Normalizing Dysfunction: Part 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote a little bit about how some workplaces normalize dysfunctional behavior and expectations. Today I want to go into more specifics on some of the strategies that are used by those in power to do this. To be clear, I don’t think I’m going to be saying anything people don’t already know. In truth, pretty much all of these strategies fall into the general category of “lying”. However, I believe that the more we can openly discuss the problematic behaviors of management, the more prepared we are to resist and counter it.

"You are the best staff I've ever had in my entire life!! Now...I have some new work assignments..."

Bad strategy #1: Manipulation via praise and other positive language

Over time there have been a number of positive changes in the workplace. And one of those is less reliance on the idea of the boss as authoritarian, and more understanding of the boss as a collaborator. That a manager who yells and makes demands is not a productive thing. There are still remnants of that culture, of course, but it’s much less popular.

However, what receives less attention is the extreme that can go in the other direction, and a strategy that can lead to a great deal of the manipulation of staff into unhealthy work habits.

Because we’ve all known the managers who are very sweet and kind – on the surface. They tell us how important we are. They use phrases like, “We’re a family here and we look out for each other” and “We’re all in this together”.

These kinds of phrases aren’t inherently bad. Feeling connected to your co-workers can be a good thing.

But when you hear “we’re a family and all in this together” right before a new announcement comes down that everyone will need to put in overtime, it’s not an accident. It’s a tactic. They’re using language and a feeling of community to get more out of you. And it’s an abhorrent thing to do.

The same is true when a company starts to talk about “magic” or the very special quality of their workers. It sounds like a compliment, but it’s just another manipulation tactic. It uses language to mask the fact that what is being asked of the workers is often unreasonable.

I regularly saw this kind of language at work. Whenever there were budget cuts, or we lost positions to other offices, or were being given more work on top of what was already too difficult to handle, it always came with praise for us as workers.

And the truth is that many of us are starved for positive reinforcement. I once had a supervisor that I would ask for feedback. And he would wave his hand, and say, “You know you’re good.”

Maybe – but I still needed to hear it. Most of us do. And it makes us vulnerable to this kind of language.

I still remember one phone call I had with executive management back when I was an office manager. My co-manager and I were being told we needed to take on supervising an employee from another office – one who was experiencing disciplinary issues, and was considered a bit of a problem. And the executive manager said to us, “We picked you because you’re both so good at what you do. You’re really the best out of our choices. We just knew you could handle this.”

Very flattering, right?

And yet funny that we didn’t get calls about how good we were at any other point. That when we explicitly asked for help or support, we were denied it.

But when she needed something from us? Suddenly, we were just the very best.

"I promised to not add any more work? Hm, that's not how I remember it. You probably heard me wrong."

Bad strategy #2: Manipulation via gaslighting

This is very similar to strategy #1, but goes even further.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, gaslighting originated from a play, later movie, called Gaslight, in which a husband tricks his wife into believing she is going insane. It’s now become a common term for when someone tries to manipulate someone else’s perception of reality.

We see this often in cases of harassment and abuse. A woman may try to tell people that a man is making her uncomfortable, and will receive responses like, “Oh, you’re just imagining it”, or “You’re reading too much into it”, or “I’m sure he doesn’t mean it that way”. All of these are attempts to convince her that her perception is incorrect.

It’s not always deliberate. Sometimes it happens when someone is very unaware of their own privilege and can’t even conceive of a reality unlike their own. But intentional or not, it is extremely damaging. And when management is using it to force their staff into uncomfortable or hurtful extremes at work, it’s criminal.

I once had a friend who turned out to be a narcissist. Of course, I didn’t know it in the beginning. Narcissists are so darn charming when you first meet them. And they are experts at gaslighting. You get pulled into their world, and it seems so awesome at the time. But gradually, over time, something started to feel off. If I didn’t conform to her way of doing things, suddenly I would get an email telling me all the ways I was wrong and hurtful to her. And over time, I realized – in her mind, she was the star, and I was the supporting player. If I tried to focus on myself, if I tried to have a different point of view, she saw it as unacceptable. And so I would get punished.

I put up with this for much longer than I should have. I tried so hard to not “set her off”, because things were fun when I didn’t. I have a tendency to trust people, and so it was easy for her to convince me the problems were all with me. I was only able to snap out of the spell when she pushed it too far, and criticized me for being sad after I had lost several family members within the same year. My own sense of perspective came back, and I was done with her from that point on.

Snapping the spell when it’s coming from management can be even harder, because you’re dealing with a power differential. When someone holds your career in their hands, and is telling you that you’re not good enough, or that they know better than you, it’s really hard to feel confident about your own perspective.

I once had a really uncomfortable conversation with a supervisor, after he had said something quite sexist that upset me. I didn’t plan to confront him, as I knew he wouldn’t take my feedback seriously. But a co-worker, intending to be helpful, had let him know I was upset. He called me into a meeting with no warning, and “apologized”, while at the same time making it clear that he “didn’t remember it the same way”, and “had done research in his spare time that supported his position”.

I was lucky in that by then I had a pretty clear view of who this guy really was, and knew to trust myself first. But it still hurt me, and I can just imagine how damaging that kind of conversation would be to someone who wasn’t there yet.

This article does a nice job of laying out some of the specific tactics of gaslighting. I have a feeling that most of us have seen most of these strategies at some point in our career.

"Problems? Nah."

Bad strategy #3: Using propaganda to push a message

Propaganda is the term for biased or misleading information that is used to promote a certain point of view. The term is often associated with politics, and is quite common there. But we are surrounded by it. Advertising is full of it. Want to live a perfect life, attract a perfect partner, and never worry again? Just buy this one product, and all your dreams will come true!

Many of us don’t think of our workplace in terms of propaganda, but it’s there all the same.

I’ve spoken before about the email that my HR department had sent out, claiming that employee engagement was higher than the national average. I had previously talked about it from a bad data perspective, but the truth is, it was also propaganda. It was using misleading information to tell employees that most of their co-workers were doing quite well. So if you’re not feeling engaged? The problem isn’t with the agency, it’s with you.

Even signs that talk about core values or how much employees are appreciated can have a propaganda element – if the words are not backed up by the actions of management.

When I was a manager, I was constantly getting new posters to put up in the workplace. They had fancy little signs, one for each of our core values. Responsibility, respect, integrity. All wonderful values. And yet, somehow our staff were still having breakdowns and desperate for more support from leadership. Because words without action are meaningless.

And there can be all kinds of propaganda, from the subtle, to the not-so-much.

Recently, a poster from Delta Airlines was shared on Twitter. The poster read, “Union dues cost around $700 a year. A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.”

This one seems laughable at first sight, because it’s so blatant and awful. But the truth is it still sends a damaging message. Not only is it insulting to the employees’ intelligence, it tells them very clearly how much management cares about things like fair wages or reasonable overtime. Which is, not at all.

"I don't know why I'm always so depressed. Everything is great! ...Right?"

Of course, the world isn’t black and white. Not everyone who engages in these behaviors is trying to cause harm. When I was a manager, it was so natural to want to compliment your staff to soften the blow when bad news was coming down the line. Sometimes you want to write an email to assure people that things aren’t as bad as they seem. But if you’re not careful, you end up supporting the status quo.

That’s how dysfunction is able to thrive. Between those who are deliberately being misleading, and those with good intentions, bad behavior becomes the norm.

Next week – tactics to fight back against dysfunction.

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