Letter to a Friend: on the risk of defrauding your values

Dear Friend,  [listen to the letter]

Take a seat, take in the magnificent view on a winter’s day.  After a long morning, that covered everything in benign darkness and inspired hours of work in candle light, this crispy cold air and shimmering ice, steaming sea and unpolluted and unobstructed space will make you look at what happened to you from a new angle.

Seeing an organization in decline, and the break-down in staff’s morale that precedes its demise, is impacting your professional life, your personal life and your entire existence and it can be immensely hard to witness. It can also make you feel helpless, trapped and angry.  I can only imagine the full extent of what you are going through in these days. So many things may be crumbling, you may be worrying about the future of your children, your plans for the next years and even decades to come may be in jeopardy, and on top of all that, there may be doubts, self-accusations, a feeling that you were not enough, not right, that you should have, could have – done more, done less, done different.

Yet, these dark days may fill you with an increasing sense of opportunity, a stronger-than-ever will to live life and work beyond the confines of the limited space and place the firm used to offer you.  That space and role you inhabited in the firm became your professional identity.  Yet, it stifled and muted you, when you saw things going wrong over the many years you were loyal and committed, and when you wanted and tried to raise concerns and suggest changes.  The position was never meant to challenge the status quo and help the organization grow out of its growing weaknesses. But you believed in the rhetoric, and you had sufficient trust and hope.

Rather, the organization guarded and protected its weaknesses from its engaged and courageous employees, its stakeholders and shareholders as best as it could, all those who kept their eyes open and wanted it to become an entity fit to proudly identify with. It got stuck in a defense pattern that left it hanging in denial, struggling with growing up into a mature attitude towards admitting and taking responsibility for errors and learning from such.  Markers such as accountability, transparency, and critical reflection remained absent or shallow rhetorical exercises – until it had cocooned into an impenetrable web of self-deception and delusion that absolutely no one wanted to keep alive. Not even artificially.

The corporate culture you were made a part of, a human factor and component so to speak, did not permit genuine fixes, it did not allow an authentic culture of safely admitting errors, learning from them and making the place a better and safer place – for the entirety of its workforce. It was hierarchical, driven by punishment and reward, living and breathing a competitive us versus them culture, marked by dysfunctional patriarchal or matriarchal thinking.  In either case, it resembled an obscenely over-sized household that held a view of its children (i.e. the employees) that was marked by fear of independent thinking and genuine passion for learning and growing (intellectual and social as opposed to solely economic).  It resembled, in its daily demeanor, a fearful head of a household that believes in controlling others and has no experience nor appreciation of collaboration and cooperation with equals. Oblivious of deeper connection to self and others, incapable of the need for consciousness, it created its own grave – but will even now continue to push the blame to others.

You know now that you were right, you have proof, but it gives you no satisfaction – you are not the type of person that enjoys the firm’s failure nor is witnessing all the collateral damage giving you any pleasure.  You are not one for Schadenfreude.  Rather, you are acutely aware that those who turned the corporation into a zombie firm may elsewhere repeat the same dysfunctional mechanisms by mismanagement and their deeply buried childhood issues and patterns they were unlucky enough to never resolve – which will cause further harm and havoc.

I know, you connect the dots.  I know that you see the links between and beyond all this. I know that you know that just because so many keep telling themselves and others that economic growth is the panacea and that we cannot change it and that a little bit of narcissism in our leaders is actually a good thing, is dangerous nonsense.  I know that there are others who see this too, who are aware and conscious and deem a questioning curious mind the most valuable contribution there is, whether as an asset in your organization or to global society at large. I know that we want to see the world less dominated by fraud, abuse, neglect, and exploitation – all resulting in ever more individuals who abandon their healthy vision of a life lived in connection, awareness and in sync with what we truly need and what keeps the planet alive and livable.

The risk that comes with being a part of a toxic organization that is supposed to be your patron, your home, your key measure of success, identity and income, is dawning on us in such times. We realize that being dehumanized and deemed a human factor within such an organization leaves everyone who is alive and aware at risk of feeling hollow.

It makes you doubt that contract you signed, which has bound you tightly to the firm.  The deal you made provided you with all you thought you needed, for a few or many years.  Your whole life revolved around ensuring your firm, your boss and everyone who matters to your professional existence in that firm and industry, were beyond satisfied with your performance. Performance, the very term connotes an air of falseness, of insincere acts, of putting on a show.  Still, you almost convinced yourself, it would be a wonderful opportunity, your family and all significant individuals in your life praised you for your efforts and your rewards.

It’s what happens a lot – so often, that many deem it the norm, rather than the exception. From the corporation’s perspective, it looks as if they have a staff retention, staff engagement, and staff motivation problem – clueless about human needs, one program and incentive after another will be rolled out, consultants roll in, all fail.  What never comes around is what employees – that means human beings, not human factors, not human resources nor any other dehumanized entities – truly need.  Authentic respect, validation, appreciation – none of this can be purchased, none of this can be handed over by contract.  You know that; I know it.  But it takes genuine effort and connection to give it, and in order to give it, you need to know how to take it. It takes reflection and awareness to know it and enable it, but so many seem to not know, seem to be unable to understand where the greed, the insatiable hunger for recognition (beyond compensation – i.e. salary and perks) comes from and that you cannot substitute it with any salary increases, perks or other rather meaningless form of Ersatz.

We also know, it is not a generational issue.  Whether Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millenial or else, belonging, connection and the need to feel safe are universal, some may just have a higher level of unawareness or are more accustomed to denying this need to themselves – and others. The root causes transgress the public/private boundary and go far back into upbringing and childhood.  Usually, dysfunctional behavior of employees, especially in leading roles, is off-limits, but the ramifications and the resulting damage are all too real and the costs are externalized, they are added to the burden the entire society carries.

But we need to distinguish between the illusion of safety and certainty and the very real dangers that require safety measures – being surrounded by active volcanoes springs to mind.  All too often we are being offered a false sense of security and unilateral safety, whether by consumption or purchase of assets and items we don’t really need and actually harm ourselves or the environment or by the promises a corporation may offer you in exchange for loyalty and exclusive devotion.  You and I would warn the children and teenagers that are closest to us and tell them to stay clear of such abusive and unsustainable relationships. Why would we tolerate anything less from the organizations we work with?

The imbalance of power is what creates the breeding ground for resentment. The denial of meaning – whether in the work itself, the collaboration or engagement across the levels of hierarchy – further fuels that.  It may manifest itself in a patronizing or belittling attitude, or denial of full and clear communication and transparency – frequently an issue with the broader community of stakeholders and shareholders.  This resentment, in everyone who is not aware of it and who is not intrinsically motivated, is the toxic element.  That element, if unmanaged and denied, brings entire corporations down.  It is, in essence, the passive-aggressive resistance that employees, who are deeply disengaged as a result of being ignored in their non-financial needs, will resort to.

They will resort to this strategy, whether consciously or less so, out of habit or herd mentality or lack of awareness of alternatives, because it is the only socially acceptable way they know of in which they think they can retaliate: deny engagement, refuse enthusiasm, fake caring, pretend admiration for a leader who lacks leadership qualities, be physically present but find ways to be mentally absent, abuse corporate resources for one’s own purposes – the list goes on with varying degrees of aggression feeding into the passive-aggressive overtones.  Those who lack intrinsic motivation and a deeply embedded set of firm ethical values will be found guilty of such misconduct that eventually harms all of us.

On the other end of the spectrum, the societal level, we find tax evasion and tax fraud to be the result of a similar construct.  We may hear plenty of voices who justify this because it is rampantly occurring. Yet, just because it has become another dominant form of passive-aggression doesn’t make it right or desirable. It is eroding our societal and democratic foundation, and that should be reason enough to fight it beyond token acts and an occasional impeachment or a rare criminal conviction.

Empathy, though, you know it, was never part of that deal.  Compensation, health care, pension, stock options, the whole range of benefits, bonuses, all sorts of sweeteners that may or may not have appeased you through the years, that was what the firm could offer you. Empathy, that gift of appreciation and genuine connection, that remained denied.

Empathy would entail genuine mutual engagement and the ability to act as equals, which any hierarchical organization will vehemently resist doing.  It would undermine their power and put them in uncharted territory which would further contribute to a shift in power.  Hence, the circle closes and employees will resort to passive-aggressive resentment. Quite similar to dysfunctional nuclear families, private schools or boarding schools, universities and colleges which instill reward, punishment and box-ticking, all organizations in which many of those in leadership roles have likely grown up.  And so it rolls. Unaware of alternative approaches. Downhill.

The denial of the right to daring is embedded in the contract that makes us subject to the rules and beliefs of an organization that is not an equal. At best, it is a patron, at worst, it is a perpetrator.  Permitting abuse will have implications and repercussions to the families, communities, and societies we live in. It has knock-on effects and changes our perception and behavior.  We see this thanks to global, social and alternative media more clearly than ever before.  We also see and hear it in our fellow citizens: there are those who pass the behavior on to their children, treat their spouses the way they are being dealt with by their bosses, alcohol and other drug abuse play a role way too large in pseudo-coping strategies, and again, the list goes on.

We may opt for devaluing ourselves, for denying our values and our needs.  We may rebel, we may – some may, not you and I- resort to revenge.  We may, indeed, have witnessed highly paid executives engage in a form of passive-aggressive revenge that made us cringe.  Perhaps we acted upon such abuse, whether we witnessed acts of theft, forgery, corruption, conflicts of interest, bribery or worse. We followed our true values and perhaps that is how we chose to roll and how we came to become advocates for authentic, meaningful and equal relationships and existences.  Perhaps we did our best to bring about change, instill a sense of genuine responsibility and tried everything we could to make that organization a place deserving a place in our society.  Whether as citizens, employees, friends, parents or else.

Perhaps we just grew tired, of false rhetoric, of the harm we witnessed, done by the firm, our presumable patron, to people, nature, society at large. Perhaps we were unwilling to comply with things that are actually non-compliant with everything that is healthy and meaningful. Perhaps we remembered that life, this limited life on a planet with finite resources, is way too precious, to sell it off to someone – the firm, that vague entity of non-human factors, all made up of humans hiding behind the corporate mask – who does not value our contract nor ourselves and has neither healthy self-respect nor respect for others.

We owe this, not only but foremost, to ourselves – as role models, leaders, inspirers of our children. We may even inspire dialogue and reflection among those who are deemed the silent generation, the traditionalists who enjoy the last part of retirement and may be proud and deeply moved to see that what they lived for lives on, in us, in all those who do not give in, who do not sell off their values, who do not comply with those who encourage us to self-corrupt and self-defraud.

We owe this especially also to the children who are teenagers and at risk of becoming disillusioned with a parent’s or other adult’s inauthentic life and related action-rhetoric incongruity.

We owe this to ourselves and all other beings on the planet, to act with integrity and responsibility.  This is the only way to maintain self-respect and a meaningful degree of freedom.  Submitting to financial needs and status symbols which have been made our second nature but couldn’t be more removed from what makes us connected, belonging, valued, and self-respected, need to be carefully evaluated.  Lip service will not buy us the authentic safety and belonging, the meaning and connection to like-minded strong individuals we all crave.

I know that you know.  I know that there is a deep understanding that what makes a firm, an organization truly valued by its people is the way it deals with its people, its resources, whether human or else.

What’s there to lose? Our assets and properties we hope to give us certainty and security in old age, things we can pass on to the next generation, things we can hold onto in times of doubt? I know that you know how hollow these promises sound, and who created them, for us, the consumers, the voters, the employees.

But things can be different, I know that you will dare to risk. You will be the change that you want to see live on in your children. And nothing matters more, nothing has greater impact and results in lasting impressions, than standing up for our beliefs.  Living authenticity, integrity, and accountability to our own deep beliefs which we know are right and un-corrupted, that is the legacy we wish to give.

You may, at times, feel sorely alone in this sea of change, daunting challenge and threatened values.  You are not, as you are no longer muted by a contract that offered you false hope, false security, and  false appreciation.  You no longer have to be suffocated by the fear of an organization that puts denial at the top of its priorities and neglects your most valuable contributions.

May the force be with you, my friend.

Love and peace

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