Keil Hubert: the management cuckoos

The recent US election reinforces a lesson that most people already know: the wealthy live under different rules than the rest of us. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert reminds us that this holds just as true in middle management as it does in the halls of power.

They’re among us … You know who I’m on about: those well-dressed, well-spoken, and well-heeled managers that somehow seem to put everyone on edge even when they’re at their most charming. Those people who can (when they wish to) be endlessly personable, but somehow always leave people feeling unsettled no matter how innocent the interaction. Those people who use words like ‘summer’ as a verb and say ‘yacht’ un-ironically. THEM. People that came from wealth, and (as such) live across an unbridgeable gulf from the rest of us.

I’m not arguing that all people who grew up rich are somehow inherently evil; that would be unfair. I’ve known children of privilege who grew up to be decent and delightful adults. Rather, I’m arguing that there’s a crucial lesson that these people inculcate while they‘re young that more often than not warps their personalities. Specifically, the absolute certainty that they reside in a parallel world; a gated community of their peers, where the consequences for one’s actions are strictly optional.

They look like us. They sound like us. They’re biologically human, after all. They just don’t think like us. No matter how sincere they are and how hard they try, they can’t help but radiate a slightly disquieting aura. Their own kind are immune to it, which is why most of them never recognize the effect that they have on us proles. We notice it, though; we sense it the same way that a prey animal recognizes a predator. The rabbit knows that the kind and cheerful fox can suddenly turn on it – and slay it on a whim. Wary discretion is mandatory if the rabbit hopes to survive.

Avoidance is a sounder tactic than fleeing, because running away triggers the predator’s chase instinct. Both are better tactics than fighting when you know you can’t win. This holds true for office harassment the same as it applies in the wild kingdom

Avoidance is a sounder tactic than fleeing, because running away triggers the predator’s chase instinct. Both are better tactics than fighting when you know you can’t win. This holds true for office harassment the same as it applies in the wild kingdom.

This has been a thing for as long as we’ve had an economically-stratified civilisation; you can find references to it in popular culture and political writing going back to the earliest recorded parables. My favourite take on it came in a book and movie duo that tapped into the Western zeitgeist back at the end of the so-called ‘False Golden Age’ that followed the end of World War II. [1]

In 1957, British author John Wyndham wrote a novel called The Midwich Cuckoos about a species of brood parasites that force the adult females in a small, isolated village to gestate and raise their young. The resulting children – all of whom look identical, proving that they’re not the real biological spawn of their mothers – have an icy demeanour, inhuman intelligence, psychic powers, and a sense of cruel indifference towards the humans that raised them. The children’s collective survival is their only goal, and they’re willing to casually murder anyone that dares threaten them.

The book was faithfully made into a movie called Village of the Damned in 1960 that resonated well with audiences. Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Consensus synopsis block best captures the story’s impact: ‘Chilling performances and a restrained, eerie atmosphere make this British horror both an unnerving parable of its era and a timeless classic.’ I agree. I loved the movie – and I find that it has a lot to say about the ‘others among us’ syndrome, which is why I’m alluding to it in this column.

Taking Mr Wyndham’s story at face value, both the book and the movie versions are the same straightforward tale of alien invasion. We’re never explicitly shown any aliens; it’s inferred. All the audience knows is that these spooky children aren’t entirely human (if they’re human at all). They came about as a result of deliberate biological engineering: everyone in Midwich was rendered unconscious, then the brood mothers were impregnated. Nine months later, the creepy children are born and from that point on form their own cold and cruel society-within-a society. Always apart.

I’ve heard arguments that this is supposed to represent the infiltration of subversive Communism in Western society, but I don’t buy that premise. The children in Whydham’s tale are clearly different from their parents from birth. They were never ordinary, carefree children before learning political ideology. I suspect that Mr. Wyndham was tapping into the collective consciousness of the mid-to-late 1950s and was speaking (consciously or unconsciously) to the terrible divine separating the children of privilege from everyone else. They may live among us, but they start out fundamentally different from us starting at birth and they remain that way for the rest of their lives. Always apart.

As a poignant example, consider former Prime Minister David Cameron’s alleged university hijinks. When the tabloids claimed that a young Mr. Cameron had taken part in some ungentlemanly conduct with a post-mortal centrepiece as part of a fraternity hazing ritual, it triggered a lot of shock and outrage. The thing is, if you set aside the salacious aspects of the story it’s little more than a humdrum tale of frat boys acting like typical frat boy jackasses. It’s the same sort of stupid activities that tipsy frat boys everywhere have engaged in for as long as we’ve had fraternal organisations.

I admit, I enjoyed the avalanche of jokes that the ‘pig-gate’ story provoked. That said, the unverified ‘revelation’ didn’t change my opinion of Mr. Cameron’s adult character or of his political record at all. Compared to some of the antics that fraternity boys and sorority girls get up to, fiddling with dead a pig’s head is – to be blunt – idiotic but unremarkable. By way of comparison: during my university orientation, the students were cautioned about Greek hazing issues following an incident where a Jewish fraternity pledge had been forced to parade around campus in a Nazi SS uniform. During my last undergraduate year, a student died from similar misconduct. The pledge got drunk at a series of joint fraternity/sorority parties held off-campus that were cynically structured to evade the university’s Greek activities alcohol ban. While driving from one party to another, the pledges’ driver pulled over to let the boy get out to vomit … whereupon he was struck and killed by another vehicle. What’s a little ham-bothering compared to having to bury a child?

That is what normal people really fear from the affluent: the prospect of having your life taken away from – literally or figuratively – on the rich person’s whim simply because they can. The truth is, a person becomes effectively immune to consequences for their actions after having achieved a certain threshold of wealth. As an example, consider the despicable case of Texas’s own Ethan Couch.

What comes next is horrifying, so here’s an adorable photo of a puppy napping under a blanket. Take your time. Close your office door (if you have one) so your co-workers won’t hear you cursing at the top of your lungs before you reach the next stock photo in this column.

I’m not going to re-phrase what happened because the subject triggers a white-hot rage in me every time that I think about it. Instead, I’m going to quote from the Wikipedia article:

‘On the evening of June 15, 2013, according to authorities and trial testimony, Couch was witnessed on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a Walmart store, driving with seven passengers in his father’s red 2012 Ford F-350 pickup truck, and speeding (70 miles per hour (110 km/h) in a designated 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) zone). Three hours after the incident, he had a blood alcohol content of 0.24%, three times the legal limit for adult drivers in Texas, and he also tested positive for marijuana and Valium.

‘Approximately an hour after the beer theft, Couch was driving his father’s truck at 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) on rural, two-lane Burleson-Retta Road where motorist Breanna Mitchell’s sport utility vehicle had stalled. Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby, who lived nearby, had come out to help her, as had passing youth minister Brian Jennings. Couch’s truck swerved off the road and into Mitchell’s SUV, then plowed into Jennings’ parked car, which in turn hit an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle. The truck then flipped over and hit a tree. Mitchell, Jennings, and both Boyles were killed, while Couch and his seven teenage passengers (none wearing seat belts) survived (although one was paralyzed), as did the two children in Jennings’ car and the two people in the Volkswagen.

‘Couch was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. Tarrant County prosecutors were seeking a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment for Couch.

‘G. Dick Miller, a psychologist hired as an expert by the defense, testified in court that the teen was a product of “affluenza” and was unable to link his actions with consequences because of his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.’

I had to get up from my desk and walk away for an hour after typing that passage. I’m as angry about it now as I was back when the story first broke. That isn’t meant to be some sort of humble-brag; it’s a raw wound. Our country was founded on the principle of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ and it simply isn’t true.

The rage isn’t borne of frustration at how the world works; the rage comes from knowing that we could make it true if only we lived up to the achievable goals that we set for ourselves.

We’ve learned this to our dismay. When President Trump quipped at a campaign rally that [he] ‘… could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?’ he wasn’t making a joke – he was reminding us of a harsh truth. I agree with Mr Trump’s later clarifying statements that he only intended to refer to the loyalty of his voters, but that’s by and large irrelevant. What he said is an actual thing that we all know to be true. Ethan Couch’s case is only one horrifying example out of far too damned many. Above a certain threshold, the laws of the land simply no longer apply to the wealthy. If Couch had been poor or a minority, the justice system would have sentenced him to death. Instead, since he’s a rich white boy, he got away with murder.

We know this. We also know that the exemption from consequences extends beyond capital crimes. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘daddy’s money opens locked doors;’ wealth doesn’t just purchase exclusive access. It smooths over all sorts of troubles from sexual harassment to embezzlement to drug abuse. If one of us wrongs a wealthy person, we know that we’ll get sent to prison – or we’ll get the noose. If one of theirs wrongs one of ours, the best that you can expect is for the next of kin to get the weregild. We hate the disparity, but we can’t deny that the disparity exists.

That’s why it’s unnerving when one of these untouchable scions shows up in the cubicle farm. It doesn’t matter why they joined the team; once they arrive, the environment becomes like the manifestation of a Gothic haunting. Relations become strained. Voices become muted. Furtive glances track the dangerous other everywhere they go. They may look like the rest of us, but they’re intruders. They’re raised among us, but they’re never truly part of us: ‘management cuckoos.’

I know. It’s unfair and unjust to assume automatically that every child of privilege is going to be an amoral and sadistic bastard. They’re not. I know this. You know this too. Many affluent people are kind, humble, charitable, decent, and/or forthright. That’s not the point. It’s not who they are that provokes the Midwich Cuckoo response to them; it’s what they can do to us that chills our blood.

It’s not the verbal abuse that people fear. It’s what happens afterwards when the shouting wasn’t enough. When you go back to the boss’s office and contrive a way to get us terminated … just because you can.

Wealthy managers and co-workers represent a real threat. No matter how restrained and cordial they act to us, we can’t forget the career-ending capability that’s always at their disposal. No matter how many times they reassure us that they have no intention of using that capability, it’s always there. Sure, we say. We believe that you don’t intend to use it … right now. That is, we’re all fine while you’re calm and rational. But what will happen when you get angry? Or tired? Or drunk?

I appreciate that this problem makes it extremely difficult for a child or privilege to establish trust and rapport with his or her co-workers. I’ve known several good people who came from money and chose to make their own career on personal merit rather than leverage their family’s extraordinary resources to vault ahead of the pack. Good on ya, everyone that chose the honourable path. That being said, the knowledge that these people constitute an existential threat never truly disappears.

The question, then, is what a person can do about it. Saying ‘don’t think about it’ is ludicrous. Their ability to destroy a person’s life (metaphorically or literally) represents a very real ‘sword of Damocles’ situation; the constant anxiety of what might happen at any moment never leaves one’s mind. Asking the affluent manager to disregard his or her upbringing and formative experiences is equally ridiculous; that’s as insulting as asking a person of colour in America to disregard the discriminations and injustices that they experienced and witnessed growing up. We can’t eradicate them from society the way the Soviets did in the film, either; that’s simply applying immediate immorality to forestall potential future immorality. [2] It’s illegal, too.

I don’t think that they problem can actually be ‘solved’ until we address society’s parallel worlds problem. So long as there’s one standard of justice for the affluent and a harsher standard for everyone else, the threat that these people b ring to the workplace will never go away. It’s like being shown Chekhov’s Gun … once revealed, it seems inevitable that it’ll get used … eventually.

A real gun can be left locked up at home where it doesn’t constitute a credible treat. A rich person’s power and immunity follows them constantly, and can’t be ignored

I suggest that the problem is best addressed by attacking it from two fronts simultaneously. First, upper management absolutely must enforce the organisation’s standards of conduct impartially for all personnel. Management’s arbitration of workplace behaviour has to establish and maintain an environment where everyone is subject to the same justice. This external pressure on the dangerous employee acts like a wheel chock under a truck tyre; it’s a deliberate and pre-emptive safety mechanism designed to interrupt a deadly accident. Consistent enforcement sets an organisation-wide expectation for behaviour that eventually inculcates individual standards of self-control.

Second, we – that is, all of us who don’t share the cuckoos’ alien immunities – have to suppress our natural anxieties regarding how our society has exempted these people from our laws and behavioural expectations. We must find the moral courage to treat every person as an individual; to judge each person solely on his or her own character. This is an obscenely difficult ask, because it flies in the face of rational self-interest. Making yourself vulnerable to a person who can harm or kill you on a whim is inherently absurd.

Then again, so is the society that our parents built that led us to this situation in the first place. It’s absurd, yes, but’s it’s also necessary. We must strive to build rapport with those that can harm us. These are still people, after all, not aliens. The more that they learn perspective, empathy, and respect from us, the more likely it is that they’ll mature into the sort of trustworthy and admirable people that we want and need them to become. More importantly, the more that they come to know us, the less likely they’ll be to lash out in frustration … because they perceive us as real people, too.


[1] The aberrational period is one of my favourite historical topics to dissect. The massive re-tooling of ordnance factories into consumer goods manufacturing, the rebuilding of a war-torn world, and the massive changes in technology all helped to warp Western culture – permanently. We’re all still reacting today to peculiar notions of how life ‘should’ be that came about either during the 1950s – or from heavily-edited retrospective interpretations of the 1950s.

[2] The always-pragmatic and ruthless fictional Soviets simply parked an artillery battery outside the maximum effective range of the cuckoos’ telepathy and lobbed a nuclear shell into the village, disintegrating all of the cuckoos (and everyone else in the village) before the aliens realized that they were in danger.

Title Allusion: John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957 book); Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, Ronald Kinnoch, and John Wyndham, Village of the Damned (1960 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

© Business Reporter 2020