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I've cracked the code

My dear friend,

I was very surprised and dismayed to get your message yesterday. I'm so sorry you've fallen victim to the changing situation at work.

Perhaps you noticed the change happening gradually, with the shift in leadership and the little hints of a new style over the past year. Maybe you made the mistake of assuming that the style change was just temporary, that the tendency to devalue the individual was just a blip on the radar screen, and that soon the new leadership would learn better and everything would get back to normal.

But, sadly, this is normal--the new normal. I've seen it, and I have friends in other organizations who have seen it, and I only wish I had seen it soon enough to find a way to tell you what I've learned, instead of hearing about your difficulties and simply feeling bad for you.

Here, better late than never, is what I have figured out.

We're experiencing a pendulum swing--even a backlash--against the long years where from the top down, organizations like ours valued the people who worked for them, their creativity, their institutional knowledge, and their commitment to the community.

In the old paradigm, values like openness, trust, service, consensus and team-building were held high. The first priority were the employees, their families, their health, and their institutional knowledge. By consensus, the leaders of the old way wanted staff to be reasonably creative, and seemed to think that a happy workforce was a productive one. They even created documents--sometimes very annoying ones--stating these values, and set up programs that supported them.

In the new paradigm (which, make no mistake, is not isolated to your little part of the organization, but permeates all levels from top to bottom throughout our society), those who have been disgusted for a decade or more with the values of the old model are having their day in the sun.

So a wise person asks: What are their values? How can I best come into compliance with the new order?

It's tricky because you have to notice what isn't there--what they aren't doing anymore. Some things are easy to spot, like when they take away your flex time. Others are less visible. But observe: no one asks your opinion anymore. There are no retreats. Ideas and suggestions may go IN to the top offices, but they will never come out again. Perhaps you no longer have a mission and values statement.

So, not only are the values very different and not people-centered, but they are secret, and have been devised without your input. Only those who already speak the language of the new leadership--that is, those who have also been waiting their turn for the past dozen years--will be able to guess what the new values are. This secretive tendency is a clue to the first value espoused by the new leadership:

Power is best concentrated in a few hands.

So, the obvious next question is: Which hands will be deemed fit to share in the power?

If you look at what they are doing, you quickly see the answer. Look at promotions, demotions, and disciplinary actions. You'll probably see that worth is being defined not in terms of intelligence, team spirit, creativity, or even effectiveness--nor would they make the mistake of defining it by race, gender, or age. Worth is now defined in terms of punctuality, attendance, and numbers-based results. It has become more important to look effective than to be effective.

And that clues us in to the second value espoused by the new style of leadership:

We maintain the appearance of propriety at all times.

It's that simple. Two values, both unstated.

Now that we've cracked the code, what can we learn from it?

First, imagine yourself as a person who holds these two values dear: you believe that power is best concentrated in a few hands, and that you must always give the appearance of propriety.

The first thing you have to do is weed out anyone who doesn't espouse these values, because your system can't work with people in it who want to share power or who think right action is more important than appearances. Such people will bleed off your power, make you look bad, and remind you that maybe you don't actually merit the power you have.

Those remaining after you've weeded out your staff will become enthusiastic in support not of your policies but of your person. Every pronouncement of yours will be greeted with applause--because you're the boss.

And you will like this. It won't make you ill or squeamish. Because as an individual who believes that power should be concentrated in a few hands, you always hope that your hands are the right ones, and fear that they aren't. You need plenty of proof every day, and you will entrust some of the power to those who offer the most proof.

That's the new code. Two fundamental rules. To test my theory, think about some of the changes that you've seen in the workplace and consider whether they fit the new model I've outlined.

For instance, maybe the leadership have failed to discipline those who harrass, threaten, and discriminate, while actively disciplining those who don't get to work on time. Or maybe they have made efforts to alienate and "manage out" those with the longest institutional knowledge (because their knowledge is of the old paradigm and a threat to the new).

Possibly you've seen people promoted into management positions who seem to lack any people skills. And look further: I bet you've seen awards and kudos given for non-accomplishments such as low use of sick leave, or for the most paltry tasks done by people who are very punctual.

Maybe you've noticed an increase in closed-door sessions, possibly between certain staff but excluding others. The systematic removal of any perks not mandated by contract or law--like flex time, personal use of computers, and the like--is another indicator.

If you have seen these things in your workplace, you can probably be sure that the two New Values of concentrated power and the appearance of propriety are operating fully.

It's hard to see a positive in all this, I know. This swing of the pendulum is likely to last a good long while, and those who can't find compliance in their hearts without losing their souls are destined not to last long in an organization that has changed in this way.

It may be helpful to recognize that any organization that systematically keeps secrets and values the appearance of propriety is ripe for corruption--you have only to look at Enron and the like to see what finally becomes of this trend.

Meanwhile, though, it's sad to see a lovely, compatible workplace become a haven for people who joyously embrace the cult of rules, isn't it? I'm so sorry that you've been so hurt by it. I hope you'll be able to go back, braced up with this code that I've revealed to you, and make your stand. And if not, I know something will come along that's much better for your spirit.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 1st, 2006 02:54 am (UTC)
You have such am incredible way of putting words together to make the most heart felt, meaningful, touching sentences. I know this has been one of the hardest times of your life and I know it too will pass. Until that happens I am so glad you have the incredible intelligence and style to express your stress and frustration in this way. I am so proud to be your friend. I wish with all my heart I could do more than stand by you and provide a little support. Hang in there, you deserve so much better than the work place is handing you right now.
Jun. 1st, 2006 06:05 am (UTC)
Your standing by me and providing a "little" support is of enormous value, now more than ever. I can't tell you how much strength I've drawn in recent weeks from your solidarity and your experience in similar situations.

Unless they actually fire me, I'm not leaving till I've come completely to terms with this profound blow to my worldview. I've never had a great relationship to work--we "older" types rarely do--and by God I'm going to fix that before I move on to the next thing.

Sid said today that my current state reflected a very deep (previously hidden) disconnect between body and mind--because I'm physically massively stressed out by the situation at work, even while I mentally understand and even accept it. I don't know what she did, but it was her usual magic, and I'm feeling much, much better tonight.

Thank you for your friendship and support--and for reading through this extra-long post!
Jun. 1st, 2006 02:58 am (UTC)
This post is amazing. You have articulated so many things that I have been tossing around, vaguely, in varied workplace experiences.

Jun. 1st, 2006 05:58 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm so glad! It just poured out--I've been putting the pieces together myself over the last couple of weeks and this stunning (if terribly depressing) picture emerged. I thought it might help others avoid some of the pitfalls if I could call it out as clearly as I've finally seen it.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 1st, 2006 05:57 am (UTC)
Thank you! As James P. Carse reminds me, I am not playing to win. I'm playing to keep playing.

I'm glad you found value in my essay. It really did start out as a letter to a friend and co-worker who has been driven out in a state of ill-health by the actions of the new regime.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 1st, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC)
Yup. The appearance of propriety. Breastfeeding isn't proper, don't you know, and we should pad our budgets in aggrandizing but relatively invisible ways because no one looking will see it. This is why I've used the tag "corruption" on this post--it's such a short step.

I bet your friend and M&S (hee!) was saying, I came to work every day and got a letter. Those who got no letters took several days off. Who's the dupe in this picture???
Jun. 4th, 2006 08:47 am (UTC)
I wish I could print this out and make my students read it, so I could communicate something about the political dimension of the workplace. I'm so sorry you're having to work in an environment that's turning from open and creative to small-minded, rule-bound, secretive, and, well, despotic.
Jun. 4th, 2006 09:01 pm (UTC)
I'm gratified that you feel it communicates something of value. And if you can use it, please feel free.

Writing it and talking about the ideas in it over the last several days has allowed me to make a critical shift in my relationship to the problems it describes. I've gone from helpless rage, through fearfully rigid attempts to comply, to a more rational place where I recognize that while I'm can willingly do what's being demanded of me by the new overlords, I can't become what they'd like me to be.

There's a point at which I have to be willing to sacrifice my employment, because I can't meet the condition of chenging who I am.

I will, however, stave that moment off with appropriate compliance for as long as practicable. Because I do like having an income. It's so helpful in paying for things.
Jun. 25th, 2006 06:43 am (UTC)
Ugh. {{hugs}} So sadly accurate.
Jun. 25th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Sadly accurate, and--I've found--important to understand. There seems to be no escaping the model (unless you're lucky enough to be independently wealthy) or just independent. The rest of us? Need to understand this in order to get along.

Subverting it is another issue altogether. I'm counting on you younger workers to create a new paradigm. Because I have too much respect for you to think you want to stay in a system like the fascist one we've got.
Jul. 15th, 2006 03:50 am (UTC)
I'm counting on you younger workers to create a new paradigm.
Alas, I have no brilliant ideas. But I'm open to suggestion.
Jul. 17th, 2006 02:12 am (UTC)
I'm drawing a blank at the moment, but I must say that your Shepherd Book icon is so very gorgeous, and makes me nostaligic.
Jul. 17th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I really like that shot of him from behind.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )



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