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Lurking in the Shadows

DaIn my previous post, the issue was raised about people not staying around an employer long enough to learn the ins and outs of office politics, corporate culture, and teamwork.  Telling these people to "slow down and stick it out" probably won't solve the problem, as company loyalty is no longer valued as strongly as it once was.  As a consultant, I've had to become very sensitive to the "quick ramp up" issue also, as every few months brings about a new project, a new team, a new department, and a new company.

When I taught the MBA class on Creativity in Business last fall, John agreed to come and be one of my guest speakers.  John is not an artist (at least not in the pure sense of the word), nor is he being written up in magazines for entrepreneurial brilliance (although he possesses it).  John is a police investigator.  He was the chief investigator for one of central Iowa's most brutal and notorial serial killer cases ever (and yes, he got his man put behind bars).  In twelve years of teaching, John is the only guest speaker who's kept my class (and me) captivated for 100 minutes straight... no breaks.  In listening to him speak about how he cracked the case, I learned a few things about ramping up quickly in a new (and sometimes hostile) environment.  We'll call them the ABCs of Acclimation.

Atmosphere - the serial killer's second victim was John's first introduction to his new case.  He described how - when he first arrived at the scene - he sat in the doorway of the hotel room where the body was found.  For 45 minutes, all he did was sit and observe.  And how that initial, quiet observation yielded many clues that became vital in cracking the case.  When some people arrive in a new environment, they start off like a bulldozer in heat, making a very loud first impression.  Sometimes, it's important to just quietly observe the atmosphere.  Who appears to have the power in the office?  Who talks with whom?  What is the anxiety level?  Are people collaborative or individualistic?  Surveying the landscape before you engage can mean the difference between successful and unsuccessful political maneuvering later.

Behavior - Because John came into the investigation in the middle, there were other police officers who were already vested in the case, and were not thrilled that he was involved.  One other thing about John that you must know is that he is a master interrogator.  His questions are directed with laser-accuracy and each one carries the informational weight of an atomic bomb.  Through asking a few simple questions, he could easily determine which police officers would be the most challenging.  When arriving into a new department or new company, it's always wise to ask more questions of people than you tell them information.  "How long have you worked in the department?" and "What are some things you wish you'd known on your first day?" can be helpful at obtaining information about the person with whom you are talking and also about others in the department.  Another key factor is body language.  Eye contact, folded arms and legs, body posturing, and proximity all carry information about other people.  Use this information wisely.

Carrots - OK, this one is a stretch, but everybody is motivated by something (whether they admit it or not).  In John's case, he mentioned that every serial killer is motivated to act by some trigger, a person or an event which pushes them to kill.  Every serial killer also generally leaves some kind of calling card, generally motivated by ego, a signal that says, "Yeah, this was me again... I did it and got away with it."  Those two points of motivation led him eventually to the killer.  While we may not have serial killers lurking in our corporate hallways, people's actions are motivated by something buried deep in their value systems (ask Mel Gibson about that, given his recent DUI rantings).  Additionally, people also leave their calling cards - their personal brands - on almost every transaction.  Knowing these motivations can provide much needed information when you are quickly trying to learn the ropes of a department or a company.

Differentiation - John showed my class actual crime scene photos and then asked the class what they saw.  The students would answer through their perceptual filters, ascribing more to the photo than what was actually there.  In a fit of pure passion, John would yell, "No!  You're making assumptions!  When I assume things, killers go free and innocent people die.  Now... again... what do you SEE???"  In a little over an hour and a half, he taught them the most valuable lesson of all:  differentiating fact from assumption.  We do that a lot in our professional exchanges, don't we?  We think we see something based on our perceptual filters, when actually we're just making assumptions.  Try people watching at a mall or airport sometime and make a note of what facts you can observe about a person first... then try to figure out what logical assumptions can be drawn based on those facts.  The results might surprise you.

While there is no substitute for the investment of time to build relationships and cultivate trust and learn the environment, if you absolutely must ramp up quickly on corporate culture and office politics, lessons from a serial killer investigator can help you move more nimbly at acclimating yourself into a new workplace.


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Steve Farber

Wow. That's a great essay, Tim. Yeah, "carrot" may be a bit of a stretch, but it works by your acknowledging that. I think there's a book in here.

Diana Lindstrom

Timothy - Great insights for a strategy to become successful in a new environment. The first step of sitting back and observing is very important.


EM Sky

Gripping post, Tim! Love the bit about assumptions. My favorite assumption story recently... I'm talking to HR about a trade show, and the HR rep says I might have to drive.

"How far is it?" I ask.

"6 hours," she says.

"6 hours?" I say, my tone rising.

"I know," she says, "I'd be upset too."

"No, no," I say, "I'm not upset at all! I was just surprised because I thought it was farther than that. I'd love to drive if it's that close!"

"Well, I'll try to get you a flight," she says. "You shouldn't have to drive that far."

"No, really. Thank you, but I'd really much rather drive."

"I'll call the regional director and see what I can do for you," she says.

"No, please," I say, getting desperate. "You misunderstood me. You heard my tone and you thought I was upset, but it was just the opposite. It was surprise at how close it actually is. 6 hours is nothing. I'd much rather drive than fly if it's that close. Please don't get me a ticket."

"Ok," she says, "if you're sure."

"I'm sure. Thanks. It will be nice to have my car there, and I'll really enjoy the trip."

Half an hour later she calls again. "Good news!" she says. "I got you a ticket!"

"What???" I exclaim. "No, I didn't want a ticket! I wanted to drive!"

"Well," she says, "if that's what you wanted, you should have said something."

Timothy Johnson

Steve - thanks for weighing in... I won't promise a book, but this isn't the last you will have heard from John

Diana - welcome to the conversation! Always great to hear new thoughts and opinioins

EM - I am going to be laughing about that story for days to come... you've GOT TO post that on your blog... it's too priceless not to share

Lucia Mancuso

This is the winner Tom. Best post yet! I loved it and almost passed over it - so glad my instincts kicked in. A great post is like a drug to me.

I can definitely say from experience that I've gone into a new environment as a strong force and an observer - from my experience - I now only go in as an observer - it is not going into new jobs anymore but it still works going into meetings with my staff, clients offices, et al.

At times I worry - do poeple think I have nothing to say, that I don't understand what is going on etc.. etc... but that all changes when I prove to them after my observation that I got it, I took it, I ran with at and gave them more then they expected.

I can be apretty social person, and learning to take a back seat and observe was one of my biggest life challenges - but worth every torturous moment.


I thought this was a terrific post! The "ABC's of Acclimination" are great tips, easy to understand and to implement. I agree with you that many people don't remain with employers long enought to learn the in's and out's of corporate culture.

Timothy Johnson

Lucia - your commentary is spot on; the value you find in my posts continues to inspire me

Bill - yes, the tenure in most organizations is becoming somewhat bi-modal... people are either there for a very short time or in it for the long haul... either one can be fatal to a career if mismanaged.

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