Some years ago, I was teaching a class in supervision that was held, as is so often the case in corporate settings, in a small conference room someone had desperately tried and failed to make look like an executive board room. On the wall was one of those motivational posters with a picture of a lion looking majestic, I honestly don’t recall what it was selling -- competition, motivation, or whatever, but it hardly matters. I remember with straight razor sharp acuity what the subtitle said, “A lion wakes up on the Serengeti. It knows that it must run faster than the fastest gazelle or it will go hungry. A gazelle wakes up on the Serengeti and it knows that it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will perish." The sign hung there in someone’s dopey approximation of profundity. As I conducted the course I found myself increasingly distracted by the picture of the lion and the ludicrous motivational message.
Don't hold it in.
Finally the pressure to say something grew too great, and in a monster tangent, the kind for which I am known if not revered and famous, I blurted out, “What a bunch of excrement! The lion only has to run faster than the slowest gazelle, and the gazelle only has to be the second slowest."
In business terms this means if you intend to survive layoffs you need only be the second slowest gazelle. In other words all you have to do to keep your job is be better at it than the guy with a lazy eye who empties the trash and calls everybody “Jerry,” wearing the dim grin of a serial killer.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
First of all just because the weirdo emptying the trash doesn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders he may be exceptional at his job -- he might empty the hell out of those trash cans, he might be better at waste disposal than anyone in six counties, or he might be mobbed up. You need to dig deeper.
There is an expression in the former Eastern bloc “the nail that sticks up gets hammered,” so if you’re looking to be the second slowest gazelle you have to be subtle. The lions in the organization are looking for easy targets so you don’t want to distinguish yourself positively or negatively; strive at all times to be invisible -- do the corporate equivalent of painting zebra stripes across your body. Seek not fame and fortune but rather to do the least amount of work and still remain employed.
Make others look worse.
Some will tell you the best way to do this is to forge alliances and do a lot of favors. Take a hard look at these people: they are mouth-breathing idiots. The most effective way to stay employed while performing mediocre work is to make others look bad. There is a subtle art to making a coworker look bad without seeming like an overly ambitious bully.
My personal favorite is to troll the cubes for an unattended computer and hastily send sexually explicit emails to key members of the executive team. Now a lot of people will tell you that it’s better to send angry hate-filled emails that threaten violence, but that just gets people wondering why a seemingly mild mannered accountant is suddenly sounding off like a drunken Viking. For my money it’s far better to fire off a short but squirm-inducing, shockingly graphic sexually-charged email. This serves two purposes: 1) It brings unwanted attention to your competitor; and 2) With a little luck, it will arouse the amorous attentions of said executive, which allows your colleague to both leave the company and get a fat sexual-harassment lawsuit settlement. Of course there is the outside chance that both will be into it, in which case no harm/no foul.
Think like Tony Soprano.
Other pundits will tell you to be successful you should do as many favors for others as you can; this is slowest gazelle thinking. In fact, the opposite is true. When you are looking to wax employees, who are you going to put on the list? The guy who you owe 14 favors to, or the guy that owes you 14 favors? A cardinal rule of organized crime is never whack a guy who owes you money. Doing favors for people makes them indebted to you, and layoffs are a sort of corporate bankruptcy. While many people choke back tears and sputter, “how can you do this to me after all I’ve done for you?” nobody has ever yet had to ask, “how can you do this to me after all you’ve done for me?” The power of debt is so pervasive that I can’t emphasize it enough. Another way to ensure your job security is to borrow small amounts of money from Human Resources professionals, that way when the first draft of the layoff list hits their desks their initial reaction is “Hell no! We are not laying off this guy; that son of a gun owes me six bucks.” Juvenile and crass, but it works. HR doesn’t pay that well and six bucks is well ... six bucks.
I was once explaining my theory of the second slowest gazelle to a group of friends in a neighborhood pub, which led to a brawl (a tale for a different telling), so take care where you proffer my advice as your own. It seems the slowest gazelles out there know who they are, and aren’t that crazy about people painting targets on their rumps, so be mindful of how and when you whip out that brush.