I’ve been asked to prepare a paper for a conference on management and culture, with a particular focus: What are the main challenges that face leaders in the Philippines when it comes to organizational dynamics? When I was first asked that question, two words flashed immediately in my head: “sipsip” and “sulsul.”
Sipsip and sulsul (imagine them as terrorist twins or a two-headed monster) make no distinctions, feasting on small, medium and large offices; government and private organizations; businesses, political parties and religious groups. They’re also a plague in many families and clans, turning even the closest siblings into the worst of enemies.
The sipsip and sulsul certainly aren’t specific to the Philippines. You find them everywhere, but in the Philippines, they seem to thrive particularly well because of a particular configuration of social and historical circumstances.
Let me first describe the two creatures and their feeding habits, and then talk about the environment that allows them to do so well.
Sipsip is actually the younger of the twins, and the more visible and audacious. Literally translated as “to suck,” sipsip means sycophancy, an excessive and insincere flattering. An American slang term, “brownnose,” is particularly graphic in the way it describes how the sycophants stick to you, the brown nose the result of the way they follow you, from behind, to demonstrate their loyalty.
Much of sipsip is verbal, often conducted by several people who form a hallelujah chorus of sorts. In the Philippine setting, sipsip is also often acted out, the sipsips trying to outdo each other to do things for the big boss.
Psychologists know that the exuberance one feels after getting praise is always fleeting, which is why leaders can develop an addiction to their sipsip brigade, constantly in need for additional and larger doses of adulation.
Sipsips can be dangerous because they form a cordon sanitaire, shielding their master from any kind of bad news. The sipsip is there to assure the leader that he (or she) can do no wrong. Often employed to do public relations as well, the sipsip takes care of assuring the public -- whether constituents of a politician or clients of a corporation -- that all is well under the helm of the Great Leader. Eventually, a leader surrounded by sycophants loses touch with reality, which is why the family, the corporation or even an entire nation, begins to fall apart.
There are two kinds of sipsips. One is the underdog sipsip who is fairly low in the pecking order and simply needs to survive by licking the boots of whoever is higher up. He is usually the backup voice in the hallelujah chorus and doesn’t do too much harm, except to his own self-esteem.
The more dangerous sipsips are the ambitious ones, trying to worm their way into the power structures. They’re usually not too competent in what they do, and therefore have to find other ways to get promotions. By currying favor with the gods and goddesses, they often end up not as wielders of power themselves but as influence peddlers. The organization then begins to fall apart because a premium is placed on whom you know within, rather than on job performance.
Sipsip’s twin is "sulsul," a difficult term to translate. The closest English translation is “to goad” but sulsul also has connotations of constant, incessant intrigue. Like sipsip, sulsul goes for the ego but beyond that ego, it feeds also on a leader or administrator’s insecurities. Sulsul is an older twin of sipsip, tending to be more cunning in a vicious way.
A "sulsulero" [person that does "sulsul"] is usually already unpopular in the organizational structure, so to survive, he or she has to find ways to shield the boss (or, in families, a patriarch or matriarch) from those enemies. And what better way to do this than to identify the boss’ insecurities, and to paint a picture of the office under siege from particular enemies -- the sulsulero’s adversaries, of course?
Like the sipsip, the sulsulero works on the boss day in and day out so that even a fairly smart administrator might eventually wonder if perhaps there’s some truth to what the sulsulero is saying. Who was it that said that if lies were repeated often enough, people would believe them?
The character Golum in “Lord of the Rings” comes to mind when one tries to picture a sulsulero, a pathetic, sneaky weakling of a character. To some extent, yes, many sulsuleros are that way, but the more dangerous ones are those who come through with a benevolent demeanor. First, the sulsulero convinces the administrator that there are serious problems caused by certain people, and then he presents himself as the one and only reliable person to solve those problems, or to protect the leader from the enemies. In the end, the leader relies on a small cabal of sulsulero advisers, not knowing that they are the biggest scoundrels of them all.
The irony is that often, the sulsulero works on the staff as well, using gossip to create more intrigues and discontent sometimes against the very leader for whom they proclaim their loyalty. Like the sipsip, the sulsulero ingratiates himself to both the leader and co-workers as an intermediary who will bring the solution to all their problems.
As I mentioned earlier, sipsip and sulsul are not unique to the Philippines, but they do become greater problems in our setting because the two trace their paternity back to our feudal structures. Our social structures -- from the family to the most modern corporations -- are rigid hierarchies that are mainly based on age, class. It is not easy to access superiors, and to be frank in bringing up problems so such hierarchies create spaces for sipsip and sulsul.
How do we break that cycle? Leaders themselves, and that includes heads of clans, should be more discerning, learning to detect the empty praise of the sipsip and the vicious intrigues of the sulsulero. Because our feudal structures are so built on age and seniority, an older administrator should be especially aware of his vulnerability to becoming surrounded by the sipsip and sulsulero, and eventually becoming isolated from the world.
Even more importantly, we need to move away from the transactional politics that characterizes our feudal politics. Transactional politics is based on an exchange of favors, which encourages the sipsip and the sulsulero. We need to move toward a meritocracy that rewards competence and performance rather than praise and intrigue. When that happens, people will be motivated to be good at their work, rather than spending time on sipsip and sulsul.
Sure, there will always be Golum-type sycophants and sowers of intrigue lurking around, but they will be hard pressed to find a sympathetic ear, from fellow workers, or from the boss when everyone’s too busy working.