How Flunkies Fail Upward

And what you can do to stop them.

It was like something out of an action comedy, but way sadder. My friend asked a coworker to help a student with a computer problem. Instead, he bolted. Charged full speed toward the back exit. Kicked open the door. Vanished for a two-hour lunch. Returned with the audacity to ask, “Did you get everything worked out?”

At a normal university, this guy would get fired. But here, he’s receiving a staff excellence award next week. Why? The answer’s so simple.

He’s a corporate suck-up, in denim. With stubble.

So…you can’t really tell at first.

Corporate suck-ups used to be easy to spot. Now they’re all former bros who like football, strip clubs, and beer. Or they’re super into kale and avocado, and wear just the right style of eyeglasses.

Suck-ups don’t have a uniform anymore. They just blend in wherever they find jobs. They dress like their boss and mimic his body language. They’ve all got upper management practically tattooed on their ass cheeks.

My entire life, I thought these types existed only in movies. The fact of art imitating life never occurred to me.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I figured suck-ups must thrive somewhere in the vast jungles of glass office towers and cubicle farms. But I thought pursuing a career in education would shield me against them.

Boy, was I wrong. They’re everywhere on college campuses these days. But why did they come here? It can’t be the money.

Corporate America sends you their finest rejects.

Higher education. Nonprofits. Government agencies. They’re getting flooded with flunkies who barely graduated business school. These duds can’t survive in the real cutthroat culture of Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. So they slide into sectors once devoted to a higher purpose.

Why? Because we’re a little nicer in this part of the world. And therefore easier to fool, easier to take advantage of. Easy prey. We want to pay everyone a somewhat fair salary for a reasonable amount of work. We don’t expect anyone to work 90 hours a week.

Hey, some of us might clock in 60–70 hours. But only because we’re dedicated to a cause like education and social mobility.

Corporate flunkies create a toxic culture.

My school is overrun by CEOs and VPs who got chased off from other institutions. They ran their former employers into the dirt because they know nothing about accounting or financial management.

They tell ten lies a day, and appropriate words like “transparency” and “self-governance.” They empty our travel budgets to take extended vacations where they explore so-called fundraising opportunities.

They obey one of the essential rules of failing upward, hiring incompetent people who make them look great by comparison. They reward other corporate flunkies, the ones who aren’t that charming. The ones who can’t lie that well. They create clones, dependents, and disciples.

You don’t have to play their game.

People like us get screwed because we do all the invisible labor. We help the students. (Or the clients). We run the assessments. We write the reports. We do the research. We take care of all the dull, un-sexy stuff that nobody pays attention to, except when it doesn’t get done.

You have to keep doing all that. This work matters. It’s what keeps your institution from failing. And it’s what will help you far more than your corporate suck up colleagues.

Who knows? By doing the hard work, you might actually be learning how to run a company, or a department, or a school. So that one day, you can start your own — when you’re ready.

You don’t need to change who you are. You don’t have to learn to schmooze with the bosses. At least not that much. When you do finally go into business for yourself — whatever profession — you’ll slay the companies where flunkies have simply failed upward.

Play a different game.

But for now, here you are. Stuck. Play your own game within theirs. Yes, you have to show up for the ceremonial crap. Go to at least one award ceremony. One party. One happy hour.

But you don’t have to stay all night. In fact, you just have to stay for half a drink. Then apologize. Tell them you have to finish an article. Or a report. Or put your kid to sleep.

You’re not lying. It’s the truth. You’ve made an effort to be social, but you’re also extremely busy. Let them see who’s really running things.

Send an occasional email apologizing for not making that coworker’s kid’s birthday. Send them proof of the thing you were doing for them, and ask for their feedback. They might love your humility. This isn’t bragging. You’re just not hiding all the work you do. If you simply skip the pointless party, they’ll assume you’re off somewhere getting wasted by yourself.

Communicate with your subordinates AND your superiors.

Those who fail upward never tell their employees the truth. And they don’t listen to anyone but themselves, and maybe their bosses. At least not until it’s too late. So you have to get savvy. Learn when you’re being lied to. Read between the lines.

Corporate flunkies actually suck at hiding the truth. That’s why they fail in the first place. They’re not good at anything but bullshit. They fail upward based on this skill alone.

You can’t just ignore your terrible boss. You can’t let them know you’re smarter than they are, either. Even if it feels good to outshine them. You have to stay informed about what they’re up to. Let them lie to you, and get the the difference somewhere else.

Get the truth from the margins.

Where do you get the truth? Your boss’s assistant. And your other boss’s assistant. And that guy who works in IT. And that lady in accounting. The people like you — the ones doing their jobs.

As a professor, I learn so much about our university just by listening to my own students. And our part-time teachers. Someone who fails upward dismisses these voices.

But you’ll listen to them. Because they know a lot. Talk to them. Share your secrets, and they’ll return the favor. Earn their respect and trust, and you’ll always figure out what’s really going on.

Don’t always say what you’re actually thinking.

I’ve had to learn this skill. Years ago, my blunt talk probably did cost me some raises or promotions. Honest people want to tell the truth, even if it hurts. But corporate flunkies don’t want the truth.

So don’t tell it to them.

Keep your mouth shut around corporate flunkies. Or at least buff the edges off your hard truths.

If you think something’s a bad idea, in earnest, then you can find other ways to handle the problem, or at least minimize the damage.

Become a numbers person.

So your idiot boss and toxic colleagues are pursuing a terrible idea. You’ve decided it’s not worth fighting. But there’s one thing you can do.

Assess it. Brush up on your high school stats class. Make friends with the people who track hard data — wherever you work. It’s helped me. I’m no math whiz, but I know more about our budget and operations than most English professors. And I’m learning new skills every day.

If you can’t stop a bad idea, you can observe it fail. You can caution your team. Use those exact words. “I’d like to issue a caution here,” or “I’d like to raise some concerns.” Let them dismiss you for now. When the bad idea starts to implode, you can explain what happened.

This may prevent your flunky boss from finding a soft landing. Detailed records will make him own the failure.

Save all of your emails.

It shocks me how few people archive important messages. Me? I save everything. Because you know at some point your boss or his boss is going to ask why you didn’t say or do X, Y, or Z.

When he does, you can forward him emails from five weeks ago showing him otherwise. And he’ll have to back down.

Also, keep detailed notes of important meetings. Keep them in a single document. Record the dates. That way, you can show people when you raised that one caution, or asked that one critical question.

Sound paranoid? That’s exactly how we let corporate flunkies fail upward in places they don’t belong. We’re too trusting.

Start documenting everything you do.

Let’s return to the dude who bolted off to lunch. My friend has to do half his work, at the direction of their boss. You might wind up in a similar situation. Instead of just doing it, do it and document the tasks.

Keep a list of your job responsibilities handy. Add a column for every extra thing you have to do.

You might even want to log the hours you spend on other people’s work. Last year, I started using this strategy.

It actually makes a difference.

Turns out, nobody in my unit knew what all I’d taken on. Some of them actually gasped when I showed them. They started putting pressure on my boss to make some changes about work flows.

My boss actually offered me money to hire an assistant.

Sadly, that money has vanished. But at least it existed at some point. It may reappear. Despite the outcome, I’m glad I got the practice of advocating for myself. It’s a priceless skill.

Find the right mega boss.

Odds are, your company has at least one or two people on the top floor who know what they’re doing. Make allies with them.

You don’t have to bring them gifts, or take them out to lunch. You’re not looking for fellow mutineers. Just partners.

All you have to do is communicate about what you both already care about. For competent people, this is simple.

We don’t take these kinds of steps enough. Why? We’re scared of stepping on someone’s pet. Of looking presumptuous. Of somehow turning into the kind of corporate suck up we abhor.

Stop bailing out the flunkies.

Cosmic justice does intervene every so often. Let it. Early in my career, I made the mistake of bailing some colleagues out of their epic fuck-ups. They didn’t notice or care. Next time, someone else saved them.

And so they just kept failing toward the stars.

Besides, it’s so satisfying to watch a flunky get what they deserve. A few years ago, I watched a parent chew out an arrogant administrator — with a huge grin on my face. This doesn’t happen nearly enough. So when it does, revel in the moment. You’re not a bad person.

Don’t do any of this for material gain.

Corporate flunkies crave praise and attention. They never stop thinking about the next raise or promotion. They’re always gunning for an award. But not you. There’s a reason you don’t win awards.

You don’t apply for them. And you don’t ask anyone to nominate you for them. It’s just not your style.

Last year, my college alone gave out twenty awards. Who knows? Maybe thirty. I actually lost count. Dozed off for about fifteen minutes. Woke up. Saw they were still presenting awards.

We don’t want awards and titles. We just want fair pay for the work we do. We want flunkies who don’t carry their weight to get what they actually deserve. That’s not gonna happen if we don’t learn their moves, and counter them with some of our own. It’s time to strategize.

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