The buddy system

Southernmost gift shop

Originally uploaded by dcwriterdawn

An often-overlooked source of both success and failure in the workplace is the buddy system.

Pretty much everywhere I’ve been, people team up with one solid confidante. Even though you may get along with everyone, it’s usually to your benefit to choose one solid ally to whom you can rant and with whom you can brainstorm.

I’ve been a fan of strategic alliances all across the board. I’ve always had a friend in accounting, who can speed up a contractor’s check so I can get more work out of them. 🙂 A friend in H.R. is always beneficial when you need instant advice or a safe place to bang your head off a wall. And it never hurts to bring chocolates and wine to your favorite Web/graphic designer(s) on their toughest days because your request can magically get moved to the top of the mountainous pile when you need it.

I would never say that my true friendships were based on such strategery. But many were born from it. Humanity recognizes humanity. I’ll drop everything to help anyone. But I’ll do it very cheerfully if it’s someone whom I know has my back, too.

But I’ve seen some other alliances cropping up over the years. People who would never otherwise have a reason to collaborate are seen outside the restroom or going to lunch together — people you’d never think had anything in common. For the most part, I think it’s healthy. Or maybe it’s their attempt to forge a healthy relationship where there are otherwise none.

I’ve watched this dynamic play out time and again. If someone’s getting thrown under the bus in a meeting, someone else will speak up and try to pull them out. (No small feat.) Or someone will plant a compliment in the “right” ear that the other person doesn’t have direct access to. These people otherwise keep their nose to the grindstone and don’t say a word to anyone else.

You have to be careful of such alliances. If you say something to person A, you can assume it will be in person B’s hands before you know it. Which is why it’s usually best to show everyone the same face at all times.

I had lots of those alliances in my younger, non-management days. That things may suck overall but your BFF makes things tolerable, even bearable. Of course, when your BFF leaves, things seem to change. But really, nothing was different — it’s just that your main perk of coming to work has gone away. And no amount of salary or title increase can replace the “safe place” you once had.

I remember in my first real management job (although I always managed people), I was told it’s lonely at the top and to cease all friendships ASAP. Some of those friendships were key strategic alliances. But everyone argued that by my title alone, I should have instant sway.

While I do agree with that (i.e., if the CEO wants something, the IT director better drop everything else on command), when you work someplace long enough, you have a better judgment of priorities. And setting up his new phone to get e-mail may be less urgent than, say, un-hacking the company Web site. Especially if he’ll turn around tomorrow and yell at you for fucking around all day while the Web site was borked. 🙂

(I quit that job nine years ago, but the scars remain. Can haz doll to show you where the bad person touched me?)

Of course, if I was the one who needed my phone looked at, I got instant service. Because I was sweet and awesome and a fun person to take a smoke break with. 🙂 Oh, and I said “thank you” a lot. Apparently that made me unique.

I’m not saying that all alliances were good. That same leader had relatives all through the company, who were instructed to drop everything to spy on the rest of us. And I was unnaturally quiet there. I kept my head down (when I wasn’t with one of my two friends) and I realized that the spies simply made shit up. It’s entertaining to get yelled at for stuff you didn’t do, especially when there’s no convincing anyone that you weren’t even in the office the day that something supposedly happened.

That’s why you need your alliances. For sanity reasons. So you can go outside and cry or grumble and get it the hell out of your system before it poisons the rest of your day.

But alliances suck major ass if you’re not in on them. Especially if they involve one or more people above you. Like I said, that leader had family members everywhere. Any attempt to say hello to any of the spies was reported back to the top as sucking up. And any attempt to avoid getting yourself into trouble by staying out of sight/mind was reported back as being “not a team player.”

I’m not saying all alliances are good. I’m not even claiming that I’ve always chosen correctly. You can’t fly with the eagles when you run with wolves. You can’t have the devil on your shoulder and be seen as an angel. I’ve watched people pick their alliances so poorly, and come to a point where you can’t even tell the two apart anymore. Which is fine if one raises the other to superstar status, but not if one drags the other down to the working-dead level.

And we all need to hitch a ride on a star, as long as we intend to raise our game. Everyone needs a helping hand. I was very pleased this week when a friend spontaneously provided a reference for me to someone I’ve been trying to get in touch with.

Man, did my call get returned quickly after that.

After I thanked (profusely) my buddy, she said everyone needs a helping hand in this world, and she knows I’ll do her proud.

And not only will I pay her back by delivering what she promised I would, but I’ll pay it forward to the next (truly special) person whose sanity and sense of self is contingent upon the right door opening up at the right time.

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