Is Protecting Your Image at Work a Full-Time Job? Here's a Radical Office Rethink

Just about everyone engages in office gossip, or at least entertains those who do. Yet we all recognize gossiping as unprofessional behavior. Something's deeply wrong at work, says Robert Kegan.

Robert Kegan:  A deliberately development organization is first of all a mouthful. So we call it a DDO for short. And it’s sort of an answer to the question if an organization is so valued developing the capabilities of its people that it would want to create a culture that could immersively gather every member of that culture into an ongoing developmental personal kind of learning journey what would that culture look like? What would such an organization look like? And that’s what we set out to discover and, you know, in the process what we learned is that in the ordinary organization most people are doing a second job that nobody’s paying them for and that second job has to do with looking good, hiding their weaknesses, covering their inadequacies, managing other people’s favorable impressions of them. And you can say that’s human nature but it also turns out to be incredibly costly in ways that we don’t think enough about. If I keep hiding my weaknesses the likelihood that I’m going to overcome them shrinks to near zero and the organization has to keep essentially paying for the consequences of my limitations. And they’re paying me full time salary for part time work. So imagine an organization where people would feel safe enough that they would kind of consider they were hired not because anybody thought they were perfect but because people thought they were good and that they could learn.

And that one of their jobs there is to learn. And where you get actually supported for, you know, revealing your mistakes and you could say that there’s kind of an entrepreneurial stance toward people development, you know. The watch word of entrepreneurialism is not to avoid failure but to fail frequently and to fail fast and to fail forward. So imagine a culture where people were encouraged to do that so that they would keep learning and getting better and then you would be imagining a DDO, a deliberately developmental organization.

I think another really important feature of these cultures that anyone would quickly notice if you spent a little time in them is a kind of transparency. A way in which people and often the way they’ll say it is I am who I am at work. In other words they’re not living a divided life. This is what we mean by this notion that in ordinary organizations we’re all doing a second job. We’re trying to look good. We’re always trying to kind of be at our best. In these organizations that quickly gets seen as a way of essentially avoiding one of the most precious and valuable things that the culture has to offer you which is the opportunity to just be the same person at work that you are when you’re not at work. And that means, you know, the good, the bad and what you might think is the ugly. Bridgewater talks about this as radical transparency and that means that in the ordinary organization everybody agrees it’s unprofessional to talk critically about people behind their backs and everybody participates in it. And some of you listening right now are thinking I don’t do that. Okay, you may not be a speaker but I bet you’ve been a listener to such communications and you didn’t say to the other person I think it’s unprofessional and wrong for you to be talking about Ralph to me behind his back. So one way or the other passively or actively we have all participated in what we know to be unprofessional behavior.

In Bridgewater there is no back to be behind. Why? Because hold on to your hats. In every office and in every meeting room there is tape recording equipment and every conversation is being tape recorded. Not in a creepy NSA kind of way but if I’m having a conversation, if you report to me and I’m having a conversation about you with my boss and you’re not in the room. So I’ve now been talking about you. You don’t have to ferret through 400 tapes and see if somebody mentioned your name. I have an obligation to send you an email and let you know you were discussed in this meeting at such and such a time on such and such a day. Feel free if you want to listen to the tape. So there’s absolutely – I know it drives people, you know, people get very struck by this but it’s just one of a number of features that quickly give you the sense. We’re talking about a whole different way of being at work.

Managing your professional image at work shouldn't be a full-time job. And if it is, you're either not getting paid for working two jobs, or your company is losing a lot of productivity. According to Robert Kegan, adult developmental psychologist at Harvard University, and author of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, much of image management comes down to combatting office gossip.


Just about everyone engages in office gossip, or at least entertains those who do. Yet we all recognize gossiping as unprofessional behavior. In fact, part of managing your perception at the office may be allowing gossip to occur (lest you be seen as overly righteous). Kegan says there's a radical solution to so much wasted time and effort, not to mention negative emotion.

Imagine if every room in your workplace had a tape recorder, and that each time a person's name was mentioned, they would receive an email if they were not present for the conversation. Not a transcript, just a notification that they were brought up, and because they weren't present, didn't have a chance to respond.

That's probably giving you an uncomfortable feeling, but companies that do implement this kind of radical transparency see positive returns, says Kegan.

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