This book is both a novel and essays about work life. In the novel, David is a young man intent on moving up in the company, Protech, which designs security systems. To do this, he steals an idea for a new product from a junior employee and sells it to senior management as his own. The idea takes off but David has to constantly having to do questionable things to keep his status as golden boy. He spies on another colleague for fear of an idea which might overtake his; he demands his boss’ job to keep control of his project; and he browbeats his team into saying the product is ready for release when it is clearly not. He twists and turns to stay on top.
The parallel stories are of Becky, David’s mother, who walks away at the end of her career to pursue a lifelong dream and of Gord, David’s father, who is a brilliant but difficult employee who has never fit into organizational life.
Throughout the book, there are hyperlinks to essays which discuss aspects of the story and how they might apply to the reader’s life. For example, one essay discusses how David gets caught up in the office politics and whether you have to do it, too. Similarly, another essay asks whether always being honest at work, such as Gord maintains he is, is good or bad for your career and psyche. Becky’s essays largely deal with whether and how you can work at what you are really passionate about rather than just put food on the table.
The essays can be read as the novel is being read or after. All of them pose questions about how to deal with the dark side of work.
Excerpt from Chapter 16
David—stole an idea which is being developed into a product called DynaGroup
Raj—Kartin’s employee and David’s rival
“What are people saying? Is Bryan definitely out?” Mandy asks.
“God, how should I know—it’s so fucked up.”
“Well, is he seen as Zoe’s guy?”
“I guess so. I’ve never really thought about it.”
She shakes her head. “You’ve got to now. Otherwise, you may be out of a job.”
David gives a snort. “No way. They need me.”
Mandy concedes that with a nod. “Okay, but do you want to stay a supervisor all your life—when the company is set to make it big on your product?”
“Well, no—I mean eventually—”
Mandy shifts on the couch. “Don’t you get it, David? Eventually is now.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t you see what’s happening? All the big guys are playing musical chairs and you’re not even in the game. When it’s your product all the fuss is about.”
“There’s not much I can do about that.”
This time Mandy snorts. “There are a million things you could do.”
Either the champagne or her tone gets to him. He snaps back, “Oh, yeah, name one.”
She looks at him flatly. “Go after Bryan’s job yourself.”
She leans forward. “Why not? If he’s on his way out anyhow, why shouldn’t you? Why let this Raj item horn in on your hard work? Maybe this is the time to move up.”
“Wait a minute,” he protests. “We’re talking like it’s a done deal with Bryan.”
“What if it is?” she presses her advantage. “The guys who move up in the world grab the things that are floating around. That’s what Raj is doing.”
“But if it happens, it’s because Kartin wants him in there.”
“Make it clear to Kartin you want the job.” She says it as if it were not enormous.
“I’m not sure I do.”
Mandy leans in. “But you want to stay in control of DynaGroup, don’t you?”
“This is the way to do it.”
“But I don’t want all the other management junk. I just want to work on DynaGroup. Although…” he hesitates. “I could angle to have DynaGroup report to Kartin and that would leave Bryan with what he had before I started with this.”
“And you’d be a director, too?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But if DynaGroup takes off, you know they’re gonna throw a whole packet of money at me to keep me, so isn’t that all we need?”
She shakes her head. “No way, buddy. It’s not about money. It’s about power—no, it’s not a dirty word, David,” as he shakes his head. “It’s not. Don’t you want to develop DynaGroup the way you think it should? Do you want Raj calling the shots?”
Suddenly, David knows she’s right. Raj can’t tell him how to develop his product. “But what do I do?”
Excerpt from accompanying essay: Do You Have to Play the Game?
In the story, David’s girlfriend, Mandy, understands that in periods of organizational flux, you need to look out for your interests and try to benefit from the change rather than be victim of it. She urges David to go after his boss Bryan’s job if Bryan is going to be fired in any case. David is reluctant to get involved. He just wants to be left alone to get on with his job.
Isn’t that true for most of us? It would be so great if the higher ups would let us be so we can do what we’re paid for. But realistically, that’s never going to happen. In fact, senior people may rightly see it as their job to make sure you’re doing the best and most productive job possible.
Do I lay low or play the game?
Whenever senior management wants to make a big change in the organization, they say they need the support of everyone to make it happen. But the old hands in companies know that often the best strategy is to keep your head down and wait until the senior managers move on, get bored, or declare victory even if it is not warranted. Once that happens, the old hands can raise their heads and continue work as usual.
Savvy employees don’t usually take a change seriously unless or until it is right on their doorstep. When it looks like it’s going to directly affect them, they start to pay attention. Then the choice point—do you continue to try to ignore the coming storm or do something to deal with it?
The perils of laying low
My observation is that those people faced with this situation who continue to use their old strategy of laying low and hoping it will pass, are the ones who get hurt as the wave passes over. It might even mean loss of job but even if it doesn’t, it could still mean loss of power or control, and it will certainly mean having to cope with a change to the way they operate.
Those people who survive and even thrive in the change understand the point where they must take action to try to shape the change. With Mandy’s help, David understands that he might be at this point. He can choose to do nothing—let Bryan be fired, and hope that the new boss is a good one. But the new boss could be Raj which would mean that David would lose control of DynaGroup, his project, because Raj is also technically savvy. So, here is an example of where standing still means you could be overtaken by events and of where you have to start playing the game. Sometimes you need to play the game even if you don’t want to. Doing so may not always result in an improvement in your present situation but it should at least be aimed at not eroding the power and status you presently enjoy.
The risks of action and inaction
Let’s face it, there are risks. What if David has read the tea leaves incorrectly and Bryan is not let go? If Bryan finds out about his maneuvers, David will automatically lose his go-to standing which means he has lost status.
There is risk no matter the course taken. It’s not a matter of trying to avoid risk (impossible) but of choosing the course of action which has the highest possible benefit for the lowest possible risk. As Mandy says to David, “The guys who move up in the world grab the things that are floating around.” Being one of those guys increases but does not guarantee that you will come out of the change thriving. Standing still does, however, ensure you will be at the mercy of whatever the storm throws at you.