Happy Halloween! Today we can put on costumes, maybe we can go to a party, get crazy and have a ball. Some workplaces even let us dress up for Halloween. I tend to always wear a black suit and black tie so i’m dressed as either Men in Black, or a member of the Blues Brothers. This way I take off the glasses or change the tie and I’ve got the flexibility to jump into a extra organizational related meeting if I have to without looking too odd. What makes Halloween so fun is that we get to pretend we are something we aren’t in real life. We do this by putting on costumes that usually have a Mask to hide our face, to hide who we really are.
This got me thinking about the professional environment and how so many of us wear masks at work. This was struck home in a conversation I had with one professional who went to a pool party at a manager’s house. She was going there to ‘put in an appearance’ for corporate sake. What happened was that she was blown away by this manager’s personality out of the office. He went from stoic and reserved to highly congenial and funny. That’s not the only time I have run into this. I personally have had a supervisor I have worked with for years and only about once every year or two do they let their guard down enough to have a real conversation without the mask on.
I’m truly undecided if the Mask in the professional environment is a good thing or a bad thing. I think it’s because i’m too close to the situation. Wearing a professional mask is a challenge that has dogged me over the course of my career. I simply don’t have a personality that lends itself well to hiding my emotions or not speaking up. Because I don’t have that skill I envy those that do. I see the benefits of professional masks that don’t show how one is thinking. One of these is that many people will see you as they wish to. It’s part of the human condition to fill in the blanks with perceptions that we have had experience with. Another major benefit is flexibility. There are thousands of ideas and initiatives every year in large and complex organizations that hire professionals. People come, people go, ideas seen as good after a time can be seen as bad. If you are perceived as taking one side or another, then you will be perceived as being right or wrong. Yes, I know i’m talking about corporate politics 101 which anyone knows exists in every sized office. I have seen it in offices as small as three people. If you are just seen as a hard worker who doesn’t take sides because you didn’t let your opinion be known, then you risk not being seen as part of the ascending trajectory. If you don’t wear masks and unable to hide your unbridled passion or intensity about some subject or work ethic, that could work in your favor. There will be no question you are the one slotted for that opportunity. When it comes to blogging, communication, or Information Technology, I get every single assignment, big and small simply because my passion in these areas can’t be hidden even if I wanted to.
There is a dark side to professional masks. The negative relates to the real power holders in the organization who put on a facade on purpose. The manager who’s friendly and congenial in one instance where others or senior management are around but who’s giving you subtle threats when the environment changes. Then there is senior leadership who talks about ‘family friendly’ and ‘the value of our people’ yet, they let the middle level relentlessly brutalize the rank and file. You don’t know where you stand with these people (senior or middle) and must always be on guard. That can be exhausting and most professionals can’t keep it up for a long period of time. The organizational manifestation of this is the company with the average churn of 1.5 years but who’s highly touted 4 week of vacation accrual rate doesn’t kick in until year 3 with the company (not that you can take that time off in these types of organizations). Never forget that a CEO got to where they are in part by understanding nuances of the professional environment such as being perceived exactly as they wanted to be perceived.
Corporate politics are a never-ending fact of the professional world. How you handle the masks you wear -or should wear – can be a great strategic benefit or a liability. The takeaway is that understanding masks, who wears them, and what is underneath the masks is very important in the corporate world. Unfortunately, who is really underneath the corporate mask can be very hard to figure out. It’s definitely harder than knowing who is under the mask of the person handing out pumpkin juice with the floating eyeball ice cubes at tonight’s party. But hey, maybe the punch is spiked, it’ll help you relax after dealing with all those corporate masks today.