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

I encountered a young woman with a staggering level of arrogance a few years ago. My colleagues had sent in a proposal for some consulting work, and I was representing them in a meeting. All their ideas were dismissed by the young woman as being too old.  ‘But I wasn’t even born then!’ she said, as we ran through a plan for some work that was based on tried and true methods of behavior change. My colleagues were very experienced consultants in safety on large projects. One colleague said later, “I think Mozart was before my time too, but I can still appreciate his worth.”

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.’ If you possess superior interpersonal skills, then you do not say this about yourself.

More to the point, she was deluded. Good listening, manners and professional autonomy are the signs of someone who genuinely possesses 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 our mid twenties we can do this?  

What happened to letting others say these things about us? And what is this world we live in, where the creation of a false self has become normalized? 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 only being reinforced with successful outcomes.  An older friend, who is searching for work, has found that using the word ‘excellent’ about herself, is suddenly showing better results in obtaining interviews.  This new habit of self-reported immodesty, which requires her to have a lie down and a pot of tea after submitting her CV through e-recruitment systems, is being rewarded. 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. and what happens to the workplace? 

I cringed when I heard a younger person, with no work experience, being advised to ‘sell the sizzle and not the steak’ on their job applications. It worked for a short while, until it turned out that the steak was fairly important. He went into a role he was horribly unqualified to perform,  and he lost it. Substance usually matters. Now the boy is confused. Exactly what is he supposed to do to get in front of HR, given that we live in a dehumanized recruitment world of E-Systems that scan applications to look for key words like ‘excellent’ and ‘successful’?    

I was advised early in my career, that it was vain to call oneself an expert or use degrees under 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. I recently heard of a girl I once worked with, using the title, ‘HR Magician.’ 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 careers.  

I’m afraid I will always struggle with someone who calls themselves a guru or a transformational change expert.  How often would someone be genuinely experienced in transforming an organisation? And if they had that track record, I sincerely doubt that they’d need to advertise their availability on Linked In.

Lucy Kellaway, from the UK’s Financial Times, who is always wonderful on the subject of unnecessary language, 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 fascination. To add to the horror of Steve’s description of himself, a senior banker at Lloyds called himself a ‘shaper planter with strong adaptive dealer behaviours.’  

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.

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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