Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Tai Chi of dealing with people

Last week I observed my boss and his more senior/established/famed collaborator undergo the "Tai Chi" of negotiation. On the surface it appeared that the two of them were joking around a lot during the meeting, but in reality it was a power struggle, where the collaborator was trying to entice the junior professor to take up a whole bunch of technical work by painting a verbal picture of the medical importance of these projects and how doing these work could put us in the forefront of the research field in terms of those specific subject areas. My boss was indeed intrigued by the medical potentials; however he was also aware that the senior guy wants to dump a huge amount of workload on him, so he made plenty of stupid jokes while trying to assert that these technical tasks are more time-consuming than people seem to think. The senior guy jokes that there are 24 hours a day and that should be enough time to work on multiple projects. He did this because my boss was over-claiming the amount of time required to perform some of the tasks. 

To me this discussion could have been 1000 times more straightforward. The senior guy could have just described all the interesting research ideas he has which our group could potentially work on. My boss could have just made a conservative estimate of how many of these ideas he can get his staff to put into implementation and make a rough estimate of the amount of time required. But I guess that would be too boring. For them it made more sense to just joke around to keep the atmosphere "light". My super boring linear mind was confused: why all these jokes and dance and over-exaggeration of potentials and difficulty level of the work? I thought this kind of stuff are reserved for politicians and are "beneath" science? 

Sadly I think this type of negotiation is not restricted to the world of business and politics. If we are too straightforward, the "truth" can hurt our relationship with others and our career potentials. To get ahead in the world we must all have the skill to sell ourselves, to joke around to establish friendliness, but also to work in our assertions and basic values without offending the other party.

Unfortunately I am totally unequipped with this type of skills to be witty and funny and manipulate/maneuver my way out of sticky situations. I don't know how to keep the people I am obliged to deal with happy even if I don't like the situation (or the people); I take everything people tell me at the face value and rarely ponder about the meanings in between the lines. To me it seems like it doesn't matter what field they're in (even if it's NGO or social or charity work), successful people in the world are people who are masters at playing the diplomacy game - people who can convince other people to do what they want them to do wins, which means diplomacy, persuasion, manipulation,  ie. marketing and sales skills trump all other technical skills. Even if I want to quit my job and go volunteer the the poorest village in the world or something, I still need to possess the above-mentioned skill set, or at the very least recognized others are manipulating me or selling me ideas that are not as straightforwards as they sound; otherwise I will be taken advantage of, being stepped all over, and become frustrated no matter what I choose to do with my life.

Another thing: I'm used to jokes back home that are light hearted and to some degree politically correct. I'm really tired of jokes being made around my social/work circles here that sound potentially offensive in a personal way, overly sarcastic, sometimes racist/discriminatory, and then they are like "oh I'm just  joking".  Back home people most likely wouldn't laugh at these jokes. But here I feel like I've been bombarded by this kind of "jokes" (you could argue that some of these are "socially awkward people"). I need to figure out some way to deal with this; otherwise I feel like I'm going crazy. 

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