The Corporate Shrink

Greed, rivalry, and other delights of the bonus season; thawing out a fear of cold calling.

Bonus season is here, and I wonder: Why do people act so strangely around now? I assume it's because they want a bigger paycheck. But they're also more tense and, frankly, not great to work with. Of course, I'm trying to get more money, too. Anything I can do as a manager to make things saner?

A cigar is rarely just a cigar, and a bonus is more than just money. It is a powerful symbol that means different things to different people. It's what we turn the bonus into that accounts for the behavior that you're seeing. The size of your bonus reflects not just how your work is judged but also how much you feel loved or cared for, relative to your peers. Think sibling rivalry, and it makes perfect sense. When it comes to bonuses, size matters. And yes, bonus envy is all too real.

Laboring under conditions loaded with such symbolism, people become needy, irritable, nosy, and aggressive. The process is cloaked in secrecy, yet inevitably, it is the subject of endless workplace gossip. It's no wonder, then, that bonus time is pretty miserable. And it's no secret that employees wait until just after bonus season to leave a dissatisfying job. Many of those who stay remain bitter about the process long afterward.

Frankly, there's no getting around some of this. When people compete for a limited pool of rewards, there's bound to be disappointment. But what if bonuses were discussed openly and honestly as a normal reward for performance rather than as an illicit, shameful desire? Giving out bonuses before the holiday gift-giving season, rather than afterward, has always struck me as a more humane tactic. And shortening the duration of the bonus season may reduce regressive behavior. The best solution of all: As a manager, stay attuned to the emotional responses that bonuses provoke, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Last year, I was moved from management to sales to avoid a layoff. I had never sold before, but my supervisor was sure I could handle it. Since then, I've had success implementing new procedures and handling referrals, but I'm having a hard time with cold calls. Even though I know the pitch well, I freeze when it comes to making the sale. And it's getting harder. My boss is frustrated, and I'm afraid of losing my job.

People who freeze on cold calls may fear being judged and rejected. They may feel guilty "seducing" someone they've never even met. Perhaps the lack of face-to-face contact, which lowers inhibitions for some, is frustrating for you since it's harder to establish a relationship without eye contact and body language.

You may know your pitch well, but if it's expressed without conviction, it's less likely to succeed. Every call gets harder, with self- perpetuating cycles of vulnerability and defeat. To thaw out, spend more time establishing a connection with the person you're calling before launching into your pitch. And train yourself to tune in to verbal cues more carefully; on the phone, those are the only cues you have.

But let's be realistic about your chances of succeeding at something that doesn't come naturally. Your supervisor probably meant well, but staying in this job too long without improvement isn't doing you a favor.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on management, leadership, and governance. Email your questions about the psychology of business (shrink@fastcompany.com).

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