Workplace Culture

Countering Workplace Dysfunction

We’ve spent a couple of weeks talking about the ways dysfunctional or toxic behavior can get normalized within the workplace. Sometimes it’s done intentionally, sometimes not. However if we want to break this behavior, we absolutely need to be intentional.

Now, I can’t tell you any of this is easy. There may be some workplaces where it could even be unsafe to push back, depending on how far the toxicity has gone. In the end, you have to decide the best path for yourself. Just be mindful – often those of us with privilege only worry about the consequences for ourselves, and don’t really consider the difference we could make for others. If you are white and are nervous to act, imagine how your co-workers and employees of color must feel. If you are a man and hesitate to speak up, think of how it must be for your associates who are women. Be wise, but don’t use your fear as an excuse.

Oof, what did they do to this place?

Tactic #1: Trust yourself

This one is hard. Believe me, I know. Especially if you are part of a marginalized group and have been socialized to put the comfort of others above your own. You’re already getting messages every day that your perspective isn’t valid or worthy. You may be in a workplace that reinforces those messages. But it’s worth the work to get there.

My father has a lot of great advice, but one of the most memorable things he told me was that if I was having concerns or doubts about someone or something at work, there were going to be others who did as well, even if they weren’t saying it.

This really stuck with me, because it can be so easy to doubt our own feelings. And if we’re in an environment that encourages our doubt, we start to feel like we may be the problem. His words made me realize I could give myself permission to trust my own perceptions. That not hearing anyone else complain about something bothering you doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make it less valid, or less likely that others are experiencing it too.

If you’ve been in the dysfunctional environment for a long time, it can be so hard to realize this. And it make take time to rebuild your confidence in your own judgement.

But I can tell you, right here, right now, you are not wrong for how you feel. If something feels off, it’s off. That feeling in the pit of your stomach? That sense of disquiet? It’s there for a reason.

And the interesting thing is that once you learn to trust your perceptions, you’ll find confirmation that others feel the same way.

I had a really great manager who retired, and the first manager hired to replace her was…let’s just say, not a good fit. He wouldn’t listen, spoke down to his female employees, and thought he knew best in all situations, despite not having any real experience in the type of work we were doing. Now, I knew a couple of my co-workers were unhappy, as we spent a lot of time together and could talk about it. But it wasn’t until he was fired, and we were able to have our first unit meeting without him, that I truly found out how deeply hurt so many of our staff were. We had all been suffering, but unable to share it openly.

Of course the ability to trust your own intuition and perceptions isn’t something you can develop overnight. It takes time. Just last week I found myself using very apologetic language to remind my building’s maintenance team that they needed to finish a job for me. I shouldn’t need to apologize. I should be able to remind a man to do his job without feeling bad. The socialization runs deep, but I’m going to keep pulling it apart, piece by piece.

Trust yourself. You know what’s right.

Here we go...

Tactic #2: Speak truth to power

Another aspect of learning to trust yourself is learning to see authority with some perspective. It’s challenging, because we live in a culture where people with power are often granted the assumption that they are there because they earned it, and that we have a responsibility to be obedient to them.

Power differentials based on job classification are reinforced constantly in our culture. Just recently there was a trending article where a woman was talking about her three children being doctors and CEOs, and bragging about how it was her parenting style that got them there. That’s all well and good, but what does that say about people who have children who are receptionists and janitors? Are they supposed to feel lesser, or like they failed at parenting? I don’t know about you, but I bet if you removed the CEOs from some companies, and the support and janitorial staff from others, the ones without the CEOs would fare a whole lot better. In the end, there is nothing inherently superior about you because of the job you do.

Throughout my career, no matter where I went on the ladder, I always felt the power of authority. The first time I presented in a meeting with the district manager, I was keenly aware of the power differentials in the room. I was flattered when I got attention from those in higher level positions. I was excited if the director of the agency would attend our leadership program graduations, because I knew it would mean something to our students for someone of that level to be present.

None of that is inherently bad, of course. When someone has a great deal of decision making power over your career, it’s natural to want to be noticed by them.

But there are some important things to keep in mind.

People in power are not smarter than you. They are not more deserving. They are not better than you. And they need to be questioned.

If they are doing something wrong, it is wrong. It doesn’t matter who they are.

And this goes both ways. Because if you hold positional power? You need to be open to being questioned. Which leads me to my next point.

Tactic #3: Transparency & honesty

Unfortunately, we can’t control the honesty of others. Our current government proves that. But we can be honest and transparent ourselves, and encourage it in those around us.

When I was quite little, I was playing with some of the other kids in the neighborhood. And this boy came over and started chasing some of us around. I didn’t really know him, or want to play with him, and I didn’t like being chased. So after running for a moment, I just stopped.

The funny thing? Once I stopped running, he had no idea what to do. He literally veered around me to go run after someone else.

It was a huge moment for me. I realized I didn’t have to play by his rules.

Often people will claim that they’re not personally responsible for being misleading or hiding the truth of what’s really going on. In other words, “it’s just the culture”, “everyone else is doing it”, “I can’t succeed if I don’t play along”. “I didn’t make the rules.”

You may work somewhere where honesty and transparency are non-existent. Or maybe you have it with your co-workers, but you know management isn’t being truthful.

That sucks. But it doesn’t mean you need to play by those same rules.

Folks who have any experience with change management know that a huge element of it is managing the people side of change. I had a co-worker who was an expert in change management, and would conduct trainings on how to form committees of employees to assist during times of change at companies. The important thing about these groups was that there would be no managers. No one in a position of authority to control what was talked about. The group would be a conduit between staff and management, and could make recommendations purely from the staff perspective.

My co-worker once told me a story about doing a change management training where she emphasized, “Unless you manage the people side of change, your change will fail.” And the manager, at the back of the room, nodded his head vigorously. She repeated it for emphasis. And he again agreed.

So after the training, she went to talk to him. “So, you’re going to form a change management team?” she asked. “Oh no,” he said. “We don’t have time for that!”

And that’s how it seemed to work with transparency at my agency. Talk to any manager about the need to be transparent about decisions and to keep employees in the loop, and they would vigorously agree. And then, when a major change was happening? No information, staff becoming increasingly upset and stressed, and in the end, usually a last minute email letting employees know how they’re being impacted in the most disconnected way possible.

There are some workplaces where this is taken to a terrible extreme, where management knows their company is about to shut down, but doesn’t tell staff because they want them to keep working until the last possible moment.

But the thing is, most employees know things are wrong. They know they’re not getting the full story. If you’re not being honest with them, you’re going to lose them. They may still be physically present, but they’re not with you. Not really.

Everyone deserves the dignity of being treated like a full human being, and part of that is showing them you’re a human being too. Just be honest.

Tactic #4: Find your allies

There are always going to be those who resist change. There’s a number of people who strongly benefit from the inequity inherent in dysfunctional systems, and they have no interest in helping those who want to upset the status quo.

This applies to a number of people who will say the right things, but then still prioritize their own perceived self-interest over improving conditions for everyone. (Yes, this includes you, white women).

But the great thing is that you do have allies out there.

There were times I would get so frustrated at the lack of progress towards equity at my workplace. However, I knew I could meet with my like-minded co-workers, talk about ambitions and plans for continuing to move forward, and leave the room ready to keep going. I knew if I hit a wall, that I had someone who would take me to grab a coffee and let me vent. I knew I had people who would trust my perspective and support my passion for adding more voices to the work we were doing. I knew they would speak up for me and my ideas. And I knew that I could do those same things for all of them.

This is more than having work friends. This is standing side by side with others who are ready to do the work.

Side note, for those of you with privilege, you’re going to need to put some time in here. You don’t get to just be an ally by choice. If you want to be an ally to people who are marginalized, you need to do the work. This means doing more than posting Facebook memes and watching the occasional Ted Talk (even though I love Ted Talks). You need to be able to acknowledge your own privilege and bias, recognize the part you play in oppressive systems, and learn how to center other people in the conversation without taking it over yourself.

The advantage of doing that work? You get to connect with some amazingly awesome people on the other side. And it means that none of us have to fight alone.

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.

Normalizing Dysfunction

Being in school was a bit of a rough time for me. I had a great group of core friends, but experienced a fair amount of bullying, especially in junior high. Even as I got into high school, and the bullying lessened, I never really felt comfortable in my skin, or around most of my peers. People were very clear about where you stood if you weren’t popular. But my discomfort wasn’t something I thought about much. After all, it was normal.

Then I got to college. I was lucky enough to go to a small liberal arts school, and there I discovered something so different. People who hadn’t been super popular in school, people who loved geeky things, people who had experienced bullying for themselves. They didn’t judge me or make comments based on what I wore or whether I raised my hand in class. And suddenly I realized that my high school experience wasn’t normal. And that something much better was possible. That I could feel good.

I think we’ve all had an experience like that. An experience of going through stress, and yet only when the stress is lifted, realizing just how much we were carrying. Of thinking our experience is normal, only to move into a new environment that shows us how off our perspective was.

"Ok, got my work for the day! Let's do it!"

One of my earlier jobs in government was Personnel Coordinator. This meant that I tracked all of the positions in my district and which offices they were assigned to. Every new hire, every resignation, every dismissal, and every move, I was the one who typed up the proper form and submitted it to the head office. I was also in the same office as district management, so was in a unique position to watch the outcomes of various decisions.

There were two different agencies run out of this office. And one agency in particular had a very distinct approach when they were dissatisfied with the performance of a specific office. Not only would they reassign the manager from that office, but they would reassign almost all of their managers at once – essentially shuffling the deck of managers until most were in a new location.

At first I didn’t give this strategy much thought. I was a low level admin, they were upper management, and I just did the paperwork. But after a while, it started to feel…weird.

There were so many deeply entrenched issues in the agency, staff morale was always an issue, resources were tight, and yet it seemed the main solution to so many problems was to reassign managers.

Now admittedly, I wasn’t privy to all the high level discussions to these decisions. But I was in a position to see the impact. Keep in mind, each move wasn’t just an adjustment for the managers. Each time this happened, all of the staff would be affected as well.

I also started to get to know some of the managers. One of them facilitated with me in a leadership program. She would talk about her connection with her staff, and the progress they were making in reaching program goals. She’d be so proud of what she was accomplishing. And then suddenly she would be moved. She’d start over, gain the staff’s trust, refocus the goals of the office. And then it would happen again.

I can see how something like this would get started. A manager is struggling, and a different one may seem to have a more appropriate skill set for that particular office. So you do a swap. And maybe the first few times you do it, it’s actually quite effective.

Until there’s a day, far down the line, where instead of providing support or training, or looking deeper at the underlying issues, or considering the impact on your workers, the standard in resolving any problem is to move managers. It’s become normal.

"Um, sure...I guess while we're shortstaffed I can help out a bit..."

I’m a fairly avid gamer, as any recurring readers know.. Recently, there’s been an increasing awareness of how toxic game studios can be, especially in how they are treating their employees. There’s been a number of articles written on just how much the workers are expected to bear, all in the name of being a good employee. Current and ex-employees are speaking out against the severe conditions in prominent companies such as Bioware and Rockstar. In some cases, these employees are working vast amounts of unpaid overtime only to face abrupt job loss when the studio folds.

I found the example of Bioware particularly interesting. This was a company that used to be my absolute favorite developer. I was so excited whenever they would release a game. And then, over time, cracks began to show.

What some of the reporting has revealed was that there was a particular game that was close to disaster. And the employees were able to pull a last minute miracle, and release something that was fairly successful.

Now, for most of us, we would see a close disaster as an opportunity to reevaluate. To be grateful for the workers that were able to pull out “magic”, but to understand that this is not a viable strategy. In reality? Nothing of the kind happened. Instead, management decided that if it could happen once, it could happen again. If you can push your staff to the limit and get a decent product, why not keep pushing?

Only the real world doesn’t work like that. You can’t make a strategy based on a one time occurrence. And it shows, as recent projects relying on this “magic” have been failures, experienced staff are fleeing for the hills, and new bright minds never dare walk in the door in the first place.

One of the most important aspects of leadership is the ability to learn from failure. And yet, in these companies, and so many others, leadership learns absolutely nothing. Time and again they rely on forcing workers into a crunch. And over time, it gets worse. People are pushed beyond reasonable bounds, beyond the point of breakdown. And yet inexplicably, it’s become normal.

"Just another Wednesday. *sigh*"

I want to be very clear here. I’ve been a manager, and I know how hard it is to stay on top of things. To see the forest for the trees. I know how easily we can all slip into seeing the unhealthy as normal.

But when you are in a position of leadership, you are absolutely still making a choice about how you treat your employees.

You are making a choice in the language you use. You are making a choice in accepting the culture, instead of fighting it. You are making a choice in telling your staff to pull up their bootstraps and stick it out until things get better.

And if you normalize dysfunction, you are normalizing abuse.

 

To be continued…

The Cake is a Lie

One of my favorite video games of all time is a game called Portal. It’s primarily a puzzle game, where you are running through a series of “experiments” using teleportation. The puzzles are fun and challenging, but what makes the game particularly memorable is the artificial intelligence that is directing you through the process, named GLaDOS.

When you first enter the game, your character wakes up in a sealed chamber, with no memories, and no choice but to follow directions as given by GLaDOS.

And in the very beginning, GLaDOS sounds like a typical computer, describing the technical requirements of each test. However, as you progress, she begins to express more personality, and talk directly to the player. As the danger increases within the tests, she starts to make promises about what will happen when the tests are over. And one of these promises is cake.

“Cake, and grief counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test. Thank you for helping us help you help us all.”

Midway through the game, when you’ve completed the “official” testing portion and are no longer useful as a test subject, GLaDOS attempts to kill you. Fortunately, your teleportation abilities give you an opportunity to escape, at which point she starts to try and lure you back. Once again, including a promise of cake.

Uh oh. Somebody cut the cake. I told them to wait for you, but they did it anyway. There is still some left, though, if you hurry back.”

Cake? I like cake!

As you travel through the rest of the testing facility, it’s possible to stumble upon a particular piece of graffiti left behind by a former employee.

the cake is a lie”.

Many people who have never played the game know this phrase. It’s a phrase that has gained tremendous popularity, and has even become a meme, used to convey the idea of a promised gift with no intention to deliver.

In designing this game, the company Valve clearly was going for humor above all. GLaDOS makes numerous jokes at the player’s expense, and mocks your escape attempts.

Neurotoxin…[coughing] So deadly…[coughing again] Choking…[deep laughter] I’m kidding! When I said “deadly neurotoxin”, the “deadly” was in massive sarcasm quotes. I could take a bath in the stuff, put it on cereal, rub it right into my eyes. Honestly, it’s not deadly at all… to me. You, on the other hand, are going to find its deadliness a lot less funny. Who’s gonna make the cake when I’m gone? You?”

But I suspect that there’s another reason that “The Cake is a Lie” resonates. I doubt the subtext is intentional, but it’s there all the same.

Because we live in a culture that exists on the promise of cake. That it’s ok if you are at the bottom of the ladder, because if you do what you’re supposed to, follow the rules, don’t question, don’t fight back, then at some undefinable point in the future, you are going to get your reward.

But if you don’t follow the rules, and you do question those who are on the ladder above you? Well, whatever happens is just your own fault.

“This is your fault. It didn’t have to be like this. I’m not kidding now. Turn back or I will kill you. I’m going to kill you, and all the cake is gone. You don’t even care. Do you? This is your last chance.”

There's no cake?!?

Today I saw a post on Twitter, showing a video from Simon Sinek. Sinek has done some good work around leadership, and there’s some great videos from him that I’ve used in trainings. But this video gave me pause.

It’s part of a piece by Business Insider with the argument that millennials are hurting themselves by job hopping.

And here’s what Sinek says in the video: “One of the challenges that millennials face is impatience, which is after being at a job for a few months, if it’s not their “dream job” they bump and find a new one. The problem is you won’t know that in a few months, especially when you’re entry level.  So if you’re going to just take a job, at least use it as an education. If it’s not the job you love, then learn, learn from the bad leadership you’re experiencing.

With all due respect to Sinek, this is a bad take.

There are countless articles complaining about millennials these days. A number of them seem to use the term millennial synonymously with “young person”, which is funny considering that the oldest millennials are approaching forty. There are a number of people in our society who are deeply resentful that millennials want to change things. They lable them as lazy and entitled.

But you know what I think? I think that many millennials are realizing that the cake is a lie. That doing what is expected of you for that promised reward is a bad proposition. That after seeing parents and other family struggle, get laid off, lose their pensions, and be treated badly over and over again by their corporations, millennials are less willing to bet their lives on the promise of cake.

I’m technically Generation X, but in many ways I share characteristics with millennials. I’ve never stayed in a job longer than two years. I was fortunate in that I was able to find promotional opportunities within my agency, but I was always ready to leave long before I would get the chance.

And yeah, I did learn a lot from the bad leadership, but after a while, you get tired of seeing the same lessons over and over again. You get tired of being treated badly. Bad leadership isn’t just an annoyance. Bad leadership can destroy people. And to act like choosing something better for yourself is entitlement shows a fundamental lack of understanding of just how much our workplace is hurting people.

People should be able to walk away from a workplace culture that doesn’t serve them. The only bad thing here is that more people can’t.

Who promises cake and then gives you no cake!!

At the end of Portal’s credits, the camera reveals that hidden deep within the facility, there is actually a cake. In a place that the player never truly had the option to go.

And it’s much the same for our real world’s cake. Sure, it technically exists. A small number of people will get it. But for the vast majority of us, there are systems in place that ensure we will never see a slice. And we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our own health and happiness to try.

So don’t try for the cake. Don’t do what the voice coming from above tells you to do. Jump off the path. Make them worried. Make them scared. Do things for yourself, for your own reasons. You don’t owe them a thing. They were never going to give you the cake. The cake’s a lie.

Balancing Act: Part 3 – Changing a Culture

“I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”

Chidi Anagonye, The Good Place

 

Here’s the deal. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to make you a top ten list of what to do. I’m not going to tell you to prioritize your time differently, or put down the phone, or delegate more. I’m not going to tell you to take more baths or do yoga or drink chamomile tea.

I’m not going to lie to you by pretending that any of those things are going to change your life.

For one, you know your own life and what you can and can’t do right now. If you can change priorities or delegate, great. If not, that’s ok too. Life is challenging – sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t. I have days where I can clean my apartment, work productively, get my exercise, and spend time with friends. I also have days where I stay in bed and try to remain a semi-functional human. One of those days is socially acceptable and one is not. But the truth is that both of those kinds of days are ok. Both of those are what I need in the moment. Do what you need in the moment, when you can do it. Don’t criticize yourself when you can’t.

I’m also not going to pretend that our society doesn’t have structures in place that make this difficult. Or that these structures won’t impact you exponentially if you are a person of color, or a woman, or living with a disability, or low income. It’s not fair to do that.

I do have some thoughts. But this is about the big picture. Changing society is an excruciating process and takes a long time. But change does happen. I get to choose to live my life as an independent woman because of the work of women before me. The seeds get planted by individual choices. The more power you have in an organization, the more your choices can impact everyone. But all of us have the capacity to model the behavior that can foster change.

This is about creating a culture that doesn’t just conform to society’s expectations, but a culture that fights back.

Item 1: Kindness

When it comes to core values, very few companies seem to highlight the value of kindness. Integrity and respect are much more popular and look better on the brochures. Professionalism too, which is usually defined so vaguely as to be useless. My former agency defined professionalism as “We adhere to standards, methods, behaviors and personal characteristics demonstrated by the best workers in their respective fields. Really helpful, right?

And throughout their mission, vision, goals, and core values, the word “kind” is not mentioned once.

In my opinion, kindness is key. Being kind is being professional.

Anyone can be a jerk. That’s the easy way. It takes zero effort to be cruel. And we often see people in the working world who consider aggression to be essential. They think yelling at their coworkers or staff is a means of efficiency. That they have a right to mock people asking for respect. That targeting others to promote their own career is a valid strategy. There are genuinely people out there who think that a director or boss being cruel to others is just displaying a quirk of genius. I think it’s displaying a quirk of idiocy. If you need to be a jerk to get a job done, then you are not good at your job.

Being kind is a skill, and a highly undervalued one.

I don’t remember every conversation with my first supervisor at the agency, but I do remember that when I talked of being cold in my cubicle, she went out and used her own money to buy me a little space heater.

I remember a supervisor who had trouble giving personal appreciation, but gave all of his staff handmade medals with the names of ships that he felt described them as people. I got the HMS Illustrious. (It means notably or brilliantly outstanding because of dignity or achievements or actions, in case you were wondering).

I remember one of my staff who came in on her weekend off to help me paint my office so I could replace the soulless gray walls with a bright orange.

I remember my coworker calling me on my tendency to doubt myself after presenting in a training, and insisting that I say something good about myself before I was allowed to say anything else.

These are the people who have made me a better human being and a better leader. The best teams I have worked in are the ones that incorporate kindness as a daily practice. And make no mistake, kindness is absolutely a choice.

Item 2: Releasing judgement

When I was a manager, I had a number of staff who qualified for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for a variety of reasons. For those of you who are unfamiliar, FMLA protects jobs by allowing employees to take leave from work, beyond what they have available in vacation or sick leave, if they meet the criteria. And the criteria covers both physical and mental health.

FMLA time can be used concurrently (having a child, getting surgery, recovering from a stroke), or can be used more sporadically, for more chronic conditions.

When I first started, I had an employee who would be out sporadically. And after a while, my co-manager and I began to get a bit frustrated. She always seemed fine when she was in the office, she admitted the doctors weren’t finding anything conclusive, and she always seemed to use FMLA in a way to ensure she’d get rollover time for the next month. We felt like she was gaming the system.

And then she died.

I called my father that night and had a complete emotional breakdown over the phone. I still feel tremendous guilt. I didn’t believe her. Her doctors didn’t believe her. But something was truly wrong, and she didn’t get the help she needed. My co-manager and I never expressed our doubts to her personally, but I’m not naive enough to think there wasn’t an impact.

It was a horrible lesson, but an important one. We don’t know what’s happening in someone’s life. We don’t know what’s happening with their health. We can’t judge, because we don’t know. And when we make assumptions, we are so often wrong. I was so wrong.

Once, I had employees coming to me and pointing out that they’d seen someone who was out on sick leave posting Facebook pictures of being at the beach and shopping. Their immediate conclusion was that this person was a faker. This was coming from people working in a social services office, who understood the stress and pressure of the environment, and yet when they saw something that didn’t fit with the “proper” narrative of what illness should look like, they jumped to judgement. There wasn’t a moment where they stepped back to think about what it might be like for someone struggling with a mental illness, who might need to take a break from the office, and also might need to be out in the world, not just lying in bed feeling sad.

Of course, as manager I had to protect my employee’s confidentiality. So all I could say was that they shouldn’t rush to judgement. I could tell they weren’t convinced.

Work can be so overwhelming. It can be tempting to judge others, especially when we’re surrounded with frustrations. But judgement is the same as cruelty. It’s easy, and it’s lazy. It takes much more strength to decide that you’re not going to be annoyed that your coworker left early today. That she has her reasons. That her prioritizing something other than work in that moment has absolutely nothing to do with you. That you’d rather be kind.

Item 3: Empathy

I truly believe empathy is a superpower. I think most people can feel sympathy. But empathy is next level.

Privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem, because it’s not a problem for you personally. And our world is filled with privilege.

Empathy is what enables us to listen to someone who is walking around in a different skin, and to understand what they are saying. Empathy is not jumping in to tell someone they’re wrong about their own lived experiences. Empathy is what allows us to let go of defensiveness, and agree that we are part of a problem. Empathy helps us realize that it’s not about us. That there is so much happening that is so much bigger than we are as individuals.

There’s so much I could say about empathy, but I don’t think I could do it as well as Brené Brown via cartoon imagery:

I love her depiction of the unhelpfulness of “at least”. I used to have a friend who, when I would speak of worrying about something in my life, would criticize me for “putting it out there”. As if my voicing a concern was solely responsible for anything bad that might happen to me. We didn’t stay friends.

It’s fine to encourage each other to be positive, but don’t forget to listen before you start to cheerlead. And above all, check your privilege before you speak.

Item 4: Speaking up

So here’s the thing. Kindness, lack of judgement, and empathy are great. But they mean a whole lot more when they’re partnered with action.

A long time ago I was working in an outdoor job in California. A female coworker told me how a male colleague was getting overly physical with her, making comments about her, and bragging to other male employees that he had kissed her. Things were starting to escalate, and she was scared, but was also afraid to say anything to management.

All of the employees lived in housing on the property, and my coworker shared a trailer with this man. He also drank a lot, and had talked openly about keeping guns in his room. What he was doing wasn’t ok, and I had a bad feeling that it could get so much worse.

So I ended up talking to our supervisor. And she brought it to management.

Unfortunately, there were no consequences for him. None of the other male employees were willing to go on the record with what he had been saying or doing. They protected him. But we were able to get permission to move her into my trailer, and they passed a rule that no guns could be kept on the property.

But the thing that really sticks with me about the experience was how sick I felt after talking to my supervisor. I was worried I might have cost a man his job. I was worried I might have made too much out of it. I was worried about all the things I’d been programmed to worry about. And then my coworker came to find me, and hugged me.

When I get scared to speak up, I remember that hug. I remember her relief that she wasn’t alone. I remember that the sick feeling, the disapproval of the male workers, was all worth it, because we kept her safe.

Speaking up is incredibly hard. And this is in no way intended to victim shame, because people have good reasons for not coming forward when they’re being victimized. This is about advocacy. This is about a culture of taking care of each other. This is about “if you can’t speak right now, that’s ok, because I can”.

If you are white, this is about pointing out when people of color are not being treated fairly. If you are male, this is about supporting your female coworkers when they get mistreated. If you are straight or cis, this is about stopping your coworkers from making cruel jokes or comments that mock a person’s sexuality or gender identity. If you are able-bodied, this is about pointing out when your office is inaccessible.

To quote The Good Place once again, this is about what we owe to each other.

Some things you can do on your own. And some things may take some hard and honest discussions with managers and coworkers. Not everyone will be on your side. But a lot of us are.

I wish I had an easy and simple answer for you. I wish we lived in a world that treated everyone as they deserve. But until that happens, I’ll leave you with this.

You make a difference in someone’s life. You do good work. You are worthy, and loved. You are trying your best, and there are people who see and appreciate that. And if we all try together, I think we can make things a little bit better.

Balancing Act: Part 2 – The Balance Myth

I have some bad news. Work/life balance is not a real thing.

I wish I could tell you it was. I’m sure I’d be a much more marketable blogger if I could write articles like “10 Easy Ways to Achieve Perfect Work/life Balance!”. If you google the topic, you’ll find plenty of articles with titles just like that. They’re articles that get attention and views. People like them.

But they’re all predicated on a myth. And that myth is two-fold. It tells us that work/life balance a) exists, and b) is achievable.

Now you may be shaking your head and thinking I’m going to be worrying too much about semantics here. That for many people talking about balance is a convenient shorthand. That we all know that our work experiences affect our home life, and vice versa. That people just want to feel empowered to spend a healthy amount of time and energy in all aspects of their life.

And that’s true, to a degree. But there’s something deeper going on here. And much darker. And we need to talk about it.

I want to quote you some data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that discusses depression in adults over the age of 20 between 2013 and 2016.

Please note that these results are based on patient questionnaires for screening and diagnosing mental health disorders, which require that individuals are seeking help, and speaking honestly to their medical providers. We know that there can still be a tendency to self-minimize mental health issues, so just keep that in mind with this data.

  • During 2013–2016, 8.1% of Americans aged 20 and over had depression in a given 2-week period.
  • Overall, women (10.4%) were almost twice as likely to have depression as men (5.5%).
  • Among all race and Hispanic-origin groups, except non-Hispanic Asian, men had a significantly lower prevalence of depression compared with women.
  • Overall, 15.8% of adults from families living below the federal poverty level (FPL) had depression. The prevalence of depression decreased to 3.5% among adults at or above 400% of the FPL.
  • Among both men and women, the prevalence of depression decreased with increasing levels of family income.
  • Men with family incomes at or above 400% of the FPL had the lowest prevalence of depression (2.3%), while women with family incomes below the FPL had the highest prevalence (19.8%).

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that you need to be careful in how you use data. You have to be careful about making assumptions. But I also think that there’s a pretty strong indication here that there is a connection between depression and gender, and depression and income.

Let’s look at another piece of data.

According to a recent report from the United Nations, women currently do 2.5 times the unpaid labor of men. The ratio is slightly better in developed countries than developing ones, but is still significant. Although unpaid labor is a vital contributor to a country’s economy, and often covers for shortfalls in infrastructure and social services, it is not highly valued. But it takes an enormous amount of time and effort.

And to be clear, this data on unpaid labor does not include the mental labor that women are often more responsible for within the household, whether it be remembering doctor’s appointments or realizing that they’ve run out of toilet paper.

So this is why I say there’s no such thing as work/life balance. Because how can we talk about work/life balance when a good half of the population is doing most of the unpaid and unacknowledged work? How can we talk about work/life balance when the top earners can hire maids and nannies and dog walkers, while the lowest earners have to do it all themselves? How can we talk about balance when our professional institutions are designed by and for men with resources?

A story of work/life balance is a story of privilege.

There’s no balance because so many people, especially lower income women, are working in the office, or the factory, or the store, and then coming home, and are still doing work.  There’s no balance because the work never ends.

Look up some of the top articles on work/life balance and you see some repeated refrains. Manage your time. Make lists. Prioritize. Say no. Delegate. Take time for yourself. Limit use of technology. Even the ones that agree that work/life balance is unachievable will still drop advice like “define success for yourself” and “build support networks”.

And none of these pieces of advice are inherently bad. In fact, most of them are quite good.

They’re also missing the point. Because all of this oh-so-helpful advice? Is telling you that it’s your fault.

And this, this is the insidious thing, the dark underside, about work/life balance. It sets you up to fail. It implies that if you are stressed and struggling and feeling overwhelmed, that the problem is with you. That you’re just not trying hard enough. That you really need to prioritize better. That you just need to be smarter with your time and money. “Just do these 10 things, and you’ll be fine!” And if you’re still not fine, well, you didn’t do those 10 things right.

The problem is not with you. The problem is with our society. With the systems we have in place that punish people who make less money. With a cultural expectation that women will pick up the slack, over and over and over again.

I’m going to say it again, because it’s worth repeating. The problem is not with you.

Next week: We’re talking positives!  What we can do to create change and take better care of ourselves and each other.

Balancing Act: Part 1 – The Influence of Belief

Bethany: So you’re saying that having beliefs is a bad thing?

Rufus: I just think it’s better to have an idea. You can change an idea; changing a belief is trickier.

Dogma, 1999

I find humans fascinating. Especially how humans function collectively. Of how our brains and our culture evolved, leading to us operate in some very specific ways. Creating social constructs to make sense of the world. Taking certain things for granted. Things that are not inherently true in any way. We make them true, via our beliefs.

Take, for example, the diamond. Diamonds have some practical purposes. They make good drill bits. The hardness is an advantage. But the most notable aspect of a diamond? It’s shiny. It’s shiny and pretty, and we like it. So we assign value. Diamonds are pretty, we like them, hence they are expensive.

There’s no universal law about diamonds. It’s not gravity. If you’re starving in the wilderness, you’d walk past a pile of diamonds to pick up a banana. And if we all collectively decided tomorrow that we didn’t like diamonds, they’d be worth nothing.

Why am I talking about this?

Because often we are so enmeshed in what we believe, we don’t stop to think about why we believe it.

Ok, let's see what I have on the schedule for today...

When I talk about current workplace culture in America, it’s important to acknowledge that, despite the many different cultures that are a part of this country, most of the things we believe are essential aspects of a professional environment come from one particular culture. And that would be white, male, and Protestant.

The male and white has received a fair amount of attention of late, but one aspect that is often mentioned less frequently is the Protestant influence. It’s less overt, but the influence is still there. It’s about that good old fashioned Protestant work ethic, the idea of personal and moral achievement through hard work and thrift that was a core belief in many of the European immigrants who came to the United States. The concept of the American dream itself is a narrative about Protestant work ethic. Come here, work hard, and get what you deserve.

( I would be remiss in not mentioning that this concept completely ignores the intersections of poverty, race, class, disability, etc, that actually impact someone’s ability to “live the dream”. But we’ll get into that at another time.)

So as American workplace culture was evolving, we had a dominant culture (white European) with a dominant belief (a “good” person works hard) that became ingrained into the very fabric of professional life.

But as harmless, or even positive as it might seem, there’s a vast danger in a core belief like this one. Because what seems like encouragement of putting in time and effort on one hand, can turn into something toxic on the other.

Shoot, guess I have to skip lunch to make this deadline.

Now, to be utterly clear, I’m not saying a belief in working hard is a bad thing. But we have to look at the context of how we use this belief. Having a belief that lifts us up is good. Having a belief that pushes others down is not.

Let’s break down a few of the issues here.

Item one: If you connect working hard with morality, it makes it extremely easy to judge others. We see this all the time with the conversations around people receiving benefits from the government. People with privilege ignore the systemic causes of poverty and assign blame to the individuals. It’s the “ pull yourself up with your bootstraps” viewpoint.

It’s a perspective that completely ignores that 1) because of inequitable systems, people in poverty have to work so much harder than everyone else to achieve even small things, and 2) that not being able to work, either due to disability or circumstance, is not a sign of moral failing.

Item two: Because this mindset conflates success and being a hard worker, people who have achieved success are granted the assumption that they have earned it. This kind of narrative is frequently pushed by those in power, because they get to feed into the bias that they deserve what they have. It again completely ignores the privilege that benefits people within the dominant culture. It’s why you have CEOs with multi-million dollar salaries balking at increasing the minimum wage for their workers. They get to believe they’ve earned those millions, while their workers just need to try harder if they want to succeed. It’s bullshit, but many people still buy it.

Item three: It requires an extremely narrow perspective on what working hard actually means. If I use hard work as a metric to determine if you are a good person, or a good employee, I need to be able to see it. But I can’t see into your mind or measure your effort of thought. So instead I use assumptions, or shortcuts, to make judgements. And like most assumptions, they are very flawed.

And that’s one of the saddest aspects of this obsession with working hard. So much of it isn’t about actual productivity, but like so many things in our society, about the appearance of what we do.

It rewards those who sit at their desks all day and penalizes those who take breaks. It praises people for skipping family meals to spend yet another night in the office. It encourages workers to compete in who has done the most overtime that week. It punishes women for taking maternity leave and scares men from taking paternity time. In the end, it hurts us all.

No problem, boss, of course I can stay late!

Let’s talk work weeks.

Initially, the arise of the forty hour work week was a good thing. The further back in history you go, the worse workers have been treated. During the Industrial Revolution, abuses were rampant. Thanks to unions, conditions improved over time, and gradually the eight hour work day became standard. Another big change happened when Henry Ford discovered that his employees were more productive working a forty hour week than a forty-eight hour week, and in 1940 it became a part of U.S. law.

At this point in time, there are numerous studies on the impacts of working over forty hours. And the results, like these from the CDC, show that when analyzing the increase in illnesses and mistakes, as well as the decrease in productivity, there is zero benefit to putting in the extra time.

In fact, recently the 30 hour work week has begun to get more attention. Some businesses have started to test it, and again, are finding that the increase in productivity, creativity, and health of their employees are worth it. There’s a big gain in working less.

Unfortunately, these companies are the exception.

So if it has the potential to be profitable, why do so many organizations resist changing their culture?

Because it requires questioning core beliefs. And a belief is hard to change.

Um...help?

Next week: How this impacts work/life balance.

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