Bullish Q&A: When Your Success Is Based On Shadowy, Unspoken Rules

Today, we have two questions about underlying rules and structures that you have to figure out to keep from constantly banging your head into a wall.

I wrote in Bullish: Social Class in the Office about how my high school debate coach not only taught me to properly shake hands, but explained to me why it was important to cordially shake hands with your enemies (hint: so observers you hope to bring over to your side don’t think you’re an asshole before you even start talking!)

He also explained to me that different debate judges valued different things when judging. Some of them wanted to give the win to the person with the best arguments. Some gave more weight to the skill and style with which the arguments were delivered. But some of the judges were unqualified dumbasses who just voted for whoever was nicest. (While some debate judging is surely based on opinion, some is quite objective – for instance, if your opponent gives three reasons for his main contention and you fail to respond to one of them in the speech directly following, you’ve lost that point and are not allowed to bring it up in a subsequent speech. If his point was in any way important, you’ve probably lost.)

One such judge penalized me when my opponent asked, “What is the origin of the natural rights?” and I responded, calmly, that I had just spent most of my speech arguing that there were no such thing, so I could not tell her the origin of something that does not exist. My opponent asked again, and again, and again. I said, “It’s like your asking me what a unicorn eats. If there are no unicorns, the question is unanswerable.” The judge wrote “refused to answer question” on the ballot, and voted accordingly.

I’m still mad about that. But my life got a lot easier when I took my coach’s advice. Did the judge seem to have no idea how debates worked? Was she, for instance, not taking notes in a column-based format that tracked what responses were made to what arguments? If so, be really nice. Soooo nice. So nice that you destroy your enemies.

By expecting absolute objectivity and fairness, I was penalizing myself. By seeing the rules and systems as they really were, I was able to beat everyone.

In a weird sense, many unfair systems are sort of fair in the sense that at least the tacit, unofficial rules aren’t that hard to figure out when you really look. Some judges just want to vote for a smiling, upstanding young person. Some bosses just want you to not cause them any trouble. Some want you to do awesome things they can take credit for. Some are super-competent people who are hoping you’ll act exactly as they would in every situation.

If there were a ballot for performance in life, I could write “unreasonable expectations of fairness” on it for a lot of young women I know.


Let’s see the first question.

I’m a final year medical student in the United Kingdom. In a few months I will be sitting a Situational Judgement Test (sort of a psychometric test – more here). It’s a new format (we will be the first applicants using this system) for job allocation of all the final years and soon-to-be doctors in the UK. I will be “competing” with thousands of medical students for my first choice of job placement and I would like to improve my odds.

I would like your advice on how to succeed on test like this. I know it is an odd request but I know you are an extremely intelligent woman and I would really appreciate your insight as to how I can come out tops in this situation.

How interesting! I do a lot of work with standardized tests, and am always interested in test design.

I have also recently been reading the blog of Scott H. Young, about how to learn better. He writes a lot about understanding underlying structures, so memorizing/learning the little things is easier and more automatic.

With this brand-new test, it seems worthwhile to analyze sample test questions and determine what underlying values are being expressed. One sample question reads, “You review a patient on the surgical ward who has had an appendicectomy done earlier on the day. You write a prescription for strong painkillers. The staff nurse challenges your decision and refuses to give the medication to the patient.”

The correct answers for what you are supposed to do are, in order, “Discuss with the nurse why she disagrees with the prescription,” “Ask a senior colleague for advice,” and “Review the case again.” Ordering the nurse to give the medicine anyway is not correct. Here, perhaps the most important values are, of course, patient safety, but also taking into account other professionals’ viewpoints (two of the three correct answers relate to this). If you analyzed many such questions, you might be able to create a ranked list that you could use as a rubric for future questions (patient safety, a multiplicity of professional opinions, chain of command, information gathering from patient, maintaining workplace relations, etc.)

You should also be able to identify some quirks of the test itself. All standardized tests have to be, well … standard. It may be that, according to the test writers, whenever ANYONE objects to your course of treatment, the correct response is to seek a higher opinion (even if, in real life, senior physicians don’t routinely do this). According to this test, are you supposed to constantly explore everyone’s concerns with them? There’s one question about a colleague who calls in sick, but posts party photos on Facebook. Do you talk to her or report her? So many questions seem to follow this theme. What’s more important, collaboration and mutual respect, or hierarchy and rule-following? The test writers have definite opinions on these matters, and finding out those opinions is much more important than are the answers to individual sample questions.


And, one more letter:

I graduated from university last year, and had the good fortune of being hired by a company I respect to do a job I find interesting, [creating educational puppet shows to teach children about science!].

The business is rapidly growing, and lots of new people are coming on board. Originally I reported to the owner, but shortly after I was hired, the owner hired a producer who I was now to report to. I get along well with this producer, but he doesn’t have much authority. All his decisions get vetted by the owner, and often overruled. It’s not feasible for me to get everything run past the owner before I do it – he’s simply too busy and often not in the office. Often, I’ll suggest a script idea to the producer, he’ll tell me to run with it, and then days later, the owner will come by and kill the whole thing. It’s very demoralizing.

It’s my producer’s first role where he has authority over others, and when he came on it was understood that there would be a bit of a transition period where the owner would help him get into the groove of things. But it’s been more than nine months and very little has changed. I’m increasingly second-guessing my producer, and growing resentful of how the owner is managing things. I’m considering quietly looking for another job.

However, I do love the company and [educational puppet shows about science], and there are a lot of people here I respect and could learn from. How can I make this work?

How frustrating! Maybe your producer was not really cut out for the job, or maybe the owner is a bad manager. Either way, though, this doesn’t sound like some kind of crazy, abusive, get-out-as-fast-as-you-can scenario.

I would bring this up at one of these pitch meetings. But in a very specific way. To wit:

– Make the “issue” you want to bring up entirely factual and about your own job. Specifically, you end up wasting a lot of the company’s time on scripts that don’t get produced. How can we make sure this doesn’t keep happening? Don’t say anything about the process of the producer being undermined and the owner micromanaging. See what the owner says.

– Give the owner (and the producer, but definitely the owner) a heads-up that you want to talk about this at the meeting. I read a long time ago in one of those “how to get along in a man’s world” type books that men hate being caught off guard in public by their subordinates. I think this is true of everyone, not just men, but it struck me as good advice and has always worked pretty well for me.

Surely, the owner doesn’t like the idea of paying you to waste company time, so approaching this from the perspective of rooting out financial inefficiency is much safer than questioning his leadership.

If he says “The producer is an idiot. It’s all his fault,” I might look for another job.

Also importantly, maybe the owner has some kind of unspoken set of rules about what kinds of things the producer should be approving and what kinds of things he shouldn’t, or about what kinds of things he should be consulted on and what kinds of things you shouldn’t bother him about.

Could you ask him some general questions about what kinds of scripts he’d like to see, what he’d like less of, and what categories of things you should clear with him first? Maybe there is, or should be, an arc for a whole year of scripts.

You (and the producer) need to ferret out those unspoken rules, and preferably write them down, like in a Google doc, or on a giant laminated sheet that you can stick to the office fridge and decorate with unicorn stickers when things go well.

As first published by Alloy Digital, LLC (www.thegrindstone.com)


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