Those who assume that the academe is an ideal workplace where everybody thinks, acts, and talks within the bounds of professionalism and fair play are in for a big disappointment. It is a mistake to think that the school is an organization without faults and that those who work there are infallible. Schools are similar to all other institutions in our society. They are not perfect. And the people who work there – as educated as you may think they are – are human beings susceptible to human frailties.
The foregoing are the things I discovered having served in 8 different schools in 2 different countries. If years were feathers on a cap called academic career, I already have more than 30 of them. And those years I spent in the academe, both as a classroom teacher and as a school administrator, gave me the opportunity to mingle with different kinds of students (and their parents), teaching and non-teaching personnel, administrators, and school owners.
Imagine the wealth of experience I gained during those years supervising teachers and being one of them as well. Indeed, I experienced a lot, both good and bad. On top of being able to hone my pedagogical skills, I learned how to deal with different personalities, both good and bad also. I obtained a lot of insights about school operations and organizational behavior… insights that could not be read in books.
I learned a lot of lessons, very valuable ones. One of the most significant lessons I learned from the past years of my stay in the academe, is “Be not a Don Quixote.”
Don Quixote, in case you don’t know him, is a fictional character introduced to the world by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes through his epic novel “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.”
For you to know him better, let me (not paraphrase but) give you exactly how sparknotes.com describes the character.
“The novel’s tragicomic hero. Don Quixote’s main quest in life is to revive knight-errantry in a world devoid of chivalric virtues and values. He believes only what he chooses to believe and sees the world very differently from most people. Honest, dignified, proud, and idealistic, he wants to save the world. As intelligent as he is mad, Don Quixote starts out as an absurd and isolated figure and ends up as a pitiable and lovable old man whose strength and wisdom failed him.”
In any kind of workplace, people in the organization are classified as employees, middle managers, and employers. Let me call the employees “people downstairs” and the middle managers and employers “people upstairs.” In the schools where I served in the Philippines, most of the time I was “upstairs.” Here in South Korea, “downstairs.”
We all dream of belonging to an organization where everybody from downstairs to upstairs coexists peacefully. But out of 10 organizations for example, how many of them do you think have fostered a harmonious coexistence among all members? It’s hard to guess.
What I know is both sides of the fence are seemingly locked in the ancient battle between good and evil. Which side is good… and which is evil… is anybody’s guess. The relationship between employees and those supervising them is analogous to the relationship between the administration party and the opposition in the realm of governance. They are in perpetual disagreement.
Usually, the point of disagreement between subordinates and their superiors (in the academe.. between teachers and school administrators) emanates from the creation new policies and the corresponding changes they create.
Naturally, people abhor changes. Anything that displaces us from our comfort zone makes us anxious and uncomfortable. Our comfort zones are like territories we will defend at all costs. This is because we are hardwired to resist change. Psychologists found out that the part of the brain called the amygdala interprets change as a threat and prompts the body to release the hormones for fear, fight, or flight.
But in organizations, in the business world or in the academe, some changes are inevitable. I figured that we can resist them all we want but they will happen, whether we like it or not. We can howl our disagreement as loud as we can but that will not prevent changes from happening.
In a related essay that I wrote, I pointed out the following…
“What employees (teachers) need to bear in mind is that employers (school administrators) have to do what they need to do in order for their business to prosper or simply survive. They need to implement changes and tweak policies at a certain point, sometimes at times when the employees least expected them. Notwithstanding disagreements coming from downstairs, changes people upstairs want to make, will be implemented.
When changes are implemented and policies get tweaked, the employees should not take them personally. Changes in the workplace happen when they are due. It is something inevitable. They need to get used to it. Employees need to be ready to make decisions when they happen. There are available options that they are free to exercise. They may simply embrace the changes and move on. They may decide to just accept organizational shake-ups, policy modifications, and what-have-you then continue working. It’s either they view the changes as necessary or accept the fact that they could simply do nothing to prevent them from happening.”
Those who would consider that such changes are unacceptable… those who think that they are being taken out of their comfort zones… those who feel being taken advantage of… do have two possible courses of action. They can either resign and continue their quest to find a perfect workplace or they may stay and do a Don Quixote.
Expat teachers who think they could dissuade their employers who hired them from making the changes the former wants to implement are as delusional as Don Quixote. We could possibly do it in our own countries. But in a country where we are foreigners and work on a contractual basis, it’s a QUIXOTIC endeavor. It’s like “fighting the windmills.”
It frustrates me when I have colleagues who cannot understand that if the management wants to exercise their prerogatives, they could and they would, whether the people downstairs want it or not.
When in one meeting, a colleague stood and gave a long speech against a policy our university was about to implement, I felt obliged to cordially beg him to stop his litany because whatever he was saying then would all be in vain. Additionally, I told him that he was just unnecessarily prolonging the meeting and wasting my time and that of those not interested in what he was saying. I also gave him advice that if he wanted, he should set an appointment with the university officials and tell them directly about his protestations. That Don Quixote did not realize that he could not force anybody to join his cause, especially those who consider changes necessary and inevitable. What he was trying to do at that time was force everybody in the room to listen to his whinges and whines.
The Don Quixotes should not expect their colleagues to look at things and issues in the organization in the same way they do. People in organizations do not have the same perspectives. Even their circumstances are different. People are also driven by sets of motivations that might be entirely different from one another. If the Don Quixotes came to South Korea to fight against what they perceived as injustice, well I did not. I just want to do my work and earn a living for my family.
One thing that the Don Quixotes should realize is that locking horns with the bosses is a difficult struggle and a lonely battle. Yes, the legality of new policies that employers might implement can be contested. But employers are always careful with the decisions they make. Only the ignorant ones would risk getting hauled to court by effecting changes or making moves contrary to established laws and ordinances. Most employers are wise. One of the things employers or businessmen worth their salt does is study the laws and regulations that govern their business endeavors. It’s hard to catch them off-guard in legal matters. They simply know what buttons to push whenever “push comes to shove.” In addition, they also consult lawyers to make sure that they face no legal impediments with anything that they do.
There are still Don Quixotes in our rank. It’s annoying to hear them repeatedly complain about the policies and practices of our employers. They have been doing it for as long as I could remember. The funny thing is every time they are presented with a new contract when a new school year begins, they accept it and sign their names on the dotted lines. They agree to work for the employers whose policies and practices they don’t like. Is that what you call “idealism?”
Tomalo con calma Don Quixote.
I couldn’t agree more whenever people describe the workplace as “a jungle.” I have been working long enough – thirty years in eight different institutions in two countries – that I could cite a thousand or two reasons why I consider that description accurate in the metaphorical sense. There are uncanny similarities in the behavior of people inhabiting the working environment and the animals in the forest. Even the patterns of relationships between people in the field of work resemble the way the living creatures in the wild treat each other. Thus, they say, in the workplace “only the fittest survive.”
I have been in this jungle called workplace for three decades now. Here I am, still standing and breathing. I managed to hold my own against the different animals I cross paths with as I searched for greener pastures and overflowing water holes. I experienced being stared down by a lion, stalked by an eagle, ambushed by a crocodile, bitten by a snake, clipped by a crab, and stung by a bee. Attacks that left me scarred. Nevertheless, I survived – still alive.
How did I do it? How did I live to tell the tale?
I simply took a cue from Charles Darwin who theorized that “species with useful adaptations to the environment are more likely to survive.” Adaptation is the name of the game. That exactly is what I have been doing (and what you should also be doing if you intend to stay alive and sane in your workplace) – ADAPT.
If you wish not to be dinner for the predators it would behoove you to study carefully the environment of the workplace where you belong. Know what kind of animals you are dealing with. Study them carefully. You also need to put your survival instincts into full gear.
Predators lurk in the shadows. It could be a big cat hiding in the bushes or a mighty bird hovering above. These predators could the “people upstairs” or somebody from among you “downstairs.”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that all bosses who succeeded in their business endeavors did it at the expense of the people in the rank and file – like predators slaying their preys and eat them. It could be just a few, or half, or most of them. Nobody knows for sure. But definitely not all. Perhaps a majority of them (I hope) consider themselves rhinos and the people they hire oxpeckers whom they allow to freely land on their backs to feast on the insects pestering them.
The point I wish to drive at when I posited that they (the bosses) are predators is that they are at the top of the food chain and like it or not, when you agreed to work for them, you entered their territory. They dictate the terms and conditions of your employment. That doesn’t sound good but it’s the reality in the workplace.
The ones who own or manage the workplace are the alpha males. You need to have a full understanding of how they think and operate. Better if you could dig deeper and try to know what they like and dislike. If it is not too much for your dignity (or should we say EGO) to adapt to their whims and fancies then stay in the pack. These whims and fancies could be the policies that you consider disagreeable. You’ve got to make a choice whether to follow these policies or not. For not following, of course you are not naïve not to understand that there are consequences. Following the terms and conditions of your employment is not equivalent to flopping onto your back to show that you submit to the alpha males. It is simply like the chimpanzees presenting their backs, crouching, bowing and bobbing in order to show deference to the alpha in their group.
If not, if you are tired of being an omega, if your ego clashes with that of the alpha, the wisest thing to do is leave. Find another pack, or better still, be a lone wolf. Don’t be employed. Establish your own business and be your own boss. If you succeed and your business grows big, hire people. That is your chance to be the alpha and see for yourself if you are a better one than your former bosses or… worse than them.
Believe me, you cannot afford to take too much bravado and think you are that brave “angry bird” who would tweet your disagreement and not expect dire consequences. Your chirps will not go unheard and before you know it the eagle will swoop down on your nest and tear you apart with its powerful beaks.
More often than not, or almost always, that locking horns with the “powers that be” in the workplace is like a deer thinking it could take on a full-gown lion. It’s a losing proposition.
Of course not all bosses are saints. Some of them would take advantage of the people they hire in different ways. That you’d discover (hopefully) in time. So, why stay on a watering hole when you know that there are crocodiles under the mud waiting in ambush? Move out. You’re not a tree! You have limbs. Run, walk or crawl from out of there.
What about the predators among you “downstairs”.
Wherever you work, you’ll encounter malevolent individuals. So, be careful. Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. These are co-workers who camouflage themselves as your friends but would stab you in the back when they have the chance.
Okay. Let’s talk more about the different animals in the workplace. You’ve got to be able to identify them if you really want to survive the wild called the workplace.
We have already mentioned about the big cats and the mighty birds. Yeah, including the wolves pretending to be sheep.
Are there other animals you ought to be wary of?
Yes, there are!
Watch out for them. Better watch them like a hawk.
Be careful of the buzzing bees called the rumormongers.
Thinking that they are your friends and therefore could be trusted, you share with them your darkest secrets. Letting the cat out of the bag is the biggest mistake you commit with this type of animals. Later you’ll just discover that the entire workplace is talking about the skeletons you’ve tried so hard to keep in your closet for so long.
Gossiping is a deadly disease in the workplace. It kills reputation and trust. It ruins relationships and careers. So widespread it is that even the people who consider themselves as professionals and who think of themselves as decent individuals spread gossips – both personal and work-related – unmindful of the pain and shame their traitorous act might inflict on their victims.
Identify who among your co-workers are fond of tittle-tattling. Don’t say anything negative to them about the work, co-workers, much less personal matters. Just listen when they talk. Don’t fall into their trap. They will quote you without batting an eyelid. But here is the best way to deal with them – avoid them like the plague. They sometimes appear as if they wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s their facade. The truth is – they are dogs that eat dogs.
Among your co-workers, you should also be able to spot the crabs.
Do you know what happens when you put crabs in a bucket? They’ll try to escape by pulling back down others effectively preventing anyone of them from climbing out of the bucket.
That’s the origin of the proverbial “crab mentality.” The philosophy of the malevolent among your co-workers is “if they can’t have a promotion or an incentive, neither can you.” Some people in workplaces just don’t want to see their co-workers succeeding. They so hate it when somebody climbs up the ladder especially if they’ve been there longer. These are the snakes who would bite you with intrigues and gossips when they see you work harder than they do. They would accuse you of being a leech trying to suck the attention and favor of the people upstairs.
Don’t allow the venom of the snakes get through your nerves. Let them not succeed in getting your goat. Continue to work as hard as your personal values would allow you. Don’t be pig-headed like them.
That’s just the reality in the workplace – that generally there are two types of workers – the ants and the termites.
And with who would you rather be associated – with the ants in the workplace who keep themselves busy working and helping one another in order to achieve the goals of the organization or with the termites, whose actions and pronouncements, deliberate or otherwise, are damaging – not only to the organization but more so to themselves?
They are basically a negative bunch that should be avoided at all cost. The termites hold a grudge against the people upstairs for one reason or another and they think that by not doing their jobs the way they ought to and by behaving oddly, they could get even. They spin tales about the current state of the organization basically for the purpose of demotivating people. Be aware that the termites could also sow dissension among their co-workers.
Nonetheless, the people upstairs are not naïve. They could easily detect the existence of termites and they get them exterminated.
Watch out also for the parasites in the workplace.
The parasites seem to have special training in detecting generosity. Once they have spotted a kind-hearted co-worker who wouldn’t say no when asked for favors then they will have a field day. They would ask you to solve their work-related problems and sometimes even seek personal favors.
So, be careful. Learn to say no when you have to or else they would eat up your time and resources. They won’t hesitate to abuse you.
It’s okay if they return the favor. The problem is the word “reciprocate” is not in their vocabulary.
They also tend to exhibit that selfish attribute in their work. You could neither expect them to walk an extra mile for the organization nor perform their duties and responsibilities as stipulated in their contracts. They care for nothing but their salaries.
For the workplace to prosper, the relationship between the people and the organization should be symbiotic.
Let’s consider the relationship between the clownfish and the sea anemone. It’s a perfect example of a symbiotic mutualistic relationship. While the fecal matter from the clownfish serve as nutrients for the sea anemone, the latter provide the former with protection from its predators.
You can choose between becoming a parasite or a clownfish.
The workplace gives you a venue for professional growth and a source of livelihood. You need to keep it afloat. Your organization needs your help for it to succeed and continue existence. You may have disagreements with the people upstairs but you need to bear in mind that commitment to job and organization is different from commitment to your employers.
Lastly, in order to survive in the forest, you need to clearly determine where you rank in the food chain. Identify the different kinds of animals there. And most importantly – don’t stand in the path of your predators.
It’s as simple as knowing your designated place in the organization, being mindful of your words and actions, and being careful with how you deal with everyone. And remember that the most foolish thing to do is to offend your employers.
You have to study the culture of the workplace. Again… ADAPT. Remember what Charles Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.
If you can’t adapt, if you feel so disrespected and gravely offended, if you think you are no longer growing professionally – what are you waiting for? It’s time to migrate to another forest.
If you think that your current workplace is (as described by Simon Sinek) “like a tree full of monkeys where everyone at the top, looking down, sees only smiles but everyone at the bottom, looking up, sees only asses” then you should leave as soon as possible. Unless you could stomach looking at the same “asses” everyday when you go to work.
And when you’re finally out and begin looking for a new workplace, don’t ever expect that you’ll find a perfect workplace. That’s a wild goose chase. You’ll never find one. You’ll see the same animals.