Fear of being oneself in the workplace

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The following paper was originally written several years ago as a draft document:

This document is an outgrowth of focusing on a specific question used in an employee survey. That question is: "I feel that I can be myself at work?" The multiple-choice checkboxes on the survey form ranged from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

I find this particular question fascinating, for not only did the survey designers consider it to be important by designating it a "key driver" of employee satisfaction, it seems to raise other meaningful questions. If one can't be one's self then who is one being exactly? It seems that if one is not being one’s self, one is rather presenting something else, a “false self” perhaps, a term that was introduced by Donald Winnicott1 and elaborated on here by R.D. Laing:2

"The component we wish to separate off for the moment is the initial compliance with the other person’s intentions or expectations for one’s self, or what are felt to be the other person’s intentions or expectations. This usually amounts to an excess of being ‘good’, never doing anything other than what one is told, never being ‘a trouble’, never asserting or even betraying any counter-will of one’s own. Being good is not, however, done out of any positive desire on the individual’s part to do the things that are said by others to be good, but is a negative conformity to a standard that is the other’s standard and not one’s own, and is prompted by the dread of what might happen if one were to be oneself in actuality. [emphasis mine] This compliance is partly, therefore, a betrayal of one’s own true possibilities, but is also a technique of concealing and preserving one’s own true possibilities, which, however, risk never becoming translated into actualities if they are entirely concentrated in an inner self for whom all things are possible in imagination but nothing is possible in fact."

Or, as Howard Schwartz writes independently in (Hirschorn and Barnett 1993):3

"There is something not only unnatural but positively impossible about becoming someone else. But this is obligatory. The result is that the person one really is not only is unacceptable to oneself, but is unacceptable in social life, which is in turn composed of persons who are each unacceptable in social life for the same reasons. The result is that social interaction takes place not between persons, but between performances. Roles utter words at other roles. And if at any time any one of them were to say, as each of them somehow knows, "This is a bunch of nonsense," that person would become a pariah because he or she would bring out in all these people the anxiety that motivated the performance in the first place and maintained it at all times. Thus, each of these persons must live in more or less complete isolation and be terribly lonely."

Wyatt and Hare share their perspective:4

"Those people with the most polished false selves, those adhering most closely to the imaged organizational ideal, are 'successful.' People who are unable to meet the false-self evaluations may feel worthless largely because their authentic (and more valuable) selves have not been developed sufficiently as fallback when they experience failure of their false (imaged) selves."

The pathos that these authors write about are each about where fear produces a performance (in the theatrical sense 5) tied to the perceived expectations of others, which, if  that’s the only way one can relate to others in the workplace, has to be a betrayal in some degree to one’s sense of one’s own human potential. Even where fear is not openly acknowledged, there is a desire to be seen as compliant. To quote one of my interviewees who otherwise may not have wanted to be interviewed: "I want to be seen as being cooperative."

The fear of speaking up is an understandable one. I’ve come across more than a couple of books that warn people that they risk damage to their reputations if they do. Even if you are offered the opportunity to speak frankly, though it may be a temptation, these authors advise against taking it. 6

Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich write about the fears individuals in companies have about speaking up. They devote an entire chapter to the repercussions of speaking up, in which people at every level told the authors about an “incredible range of anxieties”. In addition to more immediate or direct repercussions, a larger concern was indirect repercussions such as loss of credibility and reputation. It is worth quoting the authors at length here:7

The loss of credibility and reputation is most commonly expressed as a fear of being labeled. Words like "troublemaker", "boat rocker", and "unprofessional" worry people. They convey poor judgment, last a long time, and lead to other, more tangible repercussions. These words imply that an individual is acting in bad faith and operating against the interests of the organization. They connote being an out­sider. Many see that being labeled "not a team player" is the beginning of a downward cycle where duties start to change and performance ratings decline. These events, in turn, influence career opportunities, raises, and bonuses, and can possibly lead to layoffs or transfers. In many organizations, the concept of the "hit list" represents the extreme outcome of fears about being labeled.

Labels are signals of disfavor that quietly operate in the minds of managers and supervisors. People often believe that over time these psychological sorting bins control the ultimate success or failure of people in the organization. Once a loss of credibility has occurred, other incremental repercussions begin to accumulate. The person may be cut out of an important information loop, lose a key tie to decision makers, or lose the respect of those the individual most admires. The individual may no longer be seen as an important contributor. The ulti­mate message is, "You may be good enough to stay, but don't expect to be recognized or important, to have influence, or to get the support you want."

Loss of credibility and reputation is defined as being much larger than a question of performance. It is experienced in the broad realm of ego and self-esteem, not just the local geography of tasks and specific skills. A vice-president of a service firm defined credibility as "your boss's trust in your judgment." Other members of our sample described it as "people's faith in you," "trust of your motives," and "your valid­ity as a person." These definitions are about core integrity as a human being. Labeling, they are saying, is felt as an attack on the person, not just on the performer. As one thirty-year veteran of a large corpora­tion put it, "When your judgment is in question, it is very, very serious. Judgment is everything."

What makes the issue of credibility so complex, controlling, and frightening for people is that the labels are usually believed to be hidden. Many are convinced that management's subtle, derogatory con­clusions about someone's credibility translate into negative conse­quences. But they also believe that the connection between the two will be obscured by time and false explanations. They will be dimmed by decision makers' own lack of awareness that they are using them to make critical choices. Hence the concern to avoid, as a bank employee told us, any "slight, negative background feeling." Better to stick with the party line. Better not to rock the boat by speaking up.

People fear that a loss of credibility is final, silent, and permanent. One small group of interviewees repeatedly referred to "the memory bank of the organization." Another talked about "the area under the curve," meaning management's accounting of a person's total reputa­tion and accomplishments, which includes both positive and negative events. The consensus in that group was that "one 'aw shit' wiped out all previous achievements under the curve. Another interviewee observed: "When your career is hurt because your credibility has been questioned, you're never involved in the discussion and you'll never be able to prove it." (Ryan and Oestreich 1991)

The authors write that over half the stories they heard about repercussions were about the "indirect, subtle consequences associated with speaking up." They identified the following four themes:

  1. Subtle Repercussions Have Large Potential Impact
  2. Subtle Repercussions Are Untraceable
  3. Subtle Repercussions Are Unpredictable
  4. Subtle Repercussions Are Not Contestable

According to the authors, "these four characteristics are a central part of why people do not speak up. They express the qualities that create a sense of danger and helplessness. As one person in our sample said, they generate a low-key, 'long-enduring mental anxiety.'" (Ryan and Oestreich 1991)

They position their book as an answer to how to go about achieving Deming’s famous dictum to "drive fear out of the workplace".8 I will come back later to their recommendations to address fear in the workplace, but want to note now their suggestion that one of the "best and most powerful ways to overcoming fear's influence in the workplace is to discuss the undiscussables", which I believe I am making an attempt at opening up with this document. Other authors also invite such discussion:9

"When you agree to dialogue, you invite disclosure of deep levels of conflict. The process strips back the superficial and reveals core issues. I have worked with groups where the core issues included personal issues as well as business issues. We may have been able to separate our personal lives from our professional lives ten years ago, but the new demands of business require our whole being. When we bring our whole being to work, business becomes more personal. Ignoring that fact severely limits your ability to build cohesion with a group."

Other authors, as I’ve noted above, decry an excess of combination of work and personal, and of open disclosure of personal feelings in the workplace. Andrew Ross writes about the paradox that “when work becomes sufficiently humane, we are likely to work far too much” 10

I came across a book in Colonial Library a few years ago by human resources professional Emily S. Bassman. She writes about the things that contribute to a culture of fear in the workplace, one of which is performance appraisals. She calls upon her own experiences as a human resources professional working for a large corporation, as well as to Deming and other authors, in coming up with some recommendations, such as the following:11

It is important to remain open to the need to turn some elements of the system upside down--for instance, the tradition of individual performance appraisal that depends on ranking peoples' performance. Peter Block has said, 'The only purpose of performance appraisals is to remind you on a yearly basis that somebody owns you’ (Zemke 1991). Although this statement was made tongue-in-cheek, there is more than a grain of truth in it. Performance appraisal (evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review) is considered by Deming to be one of the 'deadly diseases,' and he says that management by fear would be a better way to describe it (Deming 1982)8. A system of performance appraisal creates the appropriate environment for individual abuse by providing managers with oppor­tunities to practice management by fear. Its existence also is an example of institutional abuse, because it contributes to a culture based on manage­ment by threat and intimidation.

If one truly understands Deming's systems perspective, one cannot escape the conclusion that merit rating is unfair and based on the need to see patterns in random performance. Deming says that merit ratings reward people who do well in the system but never reward attempts to improve the system (which, incidentally, is what quality is all about). It ascribes differences to people that in reality may be caused entirely by the system in which they work. Gilovich (1991) has documented the human tendency to find patterns where only random variations exist. There is no better example of this phenomenon than in assigning performance rankings to people when circumstances beyond their control significantly affect their effectiveness. To truly create the conditions that will support an all-out effort toward continuous improvement of products and services, the annual review of individual performance will have to be given up because it drives the wrong behavior. Practicing quality appropriately will also remove opportunities for abusing employees through management by fear.

Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, in their book The Creative Spirit, write about the voice of blame and criticism becoming internalized, the way we make the fear of punishment a reality by punishing ourselves:12

THE BIGGEST block to living a creative life is the voice of blame and criticism within each of us: the voice of judgment, or the VOJ for short. A good way to start dealing with it is to acknowledge that you have it! Take a moment to recall a time when you had an idea and were hesitant or afraid to verbalize or act on it. Perhaps later somebody else did the very thing you had been thinking of, and you felt despondent about not having acted on your idea in the first place. The VOJ is that part of you that makes you both afraid to do something and depressed after you didn't do it.

The VOJ assumes different forms. The voice inside of you is usually the most daunting--but there is also judg­ment by others, including cultural judgments such as the rules of etiquette that discourage "unconventional" so­cial behavior. Once it gets hold of you, the VOJ can lead you into a maze of negativity, including the following absurd situation. The VOJ inhibits you from doing something. Your VOJ then makes you feel depressed about your weakness of will. Next, your VOJ con­demns you harshly for being depressed (it's not part of your self-image). Then, a friend comes along and chides you for both not following through on your idea and for being depressed.

That fear of punishment seems closely linked to avoiding feelings of shame, as Gershen Kaufman expounds upon his book, “Shame: The Power of Caring”:13

All of us embrace a common humanity in which we search for meaning in living, for essential belonging with others, and for valuing of who we are as unique individuals. We need to feel that we are worthwhile in some especial way, as well as whole inside. We yearn to feel that our lives are useful, that what we do and who we are do matter. Yet times come upon us when doubt creeps inside, as if an inner voice whispers despair. Suddenly, we find ourselves questioning our very worth or adequacy. It may come in any number of ways: "I can't relate to people." "I'm a failure." "Nobody could possibly love me." "I'm inadequate as a man or as a woman." When we have begun to doubt ourselves, and in this way to question the very fabric of our lives, secretly we feel to blame; the deficiency lies within ourselves alone. Where once we stood secure in our personhood, now we feel a mounting inner anguish, a sickness of the soul. This is shame.

Above all else, shame reveals the self inside the person, thereby exposing it to view. To feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully dimin­ished sense. This feeling of exposure constitutes an essential aspect of shame. Whether all eyes are upon me or only my own, I feel deficient in some vital way as a human being. And in the midst of shame, an urgent need to escape or hide may come upon us.

Kaufman’s book, in his words, “probes the inner experience of shame, its inter­personal origins as well as later internalization, and the violation shame does to our essential dignity as human beings.” Wyatt and Hare (Wyatt and Hare 1997) give credit to Kaufman for his pioneering work on shame, which forms the underpinnings of their book along with Robert F. Allen’s work on norms and the organizational unconscious (Allen and Kraft 1982).14 When Deming wrote about “management by fear”, what he was talking about was a form of work abuse practiced in autocratic organizations, which according to Wyatt and Hare amounts to 95% of workplaces:4

Work abuse is the flagrant mistreatment or silent neglect of people in the staggering number of Western work organizations that remain authoritarian and overcontrol employees. Ninety-five percent of workplaces are autocratic; they sustain productivity losses and fail to meet their customers' or clients' needs because most top-level managers refuse to share power with employees and instead blame them for systems problems for which managers themselves are responsible. Most people in these abusive organizations, like children in abusive families, stay blind to their abuse in order to survive it. Like young children who are battered daily in abusive families, people see their abusive work situation as "normal" and the shaming way others behave toward them as "human nature," because they are either unaware or disbelieving of an­other way of working.

As Bassman writes, the productivity losses that an organization sustains cannot be measured because “what makes losses unmeasurable is the concept of opportunity costs. One cannot measure something that isn’t there; no one knows how productive a person can be under different circumstances. As Ryan and Oestreich (Ryan and Oestreich 1991) point out, in organizations where fear is prevalent, the organization generally will survive and may even be reasonably successful. The important question is, how much more successful could it be? No one can say, because lost opportunities cannot be measured, especially if their possible existence is not even considered” (Bassman 1992).

Wyatt and Hare point out that fear is not restricted to any one group. They write about the “false self” exhibited by aspiring managers:4

Aspiring managers begin early to adhere to managers' norms by develop­ing a false self--a mask that hides their shame and their lack of knowledge of details for which they may be held responsible. The mask gives the external impression of an internal sense of authority that is most often nonexistent. Managers' meetings are usually stressful exhibitions of the enforcement of false-self norms--always a test for new managers. In these meetings, manag­ers compete with each other in giving a believable false-self performance: each must discuss creditably what few present know anything about.

Over 50 years ago, Whyte wrote about the “great mutual deception” that people within organizations engage in: 15

We practice a great mutual deception. Everyone knows that they themselves are different--that they are shy in company, perhaps, or dislike many things most people seem to like--but they are not sure that other people are different too. Like the norms of personality testing, they see about them the sum of efforts of people like themselves to seem as normal as others and possibly a little more so. It is hard enough to learn to live with our inadequacies, and we need not make ourselves more miserable by a spurious ideal of middle-class adjustment. Adjustment to what? No­body really knows--and the tragedy is that they don't realize that the so-confident-seeming other people don't know either.

Kaufman writes about impact of culture and the 3 “cultural scripts” which generate shame:13

The first is the success ethic, which enjoins us to compete for success and to achieve by external standards of performance. The mythic figure of the self-made man is a dominant image of the literature of our nation. We are stimulated to seek our advantage over others through competi­tion. We are taught to view achievement as the measure of our intrinsic worth or adequacy. We are further taught to strive after success and to measure it directly through our accomplishments. Hence, external per­formance becomes the measure of self-esteem. Striving for success can breed anxiety in the form of fear of failure because success is never entirely within our control. When success by any external standard becomes the measure of self-validation, then competition is inevitably fostered, generating hostility and fear. Failure to attain these goals produces loss of self-esteem and feelings of inferiority. This is shame. Failing at any new enterprise will now activate shame. Simply being average must seem a curse. The injunction to compete for success inevitably strangles our capacity for caring and vulnerability.

A second cultural injunction is to be independent and self sufficient. Deeply imbedded in our cultural consciousness are images of the pioneer, cowboy, and more recently, the detective. These archetypal figures mirror how to stand proudly alone, never needing anything, never depending on anyone. Needing becomes not a source of strength, but a clear sign of inadequacy. To need is to be inadequate, shameful. Crying and touching are expressions of personality which are heavily shamed in this culture: we are shamed for being human.

The final injunction is to be popular and conform. In a culture which esteems popularity and conformity, individuality is neither recognized nor valued. Being different from others becomes shameful. To avoid shame, one must avoid being different, or seen as different. The awareness of difference translates into feeling lesser, deficient. These three cultural injunctions create conflicting scripts. It is virtu­ally impossible to accomplish all three visions simultaneously: compete for success, be independent and self-sufficient, yet be popular and conform. These cultural scripts become additional sources of shame. Through shame, culture shapes personality.

The shame of failure brings distancing behavior from others. Robert Jackall describes the case of one middle manager who had been given a new assignment that was effectively a demotion, and writes that for the most part, other managers avoided him "as one would a leper," which is “a common pattern of behavior toward failures in a competitive envi­ronment.” He went on to discuss the social distancing involved:16

“Such social distancing has two purposes: it undermines in advance or lays the groundwork for refusal of any claims that a person considered a failure might make on another, and it forestalls the possibility of being linked with that person in others' cognitive maps. This becomes particularly important when there has been a known past association between oneself and one thought to have failed in some way. One executive describes this distancing:

“Our motives are purely selfish. We're not concerned about old Joe failing, but we're worried about how his failure will reflect on us. When you pick somebody, say, you invest part of yourself in him. So his failure and what it means to his kids and so on mean nothing. What you're worried about is your own ass with your superiors for having picked him in the first place.... What we do essentially when some­body fails is to put him in a little boat, tow him out to sea, and cut the rope. And we never think about him again.”

Peter Senge writes about the fear of anything that might make one look bad, not only individuals, but teams as well17:

“All too often, teams in business tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally, and pretending that everyone is behind the team's collective strategy -maintaining the appearance of a cohesive team. To keep up the image, they seek to squelch disagreement; people with serious res­ervations avoid stating them publicly, and joint decisions are watered-down compromises reflecting what everyone can live with, or else reflecting one person's view foisted on the group. If there is disagreement, it's usually expressed in a manner that lays blame, polarizes opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying differences in assumptions and experience in a way that the team as a whole could learn.”

Joanne Ciula writes about the reverence for the team leader inducing fear:18

Getting cooperation from employees has always been a challenge. That is why many companies invested in learning how to build and lead or "coach" teams. Here again the romanticism of teams and sports analogies are evident. Consider the reverence for the team leader in the book Leading Self-Directed Work Teams. The author, Kimball Fisher, emphasizes the importance of authenticity. He writes that the key val­ues of a team leader are belief in the importance of work, a belief that work is life, a belief in the "aggressive" development of team members, and a determination to "eliminate barriers to team performance." This description is either inspiring or frightening, depending on whether you are the team leader or a team member. Would you want to work for this person?

The word “eliminate” was used way back by Frederick Taylor, when he posited the “elimination of all men who refuse to or are unable to adopt the best methods.” (Taylor 1915)19. Ciulla continues:

“…as we saw earlier, fear is the oldest way to get people to work. Explicit fear, such as knowing that we will be fired, has limited benefit because it can depress, paralyze, debilitate, or infuriate us... Employees may eventually burn out or self-­destruct, but they will put in more work, for a while. Today's company men and women work longer hours and tolerate greater pressure than Whyte's organization man.”

Fear seems aligned with mistrust and control; absence of fear seems aligned with trust and empowerment. These correspond to Stephen Covey’s “two master principles” (Covey 1990):20

  • Empowerment at the management level. If you have no or low trust, how are you going to manage people? If you think your people lack character or competence, how would you manage them? When you don't have trust, you have to control people. But if you have high trust, how do you manage people? You don't supervise them-they supervise themselves.… People are empowered to judge themselves because their knowledge transcends any mea­surement system. If you have a low-trust culture, you have to use measurement because people will tell you what they think you want to hear.
  • Alignment at the organizational level. What would your organiza­tion look like in a low-trust culture with a control style of manage­ment? Very hierarchical. What is the span of control? Very small, because you can only control so many people. You resort to "gofer" delegation; you prescribe and manage methods.… You use the carrot-and-stick motivation system. Such primitive systems may enable you to survive against soft competition, but you are easy prey for tough competitors.
If you have high trust, how is your organization structured? Very flat, extremely flexible. What's the span of control? Extremely large. Why? People are supervising themselves. They are doing their jobs cheerfully without being reminded because you have built an emo­tional bank account with them. You've got commitment, and they are empowered.

Ciulla provides examples of companies that have flattened their hierarchies, but however have failed to achieve the fear-free work environment one might hope for.

Earl Shorris, in the preface to his acclaimed book Scenes from Corporate Life (Shorris 1984)21 offers that Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism (Arendt 1968)22 had served as a guide throughout his book , and that “the interested reader will be well served by going to the source.” Howard S. Schwartz (Schwartz 1990)23 has a chapter devoted to the “Psychodynamics of Organizational Totalitarianism”, which, along with many of the other references I have in this paper, deserve broad treatment in themselves. Totalitarianism is defined simply as the process of defining people’s happiness for them.

David Schmaltz writes about how “process can always replace relationship. Process extended to theologic adherence easily replaces our natural abilities to relate with each other. Replacing relationship with process might seem like a very good idea if I believe that people will naturally fall into chaos without it. If I observe, such a notion cannot persist. The more I experienced the defined and enforced process side of this life, the more of a heretic I became.” (Schmaltz 2003)24

Some ways out of the conundrums I referred to above are offered as sometimes painstaking examinations and processes outlined over several chapters in books that are listed in the bibliography as well as others. Some common themes emerge, however. The offered approaches from a significant number of authors I’ve read encompass caring, reciprocal human relationships in the workplace. In maintaining a rewarding work environment, commonly suggested is some of that administrative slack that Bassman et. al. referred to. The cultural environment these solutions attempt to create offers a sense of play:25

“Any individual or business that wants great success must take the concept of play seriously. For that matter, play should be the only thing taken seriously. Play in the workplace is not frivolous, as the hard work advocates would have you believe. Quite the contrary, play has enormous practical value…

Play allows the mind to flow without restrictions - to explore, to experiment, to question, to take risks, to be adventurous, to create to innovate, and to accomplish - without fear of rejection or disapproval. Thus a business that regards fun as “unprofessional” or “improper” or “trivial” or “out of place” stifles the creative and progressive process. That’s like running a highly competitive race with one foot stuck in a bucket.”

“Without fear” as Gratzon says. Fear is the common theme. Too many references to list in the time allotted, but I will list them. My library is one of the largest private collections focused on workplace issues in the world, an entire wall of full bookcases largely devoted to grappling with these workplace issues, fear being a central theme. You should fear that, or at least acknowledge it in some way, as this document is just an incredibly small sampling of the writing I am capable of and intend to pursue. I will not be simply stashed in a cubicle to live out my days handling coding assignments that have been dictated to me by persons ten years or more my junior! Or maybe I will. I’ve got a mortgage payment to make for quite a number of years, you know, and I fear being tossed out onto the street.

The preceding paragraph was the original draft ending to this paper that I did not intend to keep. Obviously, in a paper pointing out existence of and costs of fear in the workplace, telling someone to fear something is an ironic twist, if not producing concern about some vague threat. That’s another reason for not speaking up, a fear that your words will peg you as someone potentially dangerous, as an “angry employee”.26 I think that many of us do get angry at circumstances, such as losing the fruits of one’s labor when it didn’t have to end up that way, but there is social pressure to suck it up and not let on. I strongly believe that forgiveness is the best answer to any of life’s insults, and, as I’ve heard it stated by others who have embarked along such a path, it’s something I personally have to work at on an ongoing basis.

I’ve got more reading and study to elucidate this, but there appear to be two somewhat divergent schools of thought with respect to solutions. One is to put yourself out there without reservation, to strive for full reciprocal human relationships in the workplace, as I alluded to earlier. To be open and honest in all affairs seems to be a straightforward and ethical approach. This would be in line with the writings of Sisella Bok. 27 28 Further expression of that point of view invokes not only honesty at work but, as with Gilley below, love.

Another perspective is to realize that possessing an impeccable openness, clarity of reason and rationality ultimately can only get you so far in an environment that is not based strictly on reason and rationality, but rather often based more on the opposite of these, with perhaps a surface veneer of reason which masks the underlying irrationality. In this view, justice in the workplace is not something that you can or should expect. Rather, it is better to become a student of human passions, the often hidden aspects behind human behavior. In this world is the struggle between the power of skill versus the power of position--a struggle at least as old as the first great literary epic, the “most famous poem of all time”: Homer’s The Illiad.29 In the story of The Illiad, as is often the case in real life, position won out over skill. This is a warning from antiquity that is just as valid today. Timothy Shutt masterfully connects the lessons of the Illiad to the workplace:30

“So it’s a strife here, in a way, between position--between the CEO and the top salesman; between the principal and the best teacher; between Miller Huggins, the manager, and Babe Ruth, the best baseball player who ever lived; between the person who can really do it, and the person who is in charge. Those are incommensurable excellences, and then and now they often come into conflict. So here--that is the rage within the rage, the conflict within the conflict, that Homer is interested in chronicling.”

D’Alessandro and Owens, in their book Career Warfare, carry the metaphor of battle further into the modern workplace. They also point out the perils of being seen as a challenge to authority.6

"Extreme sycophancy has been observed in animals as well, particularly in wolves and apes in captivity, where the weaker cannot escape the frustrated energies of the stronger. A weaker wolf may passively roll over on its back when stronger wolves come near, or may demonstrate extreme friendliness toward stronger wolves, wagging its tail so determinedly that its entire hindquarters sway. Scientist L. David Mech describes the posture that these sycophantic wolves adopt toward their superiors as an 'active lack of challenge.' That is a pretty good description of those weaker animals in corporate captivity as well."

While I see validity in both schools of thought-fearful conformity vs. openness--I think that if a middle approach can somehow be weaved, that may be best. To recognize that there is indeed a reality out there that makes it perilous to be seen as directly challenging to power and position. The chances of prevailing here appear as slim to none. As Bassman writes:11

“The hierarchical structure of power and the corporate culture together give license to abuse. Furthermore, the hierarchy and the culture collude to give more credibility to the superior than the subordinate in any dispute over fairness of treatment. Higher power in the organization equates to greater worthiness, so the accusation of a lower-level person about a higher-level person is usually discounted. Another reason why top management will be unlikely to take the word of a lower-level person over the word of the boss is because, as Fernandez (1987) points out, ‘top management will assume that if you can successfully take on your boss, you can successfully take on the corporate hierarchy, and they will never allow that to happen.’"

The advice of a number of authors is to work the system as it is, to make it work for you as much as you can, and/or to set it aside at the end of the day and focus more on the parts of your life outside of work that you have some control over. And, if you’re labeled and subsequently scapegoated, the advice is to just bail out at the first chance, as there’s really no coming back from that.

To me, that might be okay if it doesn’t mean you have to abandon original and important work that no-one else is doing. If it’s just resigning your position at Acme Tiddlywinks Factory to go across the street to work at Ajax Tiddlywinks Factory, that’s probably not a big deal (not that making Tiddlywinks isn’t important for the people who make them). But if it’s your life’s work that’s in question, the shame of having to retreat from it can be profound. If it so happens that your life’s work is Tiddlywinks R&D, and your employer is the only manufacturer of Tiddlywinks in the world large enough to invest in that kind of R&D, that’s a problem. And if the Tiddlywinks in question happen to be next-generation implantable defibrillators in actuality, well, I hope you see my point. This is reminiscent of the lament evident in the book Patient Number One31, where the author Murdock believed his company was on the verge of a real life-saving medical breakthrough, and the only scientists and technicians and facilities that could make that happen were all scattered to the winds by legal vindictiveness. Whether Murdock was right, it is quite conceivable that such a situation could occur. I’d wager that bailing out when the going first starts getting tough is a poor solution in that case, not one that people would respect themselves for.

Of course, sometimes people don’t have a choice and are forced out. Conversely, as William L. White argues, people who want to leave can feel obligated to stay by the sense of guilt in leaving a closed organizational system. (White 1997)32 White writes about the immense emotional pain experienced by people who are “extruded from their jobs”. Westhues writes extensively about cases of professors who have been forced out of their positions in academia. 33 34 35 36 37

It was personally very disturbing to me to read in one of Westhues’ books the words of one professor who told his story of unfair treatment, and this “baring of one’s soul”, rather than being cathartic and positive, apparently did not much alleviate the sense of shame and humiliation he felt, as he took his own life shortly thereafter. I remember reading the professor’s quote of an old Russian saying: “the soup has been spat in”--meaning there was no longer any way of undoing the damage—and feeling profoundly sad, knowing what the eventual outcome was. Annette Simmons writes that many rifts can only be healed when people have had the chance to tell their side of the story. (Simmons 1999) But at some point, even doing that is apparently insufficient. This is a reason why I will continue to write, to seek ways of both preventing and undoing whatever damage is done to people’s souls. To engage in the healing power of caring, as Kaufman puts forth.

So, rather than simply accepting that this major block of time in your life that is work can and should be walled off from who you are as a person, and then being the first in line for a life raft when the ship starts to list to one side, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves, I think other perspectives are needed. W. Edwards Deming believed in the power of “transformation”. Though it may be a long and arduous process, and we do well to become aware of the traps and pitfalls along the way, I want to believe that progress can be made through individual small acts of kindness along with great reserves of patience and, importantly, as G. Kaufman et. al. suggest, awareness of how we contribute to keeping the status quo through attempts to deny our own feelings of shame by foisting them onto others.

There are of course more than two perspectives that are useful in understanding organizational life. Gareth Morgan has come up with a number of metaphors for describing organizational life that he postulates each contribute to a better aggregate understanding of a very complex world.38 I myself have a large amount of additional reading and study to do to try and get a better handle on this complex and at times dangerous world. All in the interest of lessening my own and others’ fear.

Fast Company magazine gives a needed light-hearted slant on fear in the workplace in their article: Andy Grove to CDU: Why Are You Looking at Me?39 In another article on Grove’s book (Grove 1996) and of using paranoia over competitors to justify “Darwinian” behavior towards employees, it is argued that Darwin wasn’t so ruthless:40

“This false notion suggests that you get better outcomes by eliminating the weaker member of a group. That is supported by another Darwinian misreading: Only the strong survive, and the outcome will be better if you have people of first-rate strength. These assumptions have become the foundation of growth, progress, and capitalism: stronger, better, more. But they are not part of Darwinism. Darwin's insight was that competition can lead to all sorts of new ecological niches. If predators are devouring animals (like you) during the day, you might become nocturnal. If predators are becoming stronger or larger, you could become smaller, more mobile, or less visible. There is nothing vengeful or vindictive about Darwinian theory. Invoking Darwin to justify cutthroat behaviors is wrong.”

The polar opposite of a workplace based on cutthroat behaviors is one based on love, as Kay Gilley contrasts profoundly in her book, The Alchemy of Fear41. We have “focused on what threatened us as we muddled through life. So, life has been frightening, and we haven’t been doing very well.” Then, Gilley continues, suppose we suddenly found the secret instruction book to life:

  • Love is what life is all about
  • Love is what work is all about. It is a place where we can unconditionally provide love and support to many people. It is a place where we can unconditionally receive love and support from many people.
  • Our purpose in life and work is to be love and bring more love into being
Whereas, the implicit instruction book in most workplaces is diametrically opposite:
  • Fear is what life is about
  • Fear is what work is about. It is a place where we should perpetuate fear in any way we can. We should do unto others before they do unto us.
  • Our purpose in life and work is to be fear and bring more fear into being.

Gilley warns that when we are afraid, we take actions that cause us to create the very things we fear. Her premise is that we should not be forced to choose between dichotomies (Gilley 1998):

“Fear and love cannot coexist but they are in constant juxtaposition. They symbolize every existential dichotomy we face in life: the ego trying to survive vs. our divine essence striving to thrive, the practical, feet-on-the-ground, get-the-job-done part of us vs. the part of us that wants to soar with the eagles, resignation vs. embodiment of our hopes and dreams, the cynic vs. the idealist. We have been taught to choose between them, implying there is a right and wrong, but the alchemy lies in letting go of the need to know right and wrong and accepting that both are true. The magic is choosing to have it all.”

In other words, letting go of the judgmental shaming of ourselves and others which perpetuates a fear-based world. She notes that a large majority of people will reject her premise out of hand, that it won’t resonate with them. But the purpose of her book is to instill belief in a better way of approaching work.

“…A part of us has been told that success lies in effectively performing a set of business competencies well—have the right product at the right time, market it right, keep costs under control, deliver high-quality products and you will succeed.

Yet, even that part knows that some part of everyone working that way is dead, just going through the motions of life. And, it wants to be alive. It beckons to the other part of us: it wants to be alive, it wants to be in love at work. The tension is there, and it will continue. The only answer is to relate consciously to all we do in a way that allows and encourages both to happen.”