Corporate Martyrs and the Favor Bank

I just read "The Plight of the Corporate Martyr" on the Huffington Post. Russ Edelman, author of Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office, writes about how "overly nice guys" (his term, not mine) need to be managed. Interesting idea, but then his example is not one that I’ve ever actually seen:   

Eric was a brilliant technical architect who was participating on a proposal team for a huge deal. Prior to "The Big Presentation", he came up with a brilliant idea. He would print out a giant diagram of the system design, which could then be proudly displayed during the presentation and left as a prominent artifact for the prospect. To do so, Eric ran down to the local Kinko’s to print out the drawing on their large format printer. Upon arriving, he found that the printer was broken. They recommended that he could drive 10 miles to the next Kinko’s to use their functioning printer. Not Eric. As a self-admitted overly nice guy, he ended up working through the night at Kinko’s to help them fix their printer.

When I read the term "corporate martyr" I thought instead of people who do favors for people like putting deposits into a corporate politics bank.

I worked as a consultant to a manager who was known throughout his company as a nice guy who would always go out of his way to help out a co-worker. I think he was just a genuinely nice guy, but as I watched over several years I saw that he was also a master of corporate politics, whose accumulated asset of favors done for co-workers through the years made him very effective and very powerful. One time in particular, when he was sure he was going to be fired as a scapegoat for a project failure, his asset bank of favors owed saved him. He ended up horizontally promoted, instead of fired.

He was so good at this that even 15-20 years later, if I add that this person was a manager at Apple Computer, half the people who were in Apple’s international groups during those times know exactly who I mean.

The end result was something like the power of Don Corleone in the Godfather, or what I’ve been told was the power of LBJ in the late 1950s Senate. Hardly martyrdom, although it might have seemed like that when it showed up one favor at a time. And in this case it was a matter of instinct, and it worked.

Russ says these people need to be managed:

Overly nice guys don’t establish reasonable boundaries in this respect and it ends up hurting them as well as their organizations. In this regard, business managers should be on the watch for acts of corporate martyrdom. If overly nice guys demonstrate such over-the-top behavior, the boss can set guidelines to help protect against too much self-sacrifice. To aid in this effort, steps can be taken such as defining thresholds, which may be caused by corporate martyrdom. For example, in Eric’s case, the team leader might define very specific boundaries regarding how intense the team members get when trying to "wow" clients. In professions that work in billable hours (like law), companies can impose limits to prevent workers from overextending themselves and burning out. Every company and its managers need to identify what types of boundaries need to be defined to help out the overly nice guys within their organization.

I think he’s just got the wrong example, an exception rather than the rule. Helping a co-worker in a jam is a good idea in general, and, if you feel cynical, a pretty good career move most of the time.

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