Work is so important. For most of us, it takes up the best hours of the majority of our days. And most everything else gets organized around it.
When it comes to Radical Decency – being habitually decent to our selves, others, and the world – this is a big problem. Why? Because, at work, the culture’s predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – are typically rehearsed with unrestrained virulence. There it sits, at the center of our lives, a constant impediment to our ability to give ourselves over to more decent ways of living.
The result? Most us end up squeezing the most profound expressions of our humanity – relationship and community, leisure and private passions, social justice and service – into the relative corners of our lives.
- Time with our spouse and children is consigned to nights and weekends.
- Social events tend to be isolated and episodic.
- And little or no time is left over to tend to injustice and the suffering of others – even those within our immediate social and religious communities.
While no one is exempt from this unforgiving equation, it is, without question, much tougher on people with salaried and hourly jobs. In this Reflection, I address the special challenges these people face and offer a number of strategies to deal with them.
The problem for salaried and hourly workers begins with the most basic notions of freedom. While we seldom think of it in this way, they are, effectively, indentured servants. They work from 9 to 5 – or longer if the boss demands it – get an hour for lunch, 2 vacation weeks, and “x” number of sick days. That’s it. No choice.
Moreover, in contrast to 200 hundreds years ago – at least for white people – most salaried workers have no extended family or stable geographic homesteads and communities to fall back on. In other words, there is no way out. Work or die.
Compounding the situation is the highly authoritarian nature of the organizations for which they work. Supervisors control what they work on, with whom they work, and the environments in which they work. And so long as they are making money for the company and are not causing problems for their bosses, supervisors’ powers are virtually unchecked.
There was a time when workers had some ability to fight back. But over the last few decades, the laws protecting workers’ rights have steadily eroded. Today, most unions and human resource departments – if they exist at all – are paper tigers, with little or no power to enforce effective solutions. Too often, the net effect of raising a grievance is this: No relief, plus the animus of your boss. The result? Most workers suffer in silence.
Since all that really matters in business is profitability, companies do actually support good bosses – so long as they are making money. The problem, however, is that this good boss will eventually move on, or change his or her ways when shrinking profits demand a more bottom line oriented approach. And because decency is never a high priority, the next boss is unlikely to be similarly enlightened.
Recognizing that fortuitous exceptions can actually exist, it makes sense to look for a job with a good boss – and to enjoy it while it lasts. But be very cautious in assuming that “this department” or “that company” is a permanent exception to the rule. Bad bosses are not bad luck. They are the expectable result of an authoritarian business culture, dominated by the ethos of compete and win, dominate and control.
What follows is a discussion of key initiatives that individual workers can take, based on principles of Radical Decency, to deal with these realities.
Note, importantly, that the interpersonal approaches I discuss are only one piece of the puzzle. A true transformation of the workplace will also require initiatives that allow workers to collectively assert their rights more effectively.
On the other hand, the strategies discussed below are not pallid substitutes, to be pursued only in the absence of a revitalized workers’ movement. To the contrary, lasting change can never occur – in the workplace or in any other area of living – unless we also challenge and change the authoritarian ways of operating that are so pervasive in our one-on-one relationships.
As Philip Lichtenberg explains, the characteristic dynamic in an authoritarian relationship is for the dominant party to project his anxiety, frustrations, etc. onto the subordinate. So, for example, the boss – getting ready for a meeting – barks at his assistant, “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.
The key to creating a different and better interpersonal environment at work is to consistently act in ways that subvert this dynamic.
This is no easy task. Authoritarian interactions are deeply intertwined with our fight or flight brain, and that part of our brain is highly infectious. The uncomfortable truth is that we are biologically wired to respond to a bullying boss with anger (fight) or sullen silence (flight); behaviors that only encourage a further round of bullying by the boss. In other words, just as it is exquisitely difficult for a spouse to remain calm and composed in the face of his or her partner’s attack, so too at work.
The starting place, if we hope to undo this pattern, is to consistently cultivate mutual and authentic contact – the antithesis of the workplace’s fight or flight mindset. Dealing with the substance of the boss’ “requests” calmly, and with curiosity and respect, we put ourselves in the best possible position to interrupt and subvert the biologically engrained rhythm of reaction/counter-reaction that fight or flight sets up.
Unfortunately, this is no magic pill. Even when we fully commit ourselves to this approach, we cannot expect a magical transformation. As Steven Stosny points out, a nonreactive response reduces the likelihood of further attack – but only from 98% to 70%.
Still, it’s the best available option. Consistently applied, it offers the best hope for turning you into “that” person in the office who, inexplicably, is spared the boss’ most unpleasant excesses.
It is also important to note that, as challenging as this step is, it is only step one in the process. Fully transforming your relationship with the boss into one based on trust, ease and shared respect requires mutuality. In other words, you need to work toward an environment where you can express your legitimate needs and desires as well.
Meaningful progress toward this second goal is a tricky and uncertain proposition. It is likely to depend on your ability to establish yourself as a competent and valued employee and, therefore, as someone whose needs matter. It is also greatly facilitated by success in implementing step one: By your boss’ growing perception of you as an empowered listener.
Even with all of this in place, however, the only reliable way to get reciprocal respect from your boss is to ask for it. At some point, you need to say: I need “x” to do my job more effectively – or, I am not getting the support I need from your executive assistant – or, I need to take Thursday afternoon off to attend to a personal matter.
In asking, you need to be clear and assertive. If you need to be home by 6, the message the boss can’t be: I need this – unless it really bothers you. If your request is equivocal, the boss, steeped in authoritarian entitlement, is primed to ignore it.
In addition, having established this ground rule, act on it. If you ask for something, get it and, then, continually make exceptions – to please the boss or out of fear irritating him – you can be sure that his commitment to it will recede as well.
A final note: The strategies I describe operate in a deeply authoritarian environment. Even if they are employed with impeccable discretion and judgment, nothing may change. But that does not mean the effort shouldn’t be made. Hopefully, as a wide variety of complementary change initiatives take hold, a deeper shift will occur.
And, without regard to their ultimate effectiveness, always remember this: More decent choices grow the best part of our humanity and are, therefore, their own reward.