Why Do We Practice People Skills?

When you think about it, the mantra of career mobility is pretty strange, isn’t it? Plug into any career websites, any of those myriad gurus offering to remake your life for a mere snip at 500 quid or so, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: it isn’t enough to be good at what you do, you’ve got to be really, really good at people too.

In other words, you have to spend the forty years or so of your slippery progress up the career ladder being unbelievably nice to everyone you meet. There’s no other way of really ensuring success, they say. You have to hone and practice those precious people skills every single day. It must get pretty damn exhausting.

And how do you get the balance right? Let’s say you start in a particular company at the age of 21 or so. Every morning for the next 40 years, you have to start the day by grinning happily at Steve the doorman, asking him how it’s going, listening to all his stories about those pigeons he keeps on the rooftop and how he’s confident that Katy Perry will drop those stalking charges against him any day now.

You will have to repeat the procedure with everyone else you meet in the course of the day, from Marnie the kleptomaniac receptionist to Louis the Deputy Manager with chronic halitosis. You will have to respond with ineffable grace to each new bollicking from Bill your bullying Deputy Manager, as well as smiling through the ball mangling agony of Phil the Accountant’s endless anecdotes about the time he went shopping and photographed a giraffe.

And what if you get it wrong? What if the denizens of your workplace are rather more cynical than the writers of self-help magazines? What if they respond to all your efforts at infinite friendliness with a collective leer: “fearful little crawler he is. Don’t believe a word of it. I’ll tell you, that guy’s not going anywhere”?

When will the penny finally drop? When you’re sixty three and still the copy boy and your wife has run off with Steve?

Social media, of course, has made the whole thing much more complex. Social media is essentially there to make everything much more complex. There’s a very interesting (and horrifying) episode of the Netflix sci fi show, ‘Black Mirror,’ where everyone’s career progress is being measured every single minute by their precise numerical popularity rating on a particular social network.

You can tell when someone’s in real trouble. They go around making tea for everyone and giving out unsolicited doughnuts as presents. And everyone goes: “he’s trying too hard. He must be desperate.” And his rating plummets inevitably towards unemployment.

But here’s the thing, the big paradox at the heart of all our career thinking: why are we practising all these painstaking people skills? What is the ultimate goal of being so cringingly nice to all those people you can’t f***ing stand? Because all that indiscriminately sprayed love is unnatural. Even St. Francis wasn’t that fond of people.

You practice people skills in the hope of reaching that blessed day when you won’t need them any more. You’re being relentlessly squeaky nice in search of that holy grail of never needing the bastards ever again. You’re ascending that greasy, slimy pole of niceness in order to become so rich and powerful that you can finally tell everyone you know to go and f*** off for themselves once and for all.

You’re trying so hard to be so good with people in the knowledge that, the further up you go, the less accountable you are. Maybe you secretly sustain yourself with fantasies about writing to everyone from Marnie to Bill to Steve some day and letting them know exactly what utter wastes of blood and bone you thought they were all along.

The further up you go, the less you have to bother with the more mucky, boring, unhinged flotsam of the human stream. If you’ve scaled the top of some business that still requires people, then you can always delegate. Let that attractive young intern get prematurely aged listening to people who want to copyright their brainwaves.

You can send out interns to deal with all the pigeon fanciers and turd sculptors. The way capitalism is developing, you can probably get an intern to wipe your bottom if you decide you really don’t fancy it all that much anymore.

All this exhausting, fearful niceness is aimed at the day when you crash into the Sunday Times rich list at No. 58, thus instantly acquiring the ability to tell anyone you’ve ever known to f*** off forever, before p***ing off to your new volcano underneath Mustique.

It’s fascinating, really. Does anything sum up the human condition quite so much as the relentless practice of a skill in search of the day when you’ll never have to use that skill again?

It’s like spending forty years as a vegan in order to spend your last days devouring meat like a Tyrannosaur with a serious attack of the munchies. Makes you think, or maybe it doesn’t.


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