During my previous career there were objects which I craved to such a degree that one might say I was obsessive about them. In hindsight I understand that it wasn’t the item or its purpose as the correct tool for the task, it was the representation I craved. By selecting this particular briefcase (never mind the cost) conjecture begins: The object goes first and followed by me. Those that scoffed were ignorant of classic style; those that recognized both the object and its “place on the style scale” applauded my devotion despite the price and subsequently elevated my degree of style from “studied” to “au courant.”
The most important opinion I sought was one I should never hear. If heard, or worse, tipped-off to that opinion by another that my coveted object became a subject, it and its notoriety, no matter my admiration or its usefulness, or despite the degree of impudence of cheeky sales people aghast by my shameless reconsideration of the transaction and eagerness to “hand it over” (“it’s Bally, not a puppy for Christ’s sake!”), the object I taught myself to covet and which, to me, represented a piece of the Big League uniform, would be returned immediately via courier in order to derail further heckling.
Sacrificing the object was a lesser price to pay than to have it become the subject of insignificant but derisive chit-chat employed by uncomfortable executives to desperately pad the awkward silence that descends among supposedly well-mannered and well-groomed executives who have an adversarial relationship with their colleagues. Better to criticize underlings than to have their own activities or choices be reduced to fodder for teasing. This is the opportunity an executive bully (or cadre of bullies) can’t resist.
A significant part of my previous career demanded that I be available at all times to any partner or partner’s client. And these partners were notorious for the outrageous stresses they placed upon their minions. When asked why they managed their staff with such contempt, they’d answer, without pause, almost by rote, “it’s how I cut my teeth. . .” and the story would trail off point like a sleepy motorist struggling to remain alert, but who predictably drifts to the unpaved shoulder rattling the chassis, quickly over-correcting. . .and the partner, finally cognizant of his detour, arrived at the same conclusion as every partner when asked, “. . .and I’m a softy; when I was coming up the atmosphere around this place was brutal, toxic, practically inhumane; but I made it and so will others, those willing to do what it takes.”
And there lies the evolution of a corporate culture whose purpose is to bully staff, in order to strengthen devotion and eliminate chaff, until those few that accepted, expected, and survived the harshest, unyielding, and indulgent bullying by the partners, understood that success wasn’t measured solely on talent, or survival, but mostly on eliminating threats from within by systematically teasing, then embarrassing, and eventually bullying them out of the firm.
Since I spent the majority of my time in close proximity to the partners, I witnessed weekly smack-downs. At first I was repulsed by the duplicity; then I wondered why I was witness; and as time went on I saw a pattern emerge: the harshest bullying happened to employees that caught the partners attention. In order to avoid bullying, it was imperative that I disappear until summoned and I must never do, say, or have anything which might draw attention or raise a question.
At the time I thought my method of survival was very creative: appear only when summoned; deliver beyond their expectations; avoid pretentiousness or the appearance of any form of treatment reserved for them; and above all, never, never, ever give them the slightest reason or smallest idea that I think I’m one of them. If my behavior ever stepped across these lines, alienation would be immediate swiftly followed by a quiet escort off the partner floor, a silent elevator ride to the lobby when at last my escort, a chief of something or other would inform me of my dismissal and remind me of my agreement of confidentiality.
My elimination would’ve been well-mannered, respectful, and final. I would experience their finest bullying, reserved for those that commit any degree of suspected corporate treason. I would be ignored, failure to exist or ever had existed, never mentioned or contacted; to them I was never there and therefore never saw or heard or read or witnessed anything.
A bully bullies people perceived as different; bullies are selective, unrelenting and unforgiving; bullies rarely forget and never forgive; but there is one caveat: almost all bullies are deathly afraid of exposure, the identification of their own perceived shortcomings (usually any degree off of normal).
Even these partners, leaders in world-class architecture, are hiding their fears (or weaknesses). To be privy to them is an immensely heavy burden, not too mention loaded gun, both of which I never wanted and both of which I continue to carry. My saving grace? I never wanted to be one of them. My job was to be there unconditionally, which I held as an honor and today is one of those things I have tried so hard to hide: the ugliness of working for professional bullies.