Workplaces, even those where they put in beanbags and have beer Fridays for their employees, are designed to trigger gloom. There is a certain type of employee who likes going into work; there is even a personality type for it. It is called the Type A personality: a combative, ambitious and incredibly annoying office worker. In some cause for comfort, the Type A is apparently more at risk of heart disease than most. Type As don’t intend to be employees for long; they are the ones you can count on to set up loss-making start-ups with high valuations.
Then there is the Type B: the relaxed, affable chap who sooner or later will take off to become a yoga teacher and write long-form blogs on connecting his chakras.
You don’t want to be this guy either. You actually don’t want a personality type because the aim is to not have a personality. You need to be a blur of vague congeniality: when people try to draw a mental image of you, it should be a pleasant haze. This will ensure that you always stay under the radar. This also means that glory will elude you, but you won’t get taken down either. The aim is to proactively sideline yourself. In your obscurity, you are self-made.
Now, of course, all this sounds great on paper. But it needs work and a plan. I present a multipronged approach to guide your ascent into corporate oblivion.
This approach will cover two broad work hubs: offline and online. Offline largely comprises meetings with human beings in the flesh and conference calls with disembodied human beings. Online encompasses emails and WhatsApp work groups. Both these spaces are equally important, so make sure to exercise due vigilance.
First, the offline aspect.
In team meetings, place yourself next to the person who you know will take the lead in the meeting. This will always be the Type A with the wilting heart that he or she is not yet aware of. Be old-school – carry a notepad and pen and take copious notes. Always offer to send the minutes of the meeting.
When you seat yourself in such close proximity to the leader, the chances of getting stared down are minimised. Type A will stare down the table or across the table. Craning his or her neck sideways to stare down genial note-taker has no swag. When Type A is preoccupied with staring down assorted colleagues, make sure to smile sympathetically and subtly at them. Just a tiny, almost indiscernible twitch of the lips and narrowing of the eyes; don’t overdo it. You have empathy, but you have cast your lot with management.
The few times Type A deigns to look your way, don’t be too enthusiastic. Cultivate an expression of contemplative appreciation as opposed to fawning adulation. This expression entails the tiniest of frowns and slightly parted lips, accompanied by imperceptible nods. Now, a note of caution: you are not a sycophant. A sycophant has defined character traits; you must have none. A brown-noser is generally despised. Your aim is to not evoke any excess emotion. Showing neither adulation nor contempt, you must entrench yourself in the realm of indifference. Once the meeting is over, send out detailed minutes. This brings us to the next crucial weapon in our arsenal: emails.
They are just four words, four words so simple that they exist even in the vocabulary of a preschooler. These four glorious words are: PUT IT ON EMAIL. If words could kill time, this phrase would be a serial killer. It has single-handedly destroyed hours, weeks, even months of human activity and has brought down civilisations.
You will action this descent into the black hole of email communication. Please note that this is the only time you will show initiative, but it is for a larger cause: initiative to bring about inertia. It isn’t rocket science, but it could be physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
By proactively setting off an email chain, you are bringing about extended inactivity. It looks like a lot of activity, but its marginal productivity is zero. They have a term for this in high-school economics: disguised unemployment. PFB (please find below; always use official-sounding acronyms) a sample email...
To: The Whole World
Subject: Minutes of the Meeting Date: 15 August 2018
As discussed, here are the main points covered today. We have chalked out a roadmap and I am quickly putting down the milestones with actionable points. Please do let me know if I have missed anything.
Blah blah blah expedite. Growth trajectory blah blah blah. Blah blah leverage blah blah.
(Use “leverage” in EVERY email. You could be asking for a day’s leave, but you should say you would like to take a day off to leverage opportunities for personal work.
Put down about ten bullet points. They should say the same thing in different ways. Try and use words such as “ameliorate” and “amalgam”. And now for the masterstroke. Towards the end of the email, drop in the line below.)
Do revert with your thoughts by EOD.
(EOD is a bit like GOD. It is omniscient, much revered, but no one has really seen it. EOD is also a paradox of time. It signifies a finite period of time that can actually stretch to infinity.)
Obscure Genial Person
Now sit back and watch the fun. Type A will find it tough to resist the power of his or her own thoughts now chronicled so astutely in long-winded pointlessness. Type A will respond first to each of your points with the legend “my thoughts in red”. This will set off a mad scramble for colours.
Wait for Type B to send in thoughts in a feeble pink. At this point, you will helpfully suggest that colleagues should stick to VIBGYOR – primary colours that underline the boldness of our thoughts. You, however, will stick to a value-neutral black. A riot of colours will ensue. As colour schemes are exhausted, people will forget why they were emailing each other in the first place. With some luck, a year will pass at the very least.
If at any time you discover that your scheme is floundering and some actual work is dangerously close to being done, you need to step in fast. Introduce the loop principle of managerial delegation. This entails introducing new characters in the cast to delay proceedings.
Here is what you need to do: “Reply all” to the email and add a new recipient to the mix. Do this several times. As they say, you are getting so-and-so in the loop. So-and-so has no direct bearing or consequence on the matter being discussed, but these tactical additions are crucial. Here is a list of key people you can add at intervals whenever the discussion looks perilously close to a culmination:
+ Head of administration. This person is added when the discussion has moved on to the need for a meeting with key stakeholders. You loop this person in to raise a point regarding the copious amounts of coffee being consumed in times of cost-cutting. Head of HR. The discussion has reached a stalemate. You question whether the already overworked team has the bandwidth for the matter at hand. You loop in the HR head to get in more resources.
+ Head of IT. You suggest a video conference amongst all branch offices. IT will now need to be looped in and a tangential subplot on connectivity can be successfully built upon.
+ New intern. To get a fresh Gen Z perspective. Say “Gen Z”, not “young”. Only greenhorns call the young young.
+ Reception. “Sometimes the best point of view can come from unexpected quarters” is how you sell this.
+ Pantry boy. This is critical; this is when you say the consensus approach has to be broad-based. Go down to the lowest common denominator.
The last email in this exchange can read thus if things go to plan:
To: The Whole World
Subject: Re Minutes of the Meeting Date: 25 August 2020
Just to get you up to speed on what the previous management team was contemplating, I have found the original minutes of the meeting and the 5000 emails that followed. Please do read the thread.
Let’s discuss this COB or do send me your thoughts. Please pick VIBGYOR colours. We can collate and huddle soon.
Obscure Genial Person (who survived the management overhaul from last week)
(NOTE: COB stands for close of business. You substitute EOD with COB lest anyone be daft enough to point out that you haven’t had much personal growth in the years since that first email. That ought to teach them.)
Excerpted with permission from How To Be A Likeable Bigot: A Handbook For The Survivor, Naomi Datta, Ebury Press.