Have you ever experienced an unhealthy work environment? While most of us have, the majority of us does not or can not find ways to improve the toxic situation. I have a few suggestions on how we can, individually, change the landscape of the corporate world.
Like a lot of women who found themselves in corporate jobs over the years, I never planned on a business career. I was either going to be an operatic soprano or a Broadway star, so I didn't look too closely into the whole business thing. My dad took the train every day to his job as a magazine publisher, and I saw him bring home a briefcase full of papers every night. That was about the extent of my exposure to the business world. When I was in music school in New York, I would pop into my dad's office every now and then to borrow ten dollars. I got out as quick as I could.
Ten years later, I was a corporate person myself and working hard at my fast-moving, fast-growing technology employer. One day, a bunch of us twenty-something's were brainstorming in a conference room, throwing ideas around and having a great planning session. We were all peers and contemporaries, so it was easy to get some great collaboration going. All of a sudden, the company's CFO - a really lofty guy several levels up the organizational chart from any of us in the room - opened the door and walked in. He asked a question of one of us, and the guy, John, jumped out of his seat. “Uh, yes, I've got those figures right here, " he says in a yes-sir-anything-else-sir! kind of voice. I was amazed. The guy's whole demeanor, body language and tone of voice changed. All of a sudden, Mr. Collaborative Peer Interaction turned into Mr. Corporate Brown-Noser right in front of our eyes. After a few moments, the CFO left and I turned to John. “Whoa, " I said. “That was weird! What happened to you? Are you afraid of that guy or something?"
That was a lesson for me. The whole room went silent. I had committed a sin - I had pointed out something that was embarrassing to admit. A lot of the people in the room would have done just what John did, in the face of big authority. I didn't mean my question as an insult, but it came across that way; I wounded John by suggesting that he was one person to his peers, and another person to one of the company big shots. It was true, but it was hurtful too, because nobody likes to think that they kowtow to authority. No one likes to acknowledge it, but a lot of people do it. It wasn't even necessary for him to act that way - it was automatic. The CFO walked in, and he jumped up and played the subservient role. He probably wasn't even aware of it. It was habitual. It was part of the corporate fabric. I wasn't supposed to mention it - bad form on my part.
This is one of the things that corporate folks buy into, little by little and without meaning to, as they settle into corporate workplaces. You suck up to your boss, just a little bit, or for some people, a lot. You aren't authentic. You don't even know why. Maybe because I was an opera singer who wandered into the corporate arena, I stayed an outsider and observed things like this - a junior anthropologist. I thought that these corporate-get-along behaviors were weird, and sad. I'm happy to act a part if someone's doing a theatrical production, but otherwise, very honestly, I'd prefer to be myself.
And so I would talk to people about this. “Why do you think Joe said what he said to John in that meeting?" I would ask. “Everyone knows Joe wants to run John's department, can't John see it?" Oh man, they would say to me. You have a lot to learn. Corporate politics is part of the game. Saying one thing when you mean another is part of the game. And I would say, “Why?" or “That is idiotic. "
In retrospect I guess I was lucky to find employers that would keep me on the payroll, given that I would often call attention to these strange behaviors. It wasn't until a few years later that I first heard the word “dysfunctional" and saw how truly dysfunctional so many corporate workplaces are. People greeting each other with big hugs when one was actively trying to get the other one fired. Back-room machinations to discredit peers, maneuvering and posturing. . . . and at the time, mine was a relatively healthy company, politics-wise. Since then, I've been in corporate environments so toxic you could hardly breathe. And the oddest part is that people in these snake pits would go about their business, not saying Boo about the bad air and the downright evil atmosphere. Why?
Because it's hard to name this kind of thing. Because you have to find a sympathetic ear in order to even discuss the problem. Because you don't know whom you can trust. Because the same politics that rule the workplace can get you fired if you dare to mention the problem. Because, because, because.
I don't think that any of us on our own - apart from CEOs and owners in their own companies - can change the state of fear-driven, internally competitive and non-collaborative enterprises. We can't do it on our own, as employees. But there is something we can do. We can make a vow, if we work in such a place, to bring our own selves to work every day. You don't have to make the entire company healthy. But you can create a zone of health around your own desk, or workstation, or office.
How do you do this? You do it by taking responsibility for adult communication in all of your interactions. So, when someone says to you, “There goes Christine again, acting like the queen of the universe, " you say “I can see you're bothered by what Christine said. Have you talked with her about it?" There is no benefit, and tons of harm, in talking about people rather than talking to them. It's hard to confront problems directly. But not doing so not only doesn't solve the problem. It adds to the atmosphere of mistrust, of deception, and undercurrents of hostility. You can fight this by deciding not to participate. You can ever so gently remind other people of the pit that they've fallen into, just by refusing to fall yourself.
But if you make this change - if you refuse to play the political game - won't you embarrass and thereby anger people, by presuming to be better than they are? I don't think so. You become a Quaker, as it were - you aren't judging, but you're not going to get into the political battles, either. Let's say you heard that Norman has only bad things to say about you. You go see him. “I was sorry to hear that you seem to be upset with me, " you say. Perhaps, no one has had this conversation in your company, ever before. “I would like to talk with you about that and get the problem resolved. "
Don't you owe yourself the gift of being who you are, even at work? Especially at work, because if you're asked to engage your brain for eight or ten hours a day, how can you turn your other organs (including your gut, the most reliable sense organ of them all) off?
In a small way, taking responsibility for your own interactions, being yourself at work just as at home, and for breaking free of the culture of blaming, is a huge step. In a really troubled workplace, you may be called a few names by the people most bought into the fear-driven culture. You can take that. Isn't it more important to know that you get to go to work and be who you are? I would love to see women lead this charge. One of the most discouraging things about the slow movement of women into senior level corporate jobs is the understanding that some of them, to get there, have compromised their integrity more than a little. It pains me when I hear a woman say, “To succeed in business, you just have to act like a man. " For God's sake! (or Goddess's sake), what's the benefit of that? So women get to be in the business world only by being something other than themselves? If that's the deal, it's a bad one. Corporations won't benefit, shareholders won't benefit, and women won't have made it until we can come to work AND be ourselves - full of intention and integrity. I hope that we hold our employers to that standard and say:
"If the person you want for this job is someone who looks like me and dresses like me and has my job experience and training but doesn't say what I would say - because the truth is a little too jarring for your environment - then you need to hire someone else. "
If we got job equality by agreeing to leave ourselves at home or in the company parking lot and bring some corporate automaton to the office, what kind of victory would that be? My goal for myself (and one day, for my daughter) is to go to work intact - head, heart, and soul. Anything less gives power to the old, bad, toxic business world I didn't create, and steals power from me.
Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR leader, a workplace expert and the founder of the global online network WorldWIT (http://www.worldwit.org ). She writes the workplace column for Business Week online, her own Business Mom and Job Jungle blogs at http://www.worldwit.org/blogs.aspx , and speaks internationally on women in the workplace, work and life, and the post-millennial corporate lifestyle. Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and five children.
If you're looking for advice or have questions related to your job, just ask Liz! You can email Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org.