Culture of Fear

Unless you receive monthly checks from the government or have been born into wealth, chances are you've held a job.  If you're part of my generation or younger, chances are you've worked countless jobs.

I am much less tolerant of unfair workplace conditions as I get older.  I suspect my generation is generally less tolerant.   Our workforce's youngest generation (high school through college) has stepped into the job arena with a heavy sense of entitlement.  This is good and bad.  They won't be exploited, but haughty demands from an unskilled but highly confident workforce can create conditions where unqualified people push their way to leadership positions.  This sort of unskilled management then trickles down through a company, and endemic dysfunction ensues.

Sexism and job discrimination are nothing new, only now, like any kind of intolerance, it is kept packed up behind the wallpaper like so much insulation.

When I first began working, I largely ignored corruption or harassment or abuse or favoritism in the workplace.  First, I was young, and young people don't really pay that much attention.  I hadn't seen enough to identify the now familiar signs that favoritism or sexism are rampant.  

I was happy at my first job.  I was still in high school.  I did thankless work but I loved the feeling of being on a payroll.  It made me feel like I was taking a step into a world that would lead me to future success.  I sold candy and cleaned up puke and candy boxes with a broom and porter.  I was required to wear cheap polyester slacks with fake creases down the fronts.

I put up with a lot there.  I had a vague idea that things would get better, so I didn't complain much.  I was a shy sort of kid and I put up with a lot because I hated confrontation.  Looking back, I still don't see anything wrong with that.    I deferred to authority because I hadn't gotten the Fear yet.  

The Fear I speak of is a creeping feeling that things might not actually get better and that this is all there is and all there will ever be.  Like many teens, I didn't have that at the time.   

My supervisor really got along with all the other guys (and a few of the tomboys) I worked with.  He laughed a lot and must have worked really hard up in the projector room because I never saw him come downstairs very much.  The way I saw it, he - and the numerous guys who were promoted to his position during my time there - possessed something I could not see or possess.  I didn't question it.  I showed up, worked, and went home.  I was raised to defer my trust in authority, after all.  

I made increasing note of the promotions going around me toward the end of my stint at the movie theater, but by this time I had made some tough personal decisions.  It was very empowering and I began seeing the world as a place when people - even me - had to fight for what they wanted, even if it meant pissing people off.  As these thoughts dawned, favoritism became really evident.    

Subsequent, I took barista jobs.  I never saw heavy examples of corruption or favoritism or sexism or racism at any of these jobs.  The nature of the business - running a coffee shop and fostering a cool environment for everyone - forced everyone to work together.  Sure, there was sometimes a manager or owner sitting in the back office, and there were always cliques, but overall we were all up front, only two to three of us together at once, and we all did the same thing.  

We looked out for each other.  

I am glad I abandoned any early fantasies about stepping straight from high school into a sterile, carpeted, air conditioned rectangle - like so many other people I knew - and instead pursued my desire to work in coffee shops. It made me a better person.  It made me more social, more empathic, more caring, and it prepared me for dealing with the hypocrisy I deal with in the office now.

I think that everyone should be required to serve the public in that way.  They should serve coffee and chat with customers and each other and go down a checklist.  They should mop the floor, clean out the coffee machine, wipe the counters, wrap the pastries, and the hundreds of other little tasks set out for them throughout the day.  They should have to interact with people they are serving.  They would become better workers when they return to their offices, to their myopic managerial lives.  They would understand that it's not all about them.  They would understand a little better how others see them, how they come across.

Healthy doses of empathy and compassion are vital for fixing defects in corporate structure.  I'm not talking about coddling people or teaching people to relax.  I'm talking about teaching people to understand where others are coming from.  Corporate trainers make huge money teaching managers how to be better and staff to work together more effectively.  You can sign up for all the day long seminars and work picnics you want, and there is no substitute for hands-on training.  Let them be baristas or porters or food service for a week, or a month, and then send them back and see if their clarity, cooperation, and communication improves.  I'll bet you it will.

The problem I have with promotion and management in our corporate culture, is that it forces us to care less about others.  Those who go straight from the coddling myopia of high school and college into complex office relationships don't possess the skill or experience to craft solutions for interdepartmental dysfunction, particularly if they're promoted into positions of authority and yet only have the skills and experience to look out for themselves.  The middle management phenomenon is often a void where hands-on interaction, hands-on talent, and solution oriented common sense all disappear.  I've seen perfectly capable people get promoted and get lost in a managerial fear culture wherein they turn into self-interested megalomaniacs.  

Managers are are given mandates they must fulfill, but often no tools to communicate their goals effectively to their team.  This creates an incentive to throw others under the bus.  There is no incentive to cooperate or improve the workflow outside their departments, because their performance is judged unless they can generate some autonomous blame on their staff to present to the boss.  Their asses are on the line and things must get done.  During a crunch, blaming someone else and moving on is a hell of a lot easier then getting demoted.

Sadly, this failure to communicate is almost never intentional.  It is unconscious and learned, and it starts at the top.  The guy in charge either promotes communication and honestly or he makes people fear it. People follow his or her example.  People emulate the one with the power, so if the one with the power is a selfish, infantile crank, you're in big trouble.

What I'm saying is: it starts at the top.  That's where the real accountability is.  We could focus our derision on sexist pigs in the workplace.  Perhaps, however, we should focus our blame on the passively sexist 'cool guy' who manages them, allows it to happen unabated and excuses it when people complain.

We could blame the scary head of accounts who burns through one personal assistant after another.  On the other hand, maybe we're looking on the wrong place.  The company's CEO, after all, rewards her attitude with promotion after promotion, and praises her in front of the group at every meeting.  She may be self-interested and difficult to work with, but she clearly has what it takes to succeed..

If you run a company, you are responsible for its culture.  The condition of your mind spawns that culture.  Imagine yourself, then, as a self-interested, insecure CEO.  Everyone who works for you has to either enable that self interest or emulate it to survive.  Either way, a workplace where communication is stifled in favor of quick answers is a place where the balance of power becomes quickly skewed in favor of those with the power to kick problems downward.

If you are a self-interested, insecure CEO, you are bad at what you do.  If you run a company and you possess poor leadership skills, fear is the only way you're going to get people to listen to you.  There are different kinds of fear you can impart:

Fear that their paychecks will run out.
Fear that they will be fired over tiny discrepancies.
Fear of the company going bankrupt.

The worst leaders use this fear at any junction where they feel the reigns of competence slipping away from them.  Sometimes it's imparted like a joke, sometimes it's conveyed in a whiny rant, but with each occasion you do it, you discourage people from trusting in your abilities and discourage cooperation and lose respect.  It's tough to motivate through trust, because with that comes the risk that you're placing your trust in someone who will end up failing, and making you look like you have bad judgment.  These are risks associated with leading a company with honor, and they are worth it.


Anonymous said…
Hi there! I could have sworn I've visited this web site before but after looking
at a few of the articles I realized it's new to me.
Nonetheless, I'm certainly pleased I found it and
I'll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!

Look into my blog post - minecraft games

Popular Posts