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Nov 23, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Have you ever wondered why some employees in your organization are recognized and moved upward, while others with more impressive credentials, experience, and achievements seem to stagnate ?

There’s a reason for that counter-intuitive phenomenon: Senior management may have a “star chamber” or informal clique that anoints some employees while sidelining others.

This explains why leadership mediocrity is sometimes overlooked, why personality trumps achievement, and how better qualified employees can be passed over for promotion. For the select few, middle-of-the-road performance is not a barrier to success – like it is for the rest of us.

Not exactly what you hear in Management 101, is it?

What you’re witnessing is an evolution of the informal “pass-fail” rating system that companies have used for generations to decide whether an employee is “one of us.”  Those deemed worthy receive a “get out of jail free” card that boosts their career.  Those lacking sponsors are categorized as having questionable value and are liable to suffer a fall at the next organizational bump in the road.

Do you remember the “in crowd” from your high school days?  You may not have escaped after all.

It’s all about P.I.E.

Psychologists have identified several human factors that describe an employee’s ability to relate to their work environment.  While each varies in importance from one organization to another, their combination has a critical impact on an employee’s likelihood for success.

  • Performance — Your demonstrated ability to perform your job. Do you achieve results?  The rating scale ranges from wonderful to woeful.
  • Image — Do you “fit” within the organization?  Is the image you project (personality, interests, clothing, demeanor, etc.) accepted by the rest of management?  This rating scale ranges from “One of us” to “One of them.”
  • Exposure — To what extent are you known or would be recognized in the hallways by senior management?  Who are you rubbing shoulders with? This rating goes from “You are known” to “Who?”

Then: The Way it Was

It wasn’t that long ago that Performance was King; that no matter what eccentricities you brought to the job, as long as you performed well, no one bothered you.

Idiosyncrasies and personality quirks were overlooked. “Oh, that’s just Bob,” you’d be told. “Don’t mind him. Just deal with it.”  Your value was measured by getting the job done.

Training classes would use a “scruffy-looking dude” as an example of a brilliant engineer buried beneath a beard, long hair, and mismatched clothes. Such employees possessed little in the way of social skills, no interest in office politics or traditional business hours, and never wore the company logo. Their job performance was their defining identifier. It marked them as a valuable human resource.

Image could be important, but was considered more as icing on the cake, not the critical ingredient.

Exposure was even less important, as long as you performed. “Being seen” was more for those who lacked a strong performance record. They were the ones who needed the help and support of others.

Now: The Way It Is

Today, good performance is not enough to ensure success. You must also be a “player.” You must be able to fit in, to blend with your other playmates, be liked as a person, adroitly dabble at office politics, be seen with the right people and have the same outside interests. Your capabilities shouldn’t be a challenge to your boss. How you dress is scrutinized for the image you present.

If you don’t perform well and you’re not in with the right group, your career with that firm will suffer. You’ll shrivel on the vine, if not be ultimately chopped off.

However, if you’re considered to be part of the right group, that association will step in to help should your performance weaken. This assistance can vary from softening the blow to overlooking shortcomings to shooting the messenger on your behalf. Club mates stick together. They circle the wagons when attacked.

What to do?

Does this sound fair?  Well, that’s the way it is when “Performance” is valued less than “Image” and “Exposure.” Should you find yourself working for an organization where your personal interests and hobbies are valued more than performance and results, your options will be limited.

  • You can try to re-invent yourself according to someone else’s value system.
  • You can try to stay under the radar, lest you be judged.
  • You can try to change the culture.
  • Or, you can leave.

If you believe that your job performance is your best calling card, that employees should be measured and weighed by their contributions, you may need to reconsider the long term prospects of your current environment.

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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