On rare occasions in my job at a Fortune 100 company, I have to meet with people very high up on the corporate ladder. I find the experience somewhat unnerving, which in itself is unnerving, because I like to think of myself as the kind of person who is not intimidated by somebody who makes 10 times as much money as I do, or could squash my livelihood with a two word email. In an ideal world, I like to think of these people as not being any better than me, and despite the fact they are more successful, more organized, better dressed, more worldly, better educated, and better fed, I know they aren’t any better than me. At the level of intrinsic human worth and all that, we are more or less the same, I suppose.
The problem is, very few people think about things at the level of intrinsic worth, and I’m no different. As a result, I tend to feel a little self-conscious in these meetings, in the sense that I really watch what I say, how I act, what I wear, and so on. Not that I don’t think about those things when I’m in my professional role anyway, but when I see my boss’s boss’s boss, who I have tremendous respect for and view as being quite far ahead of me on the corporate ladder, suddenly become just as defferential and self-aware as I am around these corporate high rollers, it really puts the power dynamic into perspective.
And make no mistake, the power dynamic is front and center. These guys (almost without exception, “guys”) are all on the top floor of the corporate tower, with commanding and beautiful views of both twin cities downtowns. The offices up there seem to be from another world, with gorgeous walnut walls and original art. Sometimes I’m surprised they even let people like me up there at all, but there’s no mistaking it’s a different place. And that’s fine; I have no beef with their offices or their general corporate ecoutrements, outside of the general issue of golden parachutes and executives taking home huge pay even when their company doesn’t perform. Comfort comes with the territory, and they put in the years of time and effort. All I’m saying is, there’s no way to avoid feeling a little out of place when I leave my 1970’s-style lime green cubicle and trek up there.
One of the disturbing things about being in the presence of power is noticing how my reactions to them are different than they would be for other people. For instance, in a normal situation if somebody makes a joke that’s not funny, I don’t go out of my way to laugh. Why would I? People should have to earn laughter. And I’m certainly not hanging on every word normal people say in the hopes that they’ll give me an opportunity to show them some sort of fealty with a favorable response. I can’t say that never happened on some dates I went on back in the day, but by and large it’s not a part of my life today.
But put me in a fancy boardroom with a VP across from me, and things seem to change. And I don’t think it’s just me, either. I think a lot of people do it; I watch it happen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not obvious sycophancy, and the intent isn’t to be fake, necessarily; I think it’s more about finding a way to relate to these people who we ordinarily don’t have much in common with. But no matter how you slice it, it’s there and it makes these meetings slightly tense for me.
The clearest manifestation of this is when one of the high rollers makes a joke. Oh, the laughter. Not over-the-top, embarassing laughter, but chuckles at a minimum, acknowledgement that Someone Is Funny, or whatever else it is you think they want you to think they are. And I’m not talking about somebody saying something, then the non-high rollers evaluating it, deciding it’s not funny, and laughing anyway. I’m talking about something more basic and primitive than that. It’s almost as if there is a joy in realizing that one of these people is actually making a joke, instead of being angry or dismissive or confused. We laugh or give positive affirmation almost before we even hear what is said.
So, it is a great relief when one of these people actually does say something funny. Today, one of them told us about being in a plane that was hit by lightning, which caused a fireball to literally travel down the aisle of the plane. That wasn’t particularly funny, but it was a fascinating story well-told, so we didn’t have to feign interest. The interest was genuine. Then the other guy said, “Did they give everybody free drinks after that?” Laughter followed; mine, at least, was genuine, because that’s what I was about to ask. Dude stole my line. But then the other guy said, “Well, you know how the airlines are. They gave us coupons for drinks instead.”
Genuine, relieved laughter from all of us. I was relieved because I was laughing for the right reasons. And a part of me wondered if maybe those guys were relieved because they knew they were legitimately funny, and we weren’t just laughing because of who they were and what room we were sitting in.
And you know, after we had that good laugh at a good joke, I more or less stopped thinking about the power dynamic that may or may not only exist in my head.