The Whistle (Still) Doesn’t Drive the Train.

I was in a meeting for safety training on a large construction project.  My colleagues had sent in a proposal and I was representing them in the meeting. All their ideas were quickly dismissed by a very rude and arrogant young woman as being ‘too old’.  ‘But I wasn’t even born then!’ she pouted, as we ran through some tried and true methods for behavior change. They’d done this work more than a few times.  One colleague said later, “You know, I think Mozart was before my time too, but I can still appreciate his value.”

This prompted me to look at her Linked In profile, and I don’t know why I was surprised. She described herself, several times, as having superior interpersonal skills. No-one had ever told her, that if you truly possessed superior interpersonal skills, then you would not say this about yourself. More to the point, she was deluded. Good listening, manners and respect for proven experience are some of the signs of superior interpersonal skills. The rest of her profile was also wildly exaggerated, with claims of being able to transform organisations and being able to influence at the strategic level.  Oh really! In your mid twenties? I started to worry about the link between her grandiose delusions and her ability to scupper the real work that needed to be carried out. Who put her in that position?   

But back to the subject of modesty, what happened to letting others say good things about us? What is this working world we live in, where the creation of a false self has become normalized and we don’t call it out? Is it all down to Narcissism? Dr Craig Malkin of Harvard Medical School puts a significant rise in narcissism down to childhood insecurities and says the creation of a false self is used to feel connected and gain a sense of belonging. A US study of 37,000 college students showed that narcissistic personality traits have risen just as quickly as obesity since the 1980’s. Much of the blame is being given to social media, since these platforms enable us to create a rose-tinted view of ourselves without any kind of check.

My fear is that bragging and blatant lying on CVs, is being reinforced with successful outcomes.  An older friend, who is searching for work, has found that using the word ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’ about herself, is suddenly showing better results in obtaining interviews.  She loathes having to do this but it’s the only way to get through the e-recruitment systems. She needs a job. I have no fear that she will turn into a monster, but we both wonder what this is doing to younger people in the long run. If the opportunity gate only swings open for the boasters, while the modest and honest are sidelined, what happens to the culture of the workplace? What message is sent to those who are honest?   

I cringed when I heard a younger person, with no work experience at all, being advised to ‘sell the sizzle and not the steak’ on their job applications. He got his foot in the door, but it turned out that the steak was fairly important. He went into a role he was horribly unqualified to perform, and surprise, surprise, he lost it. Substance usually matters. Now this boy is confused and is carrying around, unnecessarily, a sense of failure.       

I was advised early in my career, that it was vain to call oneself an expert or use qualifications after my name unless I was in Academia. I was advised that you should never hang your degree on a wall unless you were a medical professional. I’m afraid the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to this sort of restraint. And in the world of photo-shopped selfies, I don’t even know what happened to the word ‘vain’.

I recently spotted a girl I once worked with, using the title, ‘HR Magician’ about herself. She was an admin clerk a few short years before.  Another gave himself the title of ‘Leadership Alchemist.’ I have lost count of the visionaries, thought leaders and gurus I have seen or of the self-employed people who have called themselves the Founders or CEOs of their sole trader freelance careers.  

I’m afraid I will always struggle with someone who calls themselves a guru or a transformational change expert.  How often do you think people can truly claim to have transformed an organisation? And if they had that track record, I sincerely doubt that they’d post it on Linked In. Same goes for the Vision Shapers, Culture Whisperers, Narrative Strategists, Soulpreneurs, and the Imagineers. I have no words to say about the recent spotting of the Delivery Thought Leader. 

Lucy Kellaway, from the UK’s Financial Times, wrote about one Steve Burda, who became the most connected man on Linked In for 2013. Steve wrote, ‘I move mountains. One day I’ll take over the world. Nothing is impossible for me.’ I wonder if people connected with Steve out of admiration or train wreck fascination. She also noted a senior banker at Lloyds calling himself a ‘shaper planter with strong adaptive dealer behaviours.’  I’d be pulling my money away from his management in a hurry.  

In contrast, Bill Gates called himself (on Linked In) Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Chairman Microsoft Corporation. Voracious Reader. Avid Traveller. Avid Blogger. Now here is a man who could actually call himself a visionary and a thought leader, but he really doesn’t need to.

And as a prohibition gangster once said, “being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to say you are – you ain’t.”

8 thoughts on “The Whistle (Still) Doesn’t Drive the Train.”

  1. Great Article – reinforces my view that the biggest “crisis ” evolving now is an “Expectation Crisis” ! People’s expectations of themselves , governments and the like need a reality check

  2. Cheryl – you have completely nailed it. You are a guru. Just kidding. But I really enjoy your clear take on all the BS.

  3. Quite agree, Colin. Recent story on the news of article on the news about health and ageing and one ‘expert’ said ‘what we have to do is provide more opportunities for people to exercise.’ Really? Who is the we? Is that the good old taxpayer again? Why is it that individuals are not responsible for their own exercise? C

  4. I can appreciate the difficulty of making your cv jump out from a pile. As a recruiter I would always look for something a bit unusual about what people say they have done not what superb attributes they claim to have. These topics may not be anything to do with the potential work and I would ask them about this in detail in an interview. An interesting conversation would usually follow and it would be a good way to put the interviewee at ease.

    Having got a job I have found you need to take opportunities to be seen by senior people other than your direct manager, because you may need to move departments or projects to make progress. If you are good, your manager is going to want to keep you supporting them so you might need to facilitate your own transfer. Obviously you need to be seen to be delivering something of value not just posing.

    If you want to be part of an effective team then you need to be respected for your contribution so avoid boasting and arrogance because that is a quick way to become very unpopular and if you trip up don’t expect help.

  5. Loved this blog Cheryl you are right in so many ways. It certainly is scary when you think about!!!
    Thanks for sharing 👏👏

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