The business workplace, no less than the most remote Stone Age society, presents incredible opportunities for the junior anthropologist. A budding Margaret Mead can, without much effort, fill notebooks with details on the strange habits, rituals, and norms in the typical business ecosystem.
There's the jargon:
• "Let's put the pedal to the metal."
• "We're gonna storm the beaches."
• "Kick *ss and take names."
• "We'll focus on blocking and tackling."
• "Let's pull the trigger on this deal."
• "This is where the rubber meets the road."
And so on.
For the corporate newcomer, it isn't always clear whether these conversations are related to a business enterprise, a sports arena, a military operation, the shooting range, or an auto race. It, doesn't really matter, because the same air of frenzied competition holds sway in all of them. Then there's the assumed air of urgency, the one that causes air travelers to smirk when they overhear an oh-so-intense seatmate screaming into his or her cell phone, "Don't you understand? This matter is critical!"
The anthropologist eventually discovers that "critical" in the business world means "my boss is waiting for something," whereas "critical" in real life means that your house is on fire. Among the anthropologically intriguing behaviors in the average workplace, there's one that stands out --- the so-awful-it's-impossible-to-look-away behavior called the Battle of the Bios. No great-ape display in the wild can match the chest-beating that goes on when this starts.
You can't always see a bio battle brewing. One moment, the conversation is calm and convivial. Then, someone gets challenged, someone gets mad, and suddenly the hooves are pawing and the dust is swirling.
"What do you mean, it's a weak proposal?" says one combatant. "I happen to have 20 years of experience in this area." "Twenty years? I have 25 years of experience, with excellent firms!" says the other.
Oh my. Here it comes.
A battle of the bios is transfixing because it's so primal. It's immediately evident that the battle is not about finding the right tagline, or the best combination of colors for the logo. It's a pure display of ego and manly (or womanly -- and believe me, those fights get ugly) pride, and alarming for the speed with which Bio Battlers can descend from civil conversation to nearly lethal blows.
"Twenty years experience? Or maybe one year's experience, repeated 20 times?" comes the counter-offensive.
"Should we even talk about the places where you worked? Are any of them still in business?" Ouch! Here comes the defender's block, and the wounded party staggers. Welcome to Painville -- population: you.
"I'm trying to remember where you got that cut-rate MBA, Johnson -- couldn't hack the GMAT, or what?" and on it goes.
Bio-battling is entertaining to watch, and as a learning experience, there's none better. It's something else, too, and I'm searching for the word....oh, yes: it's pathetic.
It's sad and humiliating to have to stoop to brandishing your credentials in what's supposed to be an intellectual discussion about business ideas. It's truly lame, and suitable only for the same kinds of businesspeople who say, "Well, you know, it's impossible to get in to see this guy, but I went to school with a guy who knows a guy, and so we've got an appointment."
Once a bio battle starts, it becomes a kind of vortex. It's hard not to jump right in. After all, when someone challenges your credentials, don't you have to fight back?
No way. Your ability to steer clear of the brawl is a mark of your professionalism and maturity. It's helpful to keep in mind a key point: your background, as it turns out, has absolutely no relationship to the question of whether your position today is right or wrong. None whatsoever. The best idea may come from the youngest member of the team (and very often does).
HOW TO DETACH.
Stooping to touting your credentials is a sure sign that you've already lost the argument. "
Challenge me, will you?" is the message behind bio-battling. It's unseemly, and it beneath you -- so don't do it. The next time a colleague trots out a list of credentials, don't jump into the ring and embarrass yourself. Rather, elevate the conversation to the subject at hand. Here's how:
Colleague: "Jones, you know absolutely nothing about branding. I've been doing this for 15 years."
You: "That's tremendous. Let's focus on the question of the brochure layout. Tell me what about it isn't working for you."
You can keep a meeting from descending into barbarism if you keep the conversation focused on the issues, not the curriculum vitae of the participants.
The most intriguing aspect of a bio battle, anthropologically speaking, is that it alerts you to activity in the limbic nerve of one of your co-workers. I'm talking about the person who jumps into battle mode first. In other words, something that was said by someone else caused one of your co-workers to experience a fight-or-flight reaction (that's the one that happens in the limbic nerve, the pre-intellectual, reptilian part of your brain) -- and the bio battle is the result. You can't exactly get up and flee the meeting, so you stay and fight.
I saw this once when I was sitting in on a post-merger integration summit. This was a large off-site meeting with the purpose of deciding how to combine the two companies' manufacturing organizations. Both leadership teams were assembled (on opposite sides of the room) to hammer out the plan. The outcome of this meeting would determine whether many of the folks in the room -- as well as their staffs -- would keep their jobs. You could say it was tense.
My husband, a dedicated South Side Chicago non-business guy, had a refreshing perspective on this meeting as he helped me pack my bag for the trip. "So these guys know that some of them will win, and some will lose, and a lot of people on one side or the other will be out of work, but they're not talking about that," he said. "Right," I said. "That's called the Subtext. Since these are all professional business people, they have vowed to find the Right Decision for the Company, individuals and massive teams and budgets and egos be damned. The idea is that no one is supposed to care about the outcome, apart from whether it's Right for the Company or not." "Got it," said my husband. "That sounds promising."
So off I went to the meeting. I spotted trouble right away, in the form of the youngest and greenest facilitator from a blue-chip strategy firm I had ever laid eyes on. I swear the man was 22 years old. He was in charge of the meeting, and not exactly commanding the room.
After an hour or two, one of the manufacturing leaders asked for my help. "Liz, you have dealt with this issue before," he said. "Put up that centralization-decentralization model that you always trot out in these situations." I drew a model on the whiteboard: Dave Ulrich's well-known model. Ulrich, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, writes and talks about this stuff all the time. Every HR person knows his work.
Well, the young man facilitating did not know it. But that was okay -- a model on a whiteboard can help in a tense situation, because we can speak to the model and not so directly speak about each other's teams. But the young facilitator was not happy to be upstaged.
He picked up his whiteboard eraser, and he erased the model that we were discussing. He said, "I would like you to know that I have five years of experience in this area!" Forget the fact that his statement was thunderingly irrelevant and that everyone else in the room had 20 years of experience, or more. It was just sad. Looking back, I feel bad about what I said next. "I don't doubt that you have," I said. "It's a shame that it's not in evidence today."
STAY ON THE SIDELINES.
I will spend an eon or two in purgatory for that, but it was worth it that day. Just remember one thing about the Bio Battle: it's the kind of conflict where there are no winners. So don't join in. But do pay close attention, because I'll be quizzing you on this topic on your Workplace Anthropology midterm.
You've got to hand it to the white-collar workplace -- it's not always fun, but it's never dull. Just keep a safe distance and resolve never, never, never to be the person in that ring yourself.