On the Survivability of a Corporate Life, Part 1 of 6

A Case in Point

Work is essential, not only to keep the wolf from the door, but also because it is at the very heart of what it means to be a member of society, a contributor to your community. Work also has its dark side for the individual worker and it is the power of that darkness to cause growth that is the topic before us.

When we enter into work, perhaps most especially work that is accomplished in the context of consistent community, we shortly find ourselves in a situation that will require nothing less of us than metamorphosis in order to survive, let alone thrive. Whether this metamorphosis most appropriately results in conforming to the corporate culture or refining one’s personal skills so as to retain one’s own values in the context of a culture that may be in opposition to the values demonstrated in that culture is a topic for another blog post.

That November morning I found myself sitting on my friend’s bed stroking her braless back through her thin T-shirt. Her husband had called me insisting she needed to see me right away, and so I went without asking. When I arrived I found her hiding under the sheets in their bed refusing to allow him to come near her. She insisted he go out and close the door when I came into the room.

“Do you love me?” she asked me over and over. I should have seen this coming, I thought, as I stroked her as I might a restless child. More than a year before she had attained a demanding position that increasingly challenged her to grow personally in fundamental ways, bringing great pressure to bear on the most vulnerable areas of her character. We had talked several times over the preceding months about how she was challenged and each time she seemed more single-mindedly driven, less grounded in an objective perspective on the demands of her job.

“Yes, of course I love you.”

“Do you love me?” she asked again, talking uncontrollably about her work¾all boundaries, all perspective having fallen away as her psyche, in self-defense, imploded. She would not have to go to work that day or for many days. She would not have to go to the fancy office with the door and the window and the very good salary.

And, as I stroked her back and calmed her, tried to get her to eat or at least drink something, I thought about how close so many of us are to this every day, how close I am now or have been. Outside of the bedroom in which I sat with her, her husband called the therapist and the psychiatric nurse at the HMO for the three mood-altering drugs she would start that day. Presumably he answered her small daughters’ questions about why Mommy was acting so strangely that morning. I did not ask “Why her?” or “Why did this happen?” I only entered into her grief with her, knowing that getting as close as I could to that frigid cold was the best I could do for her, since I knew at least part of the way out of that icy desert myself.

We are preoccupied with work or its lack for much of our lives. As in the diet book industry, there is much written these days about work, work/life balance, career satisfaction, career switching, and retirement planning¾for those who don’t want their careers anymore. We read about adrenal burnout in disbelief¾unless we have experienced this syndrome for ourselves, about what was once called the “Yuppy flu” and is now known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. We identify ourselves and others as “burned out” and our workplaces and others’ workplaces as “hostile” or “toxic.” The image of the boss has become, almost by definition, a negative one. But, increasingly, what intrigues and perplexes me is the way in which I affect my own environment, even the degree to which I affect my own experience of that environment. Could it be that I have more influence over the psychosocial even spiritual experience of my work than I realize?

The most common theme in American work culture is that of powerlessness in the face of the organization. Though we are de facto adherents of a capitalist society, some of us long for the Marxist socialist-inspired, community-and-common-man-inspired unionist solidarity that brought us the eight-hour workday, time and a half for overtime, and holidays as well as paid vacations. And, while we’re all grateful for the protections that do exist in the modern workplace, still we find ourselves beleaguered, emotionally exhausted, harassed in one way or another, and sometimes physically and psychologically damaged by a white collar, knowledge worker reality that, on the surface, seems to be the cushiest work-life existence since Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

The first time I saw a peer experience serious trauma due to his job, I was 28 and he was 35. One day the head of the help desk team in the small company I was working for came into the office, on time as usual, and later that morning was taken to the hospital. Later that day we were told he’d had a heart attack.

A year later, having been downsized from that small company, I interviewed at another company. As I moved from interview to interview I noticed a consistent trend. Each employee was relatively cheerful and upbeat in the presence of another employee, but when we went into his or her private office and closed the door, he or she became very dark and hunted, speaking ominously and hopelessly about the work environment.

At the end of the series of interviews, I was ushered back to the cheerful and encouraging human resources director who asked me what I thought of the company. I said, “I think you grind the bones of the writers to make the toner for the printers.” He was shocked and thought I must have misunderstood the entire interview experience. He assured me that I should talk with the manager of the group to get the straight story. I was ushered into her office.

As soon as the manager and I were alone it was clear she was far too distracted by other new and immediate priorities to really discuss anything with me. To sum things up she said, “You should have been here a year ago. We were really working hard then: people’s marriages were ending!” Then she had to rush off to a meeting. I walked out of that building wiser and far more content with my unemployment. Notably, a year or so later that company no longer existed.

Similar experiences over the years have led to me reflect on my own way of being in the workplace, not only for myself but also for the sake of the others around me. I have learned that retaining the necessary perspective to modulate my behavior, which is the execution of my vision, is extremely demanding. It is also essential for my physical and psychological health, as it is for that of those I work with, and even more so when I am in a leadership position.

Part 2: Vision and Perspective

Part 3: Work at Its Worst

Part 4: Taking Responsibility; Assuming Authority

Part 5: Personal Sovereignty

Part 6: Epilogue

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