Know your enemy and know yourself
and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I fight fuckery and build belonging for a living. If you’d like less of the former and more of the latter, read on. It doesn’t matter if you’re pitching a product or selling a service: fuckery divides.
I used to trip over phrases like “trust-eroding behaviors.” One evaluation I received after an office training I led said, “Your information is useful, but I find the term ‘trust-eroding behaviors’ confusing and jargon-y.” I agree. What a wordy way to describe habits we know are far more damaging than that polite phrase would lead us to believe. Now, when I’m invited to talk to companies, I walk into a room, acknowledge the gutsy leader who invited me, and say, “I’m here to talk about fuckery. It’s hurting your team and the success of your business.”
At the beginning of a fuckery seminar I ask groups to recall being on a high-performing team. I give them five minutes to write answers to these questions:
- How would you describe that team in a few words or phrases?
- What did it feel like to be on that team?
- How was trust enhanced on that team?
- What does the word “belonging” mean to you?
It doesn’t matter if I’m in a room full of engineers or human service professionals: strong teams have universal characteristics and are described in similar ways. These teams are “energizing” and “fun.” Phrases like “I’ve got you, babe” and “Got your back” fill the whiteboard, along with “clear goals,” “loyalty,” and “navigating hardship.” Trust is the linchpin to success.
Fuckery divides high-performing teams. It wears a lot of faces: Stealing Credit. The Silent Treatment. Cornering. Complaining.
How do we know thee, fuckery? Let us count the ways:
Todd’s boss kept the team late one Friday without warning. By late, I mean the weekly staff meeting was at 9:00 a.m., and they weren’t released until after midnight. Holding people hostage in a conference room? Fuckery.
The human resources department lost the trust of employees at Maria’s company. People knew information would be leaked to the CEO rather than being held in confidence and used HR to hurt others. Gossiping? Fuckery.
Annie was committed to the mission of her company, which served the community. She was equally committed, however, to everyone getting along. Annie buried alternative ideas to prevent disagreement. Everyone hid their feelings beneath a smile and simmered their resentment to a boil. Avoiding Conflict? Fuckery.
“We should hang a sign on the side of the building that says, ‘We Hire Stupid People,’” Roger criticized, storming out of the conference room. Belittling Coworkers? Fuckery.
Have you watched a superior ignore a serious problem you brought to his attention? Had a colleague you just couldn’t trust? Felt the tension grow so thick in your office that people stopped talking to each other, let alone cooperating? Fuckery.
Fuckery is any behavior that puts integrity and trustworthiness on the line. This emotional sludge robs us of sleep and throws off our focus. It’s an enormous distraction and kills productivity. Left unchecked, it breeds, leaving us divided or isolated, unable to see a way through. Damaged trust destroys relationships, interferes with business objectives, and voids motivation.
We know prolonged exposure to toxins is dangerous. Think Chernobyl or Erin Brockovich. People worry about radon in their homes, GMOs in their food, and fluoride in their water. Fuckery, left unattended, is an invasive species like Scotch broom, a noxious weed that takes over a native habitat and displaces the beneficial plants—in this case, talent and morale. You can’t wish it away. You need a shovel and shears. That “shovel” is a working definition:
fuckery = habits that damage trust
There are slews of habits that damage trust, interfering with the relationships and respect needed for winning teams. Pouting and Pitting. Smooth-Talking. Ass-Kissing. Sexual or Racial Slurs. Frequency, versatility, and amplitude vary by person, organization, and company. The possibilities are endless.
There are the coworkers who seem to push your buttons for no reason. They live to provoke, relishing the chaos. We know the drama-seekers as well as the colleagues who don’t return calls or e-mails, or who are habitually late to meetings. Fuckery is versatile.
The greatest practitioners take a while to reveal themselves. Fuckery is behind that sense in your gut that’s hard to put your finger on—the way some people just leave you unsettled, even if you can’t immediately explain why. Think of this as social radar that scans for trustworthiness, sounding off an internal alarm when danger’s close. “Are you paying attention?” it asks.
If you’re on a team with high levels of fuckery, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t be tempted to point fingers. Self-Righteousness is a form of fuckery, too. Like other patterns of behavior, fuckery gets wired into our drop-down menu of coping responses. Programmed for survival, we look out for ourselves unless we consciously choose to override our fight-or-flight system. Yes, even You, the quiet, humble one—or You, the respectful, friendly one.
We’re not limiting fuckery to Machiavellian tendencies. Being duplicitous and manipulative for personal gain certainly qualifies, but so does the unconscious avoidance of hard conversations. Or when someone incessantly finds fault with people. We can stab someone in the back or fail to stand up for them. I may bite my tongue and control my anger, but my resentment may seep out in the form of Procrastination.
Good intentions matter, but they aren’t always relevant. “Bad decisions made with good intentions, are still bad decisions,” cautions business consultant Jim Collins. That holds true for our habits too. I don’t intend to be Excluding. I rarely wish to harm people with my words or leave colleagues feeling overlooked. My intentions are good, but they can be lost in translation.
The leaders I coach, by and large, have good intentions. We can’t always see how our actions, or inactions, have unintended consequences that harm trust. Fuckery’s sneaky. For example:
- Billy was quick with praise and generous with his compliments—to a fault. His commendations came so regularly that he appeared Insincere.
- Jessie’s humor was helpful in building relationships and putting others at ease, but her overuse of it created the perception that she was Flippant and Superficial.
- Karl was wildly curious and capable of extreme focus. However, this intensity was off-putting for people on his team, who perceived him as Invading and Mistrusting.
In short, fuckery is a chameleon, hiding even in our strengths.
Fighting Fuckery 101
Fuckery, like Bullying, won’t disappear unless it’s directly challenged. Demoting Mr. Problem Employee into someone else’s organization just makes his fuckery someone else’s problem. Sanctioning fuckery by willfully ignoring it is a surefire way to drive your business off a cliff. You can seduce yourself into short-term gains and avoid some immediate pains, but you’re only postponing the inevitable.
Leaders don’t ignore fuckery. That’s the first step.
Describing the problem is part of identification. Learn as much as you can about fuckery. Get curious. Gather comprehensive information. Look for patterns.
How do we do that? Ask questions in an inquisitive—but not in an interrogative, bare-lightbulb-in-a-windowless-room way. Such questions are phrased to get a better sense of understanding, not to judge. (Curiosity and judgment cannot cohabitate.)
These will get you moving:
- Why is fuckery occurring?
- What form is it taking?
- How am I contributing to it?
- When does it happen?
- What makes it worse?
- What shrinks it?
There’s no silver bullet or magic recipe to reduce fuckery. There is, however, a great cost to pretending it’s not there. Look in the mirror. Do the work. Ask the questions.
The above is an excerpt from Fuckery, published in 2016.