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The egos among us

Corporate climbing

In this story:

Not so lonely at the top

People ... people who hurt people


(CNN) -- "There's a huge difference in their level of integrity compared with other people. They're very self-focused, rather than other-focused. And they see this as the only way to achieve success."

Psychologist Bob Turknett is talking about corporate climbers.

They scale and climb and claw their way to the top of the company organizational charts. They leap entire departments in a single bound. They're not superheroes. They're the Lex Luthors of the cubicle set.

graphic Have you been the doormat of a corporate climber?

Yeah, sure have -- shoeprints on my back to prove it.
I'm not sure -- it's hard for me to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy competition sometimes.
Not on your life -- don't tread on me.
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In a corporate climber, regular old ambition and determination turns into obsession. He or she seems likely to stop at nothing to reach the top of the ladder. Techniques may include humiliating co-workers in the presence of upper management and lying to clients to gain position in the company.

Are these folks just extra-rugged individuals, soldiers of fortune marching to the beats of their own drummers?

John Stutesman says climbers are incapable of genuine teamwork skills. He's director of outpatient treatment in psychiatry at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an assistant clinical professor at Northwestern University.

"They can't give support to a person except when in a circumstance of manipulation," Stutesman says. "In the workplace environment, this is obviously not good for people trying to grow their career."


Not so lonely at the top

Bill Brendler has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and is the founder of Brendler Associates Inc., a 20-year-old consulting agency based in Wimberly, Texas. Brendler Associates helps businesses strategize office relationships and encourages corporate leadership. It recently opened to deal specifically with issues in introducing new technologies into a workplace.

For the past five years, Brendler has worked exclusively with top-level managers, and he says almost 50 percent of these people could be classified as "corporate climbers."

"I think if you analyzed a company," Brendler says, "you could see that half the top management group would sell their mothers if the deal was right. The other half is very much in tune with what the company needs. The first could fall into the category of corporate climber."

Brendler says he has been deceived by corporate climbers at the CEO level -- people who contract consultants to improve their organization and then take vengeance on employees who divulge their bosses' management problems.

"One type is secretive by nature. Another is aggressive. They really just want to be king of the hill. A third is someone who thinks they really are best -- extreme narcissistic behavior."
— Dr. David Yamins, Maimonides Hospital

"That's the perfect trait," Brendler says. "Being very deceptive about their motivations. And it's difficult for anyone to even tell."

Turknett, the psychologist, is president of Turknett Leadership Group in Atlanta. He has 28 years of clinical and management consulting experience. He specializes in executive leadership coaching and executive team development. He's a confidential adviser to senior executives on strategic direction and leadership.

And Turknett says that he, like Brendler, encounters the corporate-climber mentality frequently among upper managers in companies.

"They're risk-takers," he says, "with a very low level of empathy for others."


People ... people who hurt people

Dr. David Yamins, a psychiatrist at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, identifies the personality type of a corporate climber as a person who's "not squeamish about hurting other people.

"It's often someone who has an insecurity about their identity," Yamins says. "This is the way they can praise themselves."

He says he can classify the climbers into three types, too. "One type is secretive by nature," he says. "Another is aggressive. They really just want to be king of the hill. A third is someone who thinks they really are best -- extreme narcissistic behavior. But that's more rare."

Child-development research indicates parenting may give baby climbers their most influential leg up. "If you are winning at all costs," says AboutOurKids' Robin Goodman, "you might be reflecting that bullying behavior to your child."

Stutesman likens the two major types to the wolf in two guises in "Little Red Riding Hood." The aggressive type, he says, is the wolf -- the secretive type is the wolf in Grandma's clothing.

"The latter is harder to deal with," Stutesman says. "They aren't hidden to the people below them -- it's obvious to them that they're devious and bitter. But they're very good at hiding it to people above them."

Brendler agrees.

"Upwardly, these people will lie to look good, but downwardly will treat people badly," he says. "They are finger-pointers, and they are very deceptive."

Climbing isn't instinctual from the womb, Stutesman says. It's taught, probably from the earliest stages of childhood development.

"This corporate climber might have been born into an environment in which they were conceived just to make the parent feel good about him or herself," he says.

"They learn from them this is how one relates to the world. I'd call this an appetite for an abusive environment, for sure, and corporate climbers tend to be users, abusers and so on. Internally, that is what they're used to."

Despite their bad rap, however, corporate climbers are often tremendously hard workers and successful at gaining results, Brendler says.

"With a lot of help and a lot of work on self-worth issues, corporate climbers can make adjustments. They can set high standards and work rationally to achieve those standards."
— Bob Turknett, Turknett Leadership Group

"They make fewer mistakes and may also reach a new standard that your company just would not reach without them," he says. "They keep people focused and worried about their jobs."

Because his or her self-worth is tied so closely to performance, Turknett adds, a corporate climber often is a top salesperson or account manager, but without integrity. He or she tends to alienate co-workers and sometimes even clients.

Stutesman says, "A person can be a great producer, but does he or she harm the moral climate of the workplace? I think keeping someone on like that is very poisonous and will come back to bite you in the end."

If a supervisor observes this behavior in an employee, he says the supervisor must evaluate the climber's contribution and weigh it on a scale of the harm he or she does in terms of office morale, employee retention and the company's reputation.

Bill Brendler  

"You have to be able to listen to your staff. People basically have good common sense, and there is folk wisdom from the cleaning crew on up," Brendler says. "If there's a consensus that this person treats people badly, you really need to pay attention to that."

But a supervisor has power over the climber while his or her subordinates do not. And Stutesman says it's imperative that they determine whether dealing with the climber is more destructive than it's worth. There are three issues at hand, he says.

"If you allow yourself to feel hurt or attacked, that just whets their appetite. Divorce yourself from being a victim," he says. "And two, the employee needs to take stock of whether it's a bearable situation and if it's not, and it isn't too damaging to their career, just get the hell out of there.

"And three, what are the institutional policies for functioning in that environment? Abuse comes in all forms, not just physical or sexual, and there should be grievance procedures, even though it may be tricky doing that internally," he says. "And finally if it's unbearable and you're leaving, make sure people know why you're leaving."

If you can bear the consequences, the experts agree, confrontation is the best way to stop a climber from walking all over you.

John Stutesman  

"You should absolutely confront them," Stutesman says. "This is a person who is very savvy. They'll take a scan on their political radar and realize their self-interests and avoid being harmed. They may change their behavior in that case. It may force them to treat people better."

Yamins agrees. "You have to stop this aggressive behavior by confronting them," he says. "They actually respect that."

And must the corporate climber always be the villain to his or her workplace subordinates? Or is it possible that with some help, the climber can simply be a strider?

"The outlook is not hopeless for a corporate climber unless you are dealing with a true, anti-social personality," Turknett says.

"With a lot of help and a lot of work on self-worth issues, corporate climbers can make adjustments. They can set high standards and work rationally to achieve those standards. If they're willing, there is certainly hope."


Issues at work: Handling a colleague's tantrum
November 29, 2000
Dealing with 'atitude' in a co-worker
November 13, 2000
Understanding workplace protocol
April 19, 2000
It's a man's job: Managing workplace stress
January 11, 2000

Brendler Associates
Turknett Leadership Group
Northwestern University
Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Maimonides Hospital

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