We Get Older but We Don’t Grow Up: Classroom or Boardroom, the song remains the same

One of the things that seems to hold true for any era is that kids cannot wait to grow up. “When I’m an adult, I’ll…” insert various pipedream-type predictions that afflict the adolescent and teenage brain. We all did it. We just knew that once we were beyond the confines of the authority figures in our lives that everything would be so much simpler to do and understand.

What a fabulous joke! Am I right? Once the promised land of adulthood was reached, we found that now there is a whole new roster of authority figures laying down laws, restrictions, rules, and consequences. Now, the refrain is more likely “when I am the boss…” or possibly “when I am in charge…” Oh my dears. That is the best joke of all. No matter where the buck stops, someone always has the whip hand over us. It isn’t a bad thing, really. It is more a system of checks and balances. Even the tippity-top of the echelons of business, higher learning, government, or any other field for that matter has to answer to someone. If it isn’t the next guy (or gal, can’t let the boys have all the fun) higher on the ladder, it is the customer. No matter where you go, that cycle of accountability continues.

The other patterns that continue? The same ones we saw in the days gone by through adolescent angst and teen drama in the halls of junior high and high school. Yes, my friends, I am talking about the cliques, labels, and melodrama that soaks the very walls of Ridgemont, Rydell, or West Beverly. You have your mean girls, jocks, geeks, freaks, weirdos (sometimes the last three roll into the same clique), brainies, bullies, richies, slags, sluts, stoners, punks, and untouchables. Doesn’t matter where you went or what your nomenclature, you know who I’m talking about. And for the most part, we were all so very grateful to leave that world behind with the savagery and struggle to find our own place. In truth, even the popular kids were mostly glad to get away and, for those who pursued higher learning, get a new identity away from the mold they had been congealed in during their formative years.

Oh, but the tragedy! When we reached the pinnacle of our maturation and enter the workforce, what do we find? Ah yes, there they are: The mean girls, the bullies, the partiers, the invisibles, and the brainies… and yes, the freaks, geeks, and weirdos (but that is mostly in the IT department…what?!? I’m kidding, sorta). They are all there. They travel the halls and cubical pathways. All that is missing is the lockers. Granted, the behaviors have changed a little. Rarely do you see an office bully shove someone in a locker. Though, I suppose it could happen. Mostly the behaviors have taken on a thin veneer of professionalism and maturity to gloss over those savage instincts that cannot quite be put to rest. But there is a twist to this tale…

While some of our high school beauty queens and class presidents maintain their identities and personae throughout their lives (and not all of the stereotypes are such bad sorts), one of the most interesting developments in human social structure appears to be a reversal of roles upon entering the “adult” work place. The statement has been attributed to Bill Gates, but I cannot really verify through trustworthy sources that he said it. “Be nice to the geeks, because you will probably be working for one.” This is given as a warning upon graduation that the tables can turn for the bullies and they may find themselves having to kiss up to the person whose head they shoved in the toilet… or better yet, they may have to ask, nay beg for a job.

But we are adults! I can hear you, you know. And I agree, wholeheartedly. We are… chronologically. Grudges run deep, and grudges run long. Charity and forgiveness are virtues, but not always easy to embrace after memorizing every scratch, dint, and piece of gum stuck to the inside of the locker while waiting for someone to let you out.

So, we find ourselves in the corporate workspace, in a corporate culture. Look around. If you have been working in the environment and with a particular group for a while, you can probably identify all of the stereotypes easily enough. The bullies may have been the geeks when they were younger, but if they have chosen to identify with the aggressor, they can come up with torturous misery that their high school counterparts could not even begin to consider. They won’t give you a swirly or a wedgie, but by heaven, they will make your life a living hell in the office with sabotage, humiliation, and drudgery. The mean girls may have been the wallflowers in school, but they have mastered the act of shunning in the cubical farm. Designing silences to make any statement or contribution to conversation echo resoundingly as a social brick is an art, and forgetting to invite someone to lunch with the group… just a mere oversight, right? Gossip and whispered conversations that end when someone else walks by or the old divide and conquer with the “Do you know what I heard so-and-so say about you?” is the mean girl power play. If you are lucky, you may have been a neutral. Switzerland was always a safe place to be in high school, and it serves pretty well in corporate land as well, but there is still a threat of being pulled into the tempest of drama as a ship sailing round Charybdis.

It is truly hard to resist the pull of that clique and role-based melodrama. Even the most professional person can oft find themselves tempted to participate in the office gossip or to side with the powerful cliques to ensure their own safety. Sometimes, it is easier to slide into familiarity of a role, even when it is not good for you, or worse, actually bad for you. Good managers and management teams can influence a culture of professionalism that will stifle the tendrils of the clique-mongers and put the kibosh on any attempts to stir up the negativity. However, managers are human, and not all of them are immune to the pull. Traits that should and can guard against the pitfalls of repeating history: Ethical behavior, true maturity, and professionalism. Not everyone has these. Shocker! No, seriously, sometimes these aspects of adulthood are not so common as they might be… as they ought to be. I wish adulthood and education could impart some sense of maturity into each person who is granted passage into the world of occupation and gainful employment (because all the drama wastes a lot of time and productivity), but that’s not how it works. As far as I can tell, each individual has to get to know or develop their own core of integrity that defines their identity and provides a foundation for self-esteem based on genuine accomplishment. Accomplishment doesn’t have to be publically recognized, or even acknowledged in any way. It should be something that you sense within yourself. When you have that, it is a lot easier to resist the machinations of those stuck in the perpetual high school hallway, reliving their glory days (or more likely revenging their not-so-glorious days).

One good thing about the corporate and professional environment is that most adults (even the ones caught up in the drama) frown on overtly aggressive behavior. So, it is very unlikely that anyone will shove you in a file cabinet or flush your head in the toilet if you resist temptation and go against the corporate cliques. Eventually, even the passive aggressive post-it notes and emails will not be sufficient to vent the vindictive spleen, but they dare not be more blatant. Human resources and upper management take a dim view of behaviors that create toxic work environments, intentional or not. Once you step outside the bubble of the conjured adolescence where the mean girl or bully has tried to make you revisit, you will find that they really do not have all that much power to impact your life. Do what is right, embrace truth, and practice professionalism, and the denizens of the workplace clique-regime will not have power. High school was an ok time for the majority of people, but no one should want to stay there in perpetuity. We all need to grow up and graduate eventually. Welcome to adulthood!

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