveness, such as an unwillingness to go for formal promotions or job interviews, or a reluctance to share their resume with others, for fear that somehow, others will discover their secret that they have “risen without trace”.


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