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imagesMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Original to Gemini Kid

Out on the town the other evening, our dinner was joined by a colleague who had been in a high position at my office about 4 years ago before being transferred to the central corporate body (university) where he was assigned to the events section, a section which, in practice, takes care of a lot of miscellaneous, relatively minor, activity.  I had seen him in this capacity when a delegation from my office visited a two-day conference in Tokyo.  He was one of the people checking the attendance of attendees from our corporate body, a nearly totally superfluous task.  He had experienced, as they say, a sideways move; a form of demotion for those who have moved high enough in the organization to be beyond strict demotion.

When I had seen him in this capacity, he had struck me as almost totally neutered; someone who had surrendered himself so entirely to the required form of his role that almost no personality, no being, remained.  A mannequin of ritual bowing and clipboard checking.  I wondered what it had been like for him to come to terms with his utter lack of necessity to the organization; wondered how one processes and balances whatever ambition had driven him to his original post with the terrifyingly banal judgment of the sideways move.  At least with a proper demotion, a stripping of title, a firing, one may take consolation from a specific failure to meet what is required, one can, if one wishes, reflect, learn, move on.

At dinner, his behavior was deeply at odds with the person I had last seen, indeed with his whole professional demeanor as I had known it.  He had shaved his head.  He spoke loudly and aggressively.  He nodded over-confidently, conferred the benefit of his agreement arrogantly.  He appeared to have been drinking earlier in the evening.  I also learned that he had been transferred yet again, this time to Sapporo, the far north, a land where labor is in demand and the employer not all that picky.

I wondered, and was not able to find out, what the nature of his position there was.  Another sideways move, almost certainly, but was it one that conferred the dignity of an outwardly impressive-ish title?  Or was he simply buried, entering that category of employee who is shuffled around the organization, taking four postings in eight years, a box filled at the end of the day by HR?  I liked to think the latter, not out of malice but in support of a micro-theory: that he had simply given up “behaving;” that his move north had freed him of the need to “maintain expressive control” (Goffman, 1959, p.51) so as to present the acceptable front or performance required by the atmospheric tonalities of the central corporate body.  Appearance transformed quite dramatically by his shaved head, his behavior at dinner was still banal, but in just the opposite manner of his earlier banality.  Two sideways moves in four years had juttered loose the remaining vestiges of his professional dignity and he had simply shed the learned social sheen required for those who would scale the organization ladder.  So I theorized, in any case.

Two notes; i) The sideways move is an under-investigated phenomena, worthy of deeper study.  What happens to people moved sideways, once, twice, three times?  Does this even happen much these days, or do such people fall victim to lay offs?  What should organizations do, if anything, to motivate the sideways shifted employee?  ii) In the first paragraph above, I describe the events section as dealing with minor matters.  This is in no way to suggest that events are of minor importance.  Rather, the way that events are considered and integrated in most organizations relegates them to mostly minor status.  The event may be sold and re-sold–it may be central to the branding of the organization, the centerpiece of the year–but too often the operation of the event is left to inertia and bureaucracy, especially if it has been run before.  This is a tragedy of great depth, as the event has the ability to transport participants out of the realm of the mundane and drop them into a field of transcendence and timelessness as deep as it is temporary.

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