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The corporate soap opera: Drama in the workplace – Mary T. O’Sullivan




By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools,
because they have to say something. – Plato

From the time of the ancient Greeks, through the age of YouTube and Tik Tok, people love drama. Drama is not just the stuff of soap operas, movies, television and politics. Wherever you find people, you’ll find drama. And for all of us who pack ourselves up every day, and lumber off to earn a living, we’ve learned how dramatic a place work can be. Work is the place where you will see and hear occurrences that even Hollywood could not make up. These are stories no one would find credible.

Management and Other Plans

Several years ago, while at a training session with a major manufacturing company, a colleague alerted a woman named Jackie, that in a conversation with their boss, he was told that management had “other plans” for her.

This news did not sit well with her colleague as he was totally overloaded, and at that time she was taking over much of his extra work. He was in charge of cross training the whole department on a new, complex software platform, but had been given no relief from any of his other responsibilities. This way of doing Business was not untypical there, as the workload increased, the number of people doing the work would often decrease.

Jackie found this news quite ironic, as she had just returned from a week of training, specifically in the area for which she was hired. It made no sense to move her after the company invested thousands of dollars in travel and living, plus the cost of the course itself, only to move her someplace else where she had no expertise. It seemed crazy. Well, not really as it turned out.

Later that day, her boss stopped by her office and after some brief chit chat regarding her trip, he said they needed to talk, and they walked together to a conference room. By this time in her career, she’d learned not to react to these pop-up meetings because after years of watching and experiencing these mostly useless events, she thought, why spend her psychic energy unless it was an actual emergency?  She practiced composure and let her inner “Zen” govern her emotions. Her boss had a reputation for weakness, so it was probable he’d slip up and blow the conversation anyway, whatever the news. She had to keep in mind to take whatever the “news” was by practicing “executive presence” and remain unruffled.

Some additional chit chat continued, and she finally asked him to get to the point as she had a lot of work piling up on her desk, given that day was her first day back from training.

He told her that there was an “opportunity” that had just come up.

She replied, “Oh, an opportunity to excel?”

He grinned sheepishly and said there was a job in “planning” and that he had set it up for her to talk to the “planning” manager later that day. In manufacturing parlance, “planning” refers to the planning for production, which, as she later learned, means making sure the right piece parts were released to the manufacturing floor at the right time. As he talked, he spun the opportunity as a way to learn a different part of the business. He went on to say he had been in planning about 15 years ago, so he didn’t want to describe what planning was now, as it could be completely different than it was in his day. Despite her pressing him for more details, he insisted things probably had changed a lot, and he couldn’t give her any further information. His circumlocution was a red flag. She made a mental note of his evasiveness. It certainly was a signal to pay attention to whatever was coming next.

Jackie thought of taking a positive look at this proposal. She began to fool herself into thinking that this indeed might be a good move for her. While she wasn’t sure exactly what “Planning” meant, she felt that a change might open opportunities for promotion and add to her resume to show more varied experience in the sector. But as she began to think more about it, it seemed to be a confusing time to be making this kind of a change for her. It didn’t seem to make any sense since the company had just invested several thousand dollars in training her in a completely different skill set.

Regardless of her confusion, she was asked to refresh her resume and send it along, as her manager offered to make the call to the hiring manager. This process didn’t take long, and Jackie complied. He was supposed to make the call that same day.

But an interesting series of events started to unravel the boss’s ill-conceived plan.

First of all, it was foolish of her boss to assume that I wouldn’t ask around about this move. After spending well over 10 years in the company, she had formed trusting relationships with people of all levels who were willing to pass on information. Also, given the fact that in any social group, people are going to talk and share information, it was a poor assumption on his part that she would just accept a major career change out of nowhere.

All employees in the company knew how vital it was to find out information via “The Grapevine,” in this case, making a few calls, stopping in people’s offices, and generally asking around the tiny coffee shop and dining center. “TheGrapevine” was very reliable because these “secretive” moves often affected people’s jobs, what location they were assigned, and even promotional possibilities. Employees keep “The Grapevine” alive because management would often spring surprise decisions upon them, just like this new “opportunity” was sprung on Jackie. Truth is, in a large, unwieldy company, no one likes to be surprised. Being surprised could undermine your career if you weren’t tapped into the right people who would feed you precious information.

So, the element of surprise spawned the unofficial, undercurrent “wave” of information which flowed freely through the organization as an antidote to management’s secrecy attempts. It seemed there was a friendly “fly” on every wall.

A memorable example of how this “wave” worked was when people talked about an eminent firing. Rumors grew that a manufacturing VP was going to be fired. His behavior warranted it, and everyone wondered when the ax would fall. After a few weeks, they learned he brought his company laptop to Hong Kong (a security violation), and there were “irregularities” in his relocation accounting (fraud). Furthermore, it made no common sense given that this VP had lived in communist China for 10 years (coNFLict of interest). As the “wave” proliferated, everyone bet on a short tenure for him. Soon enough, the CEO announced that he would be “leaving the company” and someone else would take his place. Once again, the “wave” proved to be a reliable source of information.

The Unraveling of “Other Plans”

With the accuracy of the “Grapevine” in mind, at lunch that day Jackie asked a friend what she thought of this move. Her friend noted that the system platforms in planning being used at that time were going to be replaced soon. “You’ll be learning an old technology,” she said. Jackie knew very quickly that the reality was this move would be no gain for her career.

After lunch, another colleague pulled her aside and in a theatrical stage whisper said, “Jackie, that job is not for you. You are way overqualified. That job entails entering parts into the inventory system as they come in from vendors and making sure they are distributed on the manufacturing floor. Besides,” he hissed in his exaggerated stage whisper, “that hiring manager is a complete ass. You don’t want to work for him.”

And so, the drama began, however unsure she was of which Act or even which play she was now in. The unfolding of the plot began to reveal itself in Shakespearean proportions. This enlightening conversation with her colleague, drove her to further investigation. She looked up the hiring manager in the company directory and discovered that “Planning” was actually “Planning and Inventory.” Jackie knew nothing about either subject, and inventory control was an entry level job, several levels below her current position. This didn’t sound right to her. What purpose did this have, given she had just returned from the training center in Texas for two weeks of training in subcontract management – a more senior and more responsible role than what she was seeing in “planning.” What was the point of placing her in a job that required moving parts around the manufacturing floor? She then realized there had to be a reason someone wanted to move her out of her department and into “planning” or anywhere else for that matter. Jackie knew it wasn’t for the sake of “opportunity.”

At this point, she decided she’d let this incident, this drama, play itself out and see where it would lead her. Onto the next Act, whatever that would be.

That evening, before she left work, she refreshed her resume as she had been asked, and dutifully sent it to the boss. She also sent him a separate email expressing some questions and concerns that she had on the subject:

Dear Boss:
Seems “planning” is really planning and inventory. Not sure this is the right move for me.

Would like to further discuss options, as it’s confusing as to how this places me into an upward career path.

Frankly, the more I learn about this position, the more I doubt it will leverage my strengths and skills as subcontracts currently does. While I understand the need for training on these various databases, it’s unclear how soon I’ll be up to speed in this role in order to make a viable

Looking forward to discussing this at your convenience.”

A bad feeling overcame her during the night and the next morning she woke up furious. Around 6 AM she jumped out of bed and went to her home office. It took her a few minutes to gather her thoughts, but she knew she had to take matters into her own hands. Determined to get to the drama’s climax and denouement with the least collateral damage, she sent a quick email to the Vice President. Luckily, she knew him from a previous life where they had worked closely together on several large projects in another city.

Dear VP:
Wondered if you would have some time for a career discussion. Would like to discuss future opportunities at your convenience.

Thanks.  Jackie

When she got to work that day, her colleague who had advised her against the job had also done some additional investigating. He discovered that someone else had been promised that job and she was another major player, a person to be reckoned with. It seemed that the “backfilling” process would be one big mess if she were to take that position.

Later that morning, Jackie received this email reply from the VP:

I would be happy to sit with you and discuss your career. I am due to travel down to your site soon, I will be sure to have Karen set up some time for us to talk.
Take care.
Mr. VP

Within a few hours, her boss was at her office door. Once again, Jackie went with him to the conference room. His opening sentence, after she was seated, was, “I read your email last night. You’re right; the planning job isn’t going to be a fit for you.”

She told him she thought he was right. “I would have let the hiring manager come to his own conclusions,” she said, “but the move into ‘planning’ doesn’t make any sense because the technology is ready to be replaced, and I just returned from two weeks training which cost the company thousands of dollars. Wouldn’t the company be best served for her to use me new training right here, as expected?”

You be the judge. This was clearly political posturing turned into office drama, corporate soap opera stuff, but how else could Jackie have handled it? She knew she needed to get to the final Act and move quickly to end the play.

From the political standpoint, she wondered was there any iNFLuence on her boss by her friend, the VP? Was there an early morning phone call from the VP asking the question: Why does Jackie want to talk to me about her career? Or was this “opportunity” political blowback, since she had previously uncovered and reported on incorrect reporting regarding a supplier’s timeliness which her boss and his cronies had covered up for years?

Jackie still wonders to this day about the political implications of this drama.  She knows she did the right thing. It was her career that was at stake, her future being interfered with. Without her own due diligence, she could have accepted the ‘opportunity’ and committed career suicide. Because she was determined not to be bulldozed by dumb decisions, she investigated the “opportunity” herself. She spoke with others to get a feel for what this move really meant, and while she did as she was asked in updating her resume, she also reached out to an executive who was a friend to ask for a few minutes of his time. In no way did she upset the applecart by implicating her boss’s bad decision – she merely asked for time to talk.

It’s true, wherever there are people, there will be drama. Think of the great dramas of the past: from the ancient Greeks, to the Bard of Avon (William Shakespeare), through the futility dramas of Beckett (Waiting for Godot), the human condition plays out. Due to the variable and inscrutable nature of humans, bad judgment usually instigates bad drama.

But bad judgment does not dictate the whimsy of management decisions. True leaders ask the right questions and tease out truths, heading off the drama and redirecting the “players” back to the “roles” for which they originally “auditioned”. Otherwise, we end up with complicated story “treatments” no Hollywood producer would touch because they are just too far-fetched and absurd to be believed.


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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