George, a graduate consultant at ABC Consulting, sat nervously outside his manager’s office thinking how to quit. He had joined the company only three months earlier, never thinking things would deteriorate so quickly. Looking at his watch, which read 11.07 am, he reflected on why he took the job in the first place and why he was quitting so soon.
Having completed an MBA, George was excited about stepping into ‘the real world’ and becoming a management consultant. He had two offers; one from a Big 4 organisation and the other from ABC Consulting, a medium-sized company. The Big 4 organisation offered a better salary and exposure to big-name clients and multimillion-dollar projects. However, George assumed that consultants in larger organisations worked extremely long hours, in conflict-ridden environments, and under the ‘kiss up, kick down’ management style. Money was important to George, but more important was a work–life balance, the freedom to be creative and having supportive and collaborative colleagues. In the end, George chose ABC Consulting because he believed that the company’s espoused values matched what he wanted.
George’s first day began with a meeting involving the HR director and Janet, his area manager. ‘We’re excited to have you here, George’, Janet said. ‘Your interview was impressive; you’re exactly the sort of person we’re looking for!’ ‘We don’t offer big salaries’, the HR director added, ‘but you’ll be eligible for our bonus system after three months’. The company offered a 10% annual bonus to all confirmed employees. ‘To be clear, you’ll be eligible upon successful completion of your three-month probation, but that’s just a formality, everyone gets onto the bonus system after three months’, the HR Director said reassuringly. George sensed the target was easily achievable.
‘As you know’, George said, ‘it’s not the money that attracted me, I’m mostly looking forward to working with good people on interesting projects’. ‘Well, that’s what differentiates us from other firms’, Janet replied. ‘Clients like us because we deliver creativity and innovation. Our projects involve lots of collaboration and thinking outside the box. Most of your time will be spent in brainstorming meetings where you can dazzle us with your genius!’ Janet said with a smile. This was exactly the environment George was seeking. He sensed he would have long future with the company.
The first week at work was very exciting. George was asked to interact with his colleagues at office while the management decided on a project to assign him. George was very impressed by how much experience the other office colleagues had; most of them had been working together for a long time and they knew each other very well. However, George soon found it was difficult to introduce or suggest new ideas to his colleagues as they were very experienced and cohesive in their approach to deal with problems.
The office dynamics
Despite his growing anxiety about the office culture, George persisted in suggesting new ideas. But soon, one of the office colleagues, Harry Main, asked George to have a one-on-one talk after an office meeting. In a calm but very firm voice, Harry said: ‘George, I am sorry to say, but you have to integrate yourself more into the culture. Most of the office members have been working together for many years now, we are very used to each other, and we expect cohesive consensus. We have so much experience, and we are experts in this field, so we just expect you to listen carefully. Otherwise this will get very difficult for all of us.’
George was surprised and upset and kept thinking all weekend about what to do and how to react to Harry’s comments. His first job out of university was so important to him, and he remembered what he was promised in this role when he received his job offer. They had told him that he would work in a wonderful team, and would have ample opportunities to contribute creative and innovative ideas.
After this incident with Harry, George noticed something else in Harry’s behaviour towards another team member, Enrique Armo. George had overheard a conversation between the two. Harry had threatened to tell the head of human resources (HR) that Enrique sometimes leaves the office earlier, in response to urgent family issues. It was quite clear to George what that meant—the head of HR was the team’s disciplinary supervisor. The issue could cause a lot of trouble for Enrique if the head found out.
George was increasingly feeling more anxious and upset. He decided to tell his best friend Anna. ‘I don’t understand why Harry thinks he has authority over the team and can threaten Enrique’, George told her. ‘Harry is neither the supervisor, nor known for doing a good job or knowing a lot. And, I can’t believe he spoke to me, he is not my boss, nor the project leader. I am yet to be assigned a project in the first place!’
Anna just responded. ‘I know exactly what you are talking about’, she replied. ‘We have a similar situation in my workplace. A colleague of mine has been working in the same position for ages. She has just built herself a network of colleagues in the organisation which makes her so confident. She does not work hard, nor is she clever, but she tries to get involved in every decision. She speaks up at every team meeting and often talks to influential people in the cafeteria.’
‘We have to learn how we can respond to those situations’, Anna continues, ‘and even influence people at work with this dominating attitude and behaviour’. George felt slightly reassured after talking to Anna. Moreover, he was looking forward to be assigned a project where he could prove that he was very capable.
George was quickly assigned to a project team, which also included Daniel, the project manager, and Janet, the client manager. George spent several nights reviewing the project brief and developed what he thought were fairly creative ideas that would impress Janet and Daniel. Over the next month, the team had collected a mountain of data, which would form the basis of their first client report. George was responsible for writing the report, due in less than a week. One afternoon, Daniel scheduled a team meeting to discuss the report. As the meeting began, George was taken aback by how quickly and easily Daniel and Janet were throwing ideas around and interpreting the vast amount of data they had. George suddenly thought he knew very little about the project and knew that soon they would expect him to say something. His heart began to pound. Sure enough, Janet turned to George, ‘What do you think, George?’ George felt a knot in his stomach. ‘Umm . . . ,’ his mind went blank as he flipped aimlessly through his notebook. Just say something! Anything! he thought to himself, ‘I just need some time to absorb all this stuff, I think’, he finally said. Daniel and Janet stared at him inquisitively. Janet finally broke the awkward moment, ‘Well, George, in consulting you need to think on your feet, you need to make sense of information very quickly. I guess we thought you were a little more extroverted.’ George sensed from Janet’s comment that she was disappointed.
With his review meeting approaching, George decided he would make amends with the client report. He saw it as a good opportunity to be creative and add his own ideas. He would be in the office by 7 am and not leave before 7 pm, and often continue working at home.
In the end, he completed what he thought was an excellent report, and emailed it to Janet and Daniel two nights before it was due.
As always, he was at the office first thing in the morning, and was surprised to see that Janet had already replied. What followed, however, came as a complete shock. Janet had gone through his report paragraph by paragraph, criticising everything, including all of his ideas. The report had been ripped to shreds. ‘Hopefully, we’ll have something useful to present on Monday’, her email concluded.
George spent the entire weekend revising the report, following precisely Janet’s comments. He removed all of his ideas since it was clear they were not valued.
On Monday morning George did not feel like going to work. He wanted to call in sick, but instead decided to sleep in and go in later than usual. Stuff them! he thought. Why should I work this hard when they treat me like this? A feeling of anger and resentment began to build up inside him. He decided that from then on, he would not do anything on the project unless instructed to. I’ll only do the absolute minimum, nothing more! he told himself.
Over the next few weeks, George’s enthusiasm for the job gradually diminished. He came to work later, left earlier than usual, and took increasingly longer breaks. He was no longer interested in ‘dazzling’ anyone. The thought of resigning crossed his mind, but so did the 10% bonus he was entitled to if he stayed.
On the day of the review meeting George was excited that he would finally go on the bonus system. He figured it would make up for all his work that had not been recognised. ‘Take a seat, George’, Janet said. Also present was the HR director. Immediately George sensed a colder and more serious ‘vibe’ compared to last time they met. George sensed that the feedback would be harsh.
‘You see, George,’ Janet began, ‘the problem is that you haven’t performed as well as we expected’. Janet continued: ‘Obviously the potential is there, but we don’t think you’ve performed at a level needed to get on the bonus system, so we’ll re-evaluate your performance again in three months and make a decision then.’
George was confused; his thoughts began to race. Potential? His mind flashed back to the meeting three months earlier, when Janet had remarked: ‘You’re exactly the sort of person we’re looking for!’ Moreover, the HR director had clearly said that everyone gets onto the bonus system after three months.
‘Any questions, George?’ asked the HR director. George suddenly realised he had not been listening for a while, but his mind was already made up. That night he began sending out job applications. He also emailed Janet with a request to meet at 11 am the following morning.