I love good science fiction and have read every one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, all of the Dune series, and many others. I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy at our Friends of the Library book sale last year, and devoured it.
In the third book of the series, Blue Mars, there is this passage in the chapter titled “A New Constitution”. At the time I read it, it blew me away.
Suddenly, Vlad Taneev stood up. Startled, Antar stopped speaking and looked over.
There is so much more to this powerful story, beautifully told, but it’s Robinson’s “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives” that has stuck with me these many months since I read it.
No one ever gets up in the morning, eager to be harassed, humiliated, ignored, demeaned or diminished. No target, however “provocative”, keeps thinking of all the ways they can provoke people into bullying them. Targets are not at fault. There is not something wrong with them. They did not cause their bullying.
And yet, they are also part of the system that drives bullying.
Because most targets, like most professionals everywhere, have conflated their identity - who they are, their worth as human beings - with what they do, with their jobs.
How do we come to find ourselves in this situation? Here's my story. My guess is that there are a lot of parallels with your story.
Somewhere along the line, long before I even left school - and certainly without any conscious awareness on my part - I adopted the prevailing cultural belief: you are what you do. If you get good grades, good girl! If you get a good degree, good girl! If you get a good job, you’re becoming a real woman! If you get promoted and rise through the ranks, you're are a worthwhile human being.
I dutifully pursued that path for 40 odd years. And then it all came to a crashing halt. Next week it will be 5 years since I went out on disability leave. When the “old me” died. That dying was awful. And painful. And traumatic. And terrifying.
And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I'd deluded myself for a long time in thinking that I could, or should, conform myself to meet the expectations of others. Because that was what I thought was expected of me. Basically, in trying so hard to succeed by other people’s standards, I failed at being me. And when my job mattered to me in that way, who had the power? Certainly not me.
The first wake up moment took place in 2010 when I was the only one in the small company I then worked for who was selected for “lay-off". As explained to me later by a high ranking woman with whom I had worked: “You pissed some of the old men off. They didn’t like that you pointed out that their decisions flew in the face of the data and what the market research was saying. So they complained. And your company decided to get rid of the problem - you - rather than face up to the problem: an old-guard self-protective system. You didn’t do something wrong. You just didn’t do something right - as defined by them.”
Things have changed a lot since then. But I would argue that, even after a pandemic, the business world doesn’t really want us in all our glorious messiness and imperfection and jumble of contradictions. They want one thing and one thing only from us: our ability to show up and do the work they set for us. That is what they pay us for.
And that’s totally reasonable and fair.
But still today, most organizations and bosses seem to be operating under the belief that they are not only buying our time - but also our personalities. And they buy it when we acquiescence to the unspoken norms about how we are supposed to be at work: what we wear, what we talk about, how we are supposed to “show up” in terms of attitude, how early we arrive, how late we stay, our deference to authority, and hundreds of other daily choices. And then we wonder at how bullied, ignored, pushed around, overlooked, mistreated we feel or unfair the whole thing seems?
I had the most delightful coffee with a former colleague a few weeks back. We have traveled very similar journeys in terms of fall-out from our jobs having catastrophic impacts on our health and well-being. But where my path has taken me to coaching her path has taken her back to a different job. One where she is utterly clear eyed about what she is doing and why: she is selling her time for money. It’s that simple. Not for her identity, not for purpose, not for meaning and fulfillment - she is meeting those needs in other ways.
As I sat listening to her describe how - because of this - she can see what is actually going on in the company (rather a lot of disorganization), clearly point it out to the owner and her boss, and offer potential suggestions for improvements, all while being completely detached from how her boss responds or reacts, I had the biggest smile on my face. This is freedom - the real, meaningful kind. Because that organization, that boss - they have no power over her. Absolutely zero. And all because she has learned to detach her worth from her job; to separate what she does to earn a living from who she is as a human being. She knows she has worth just as she is, regardless of what kind of job she has. And because of this she’s no threat to the organization or to her boss’s ego either. She gets to be who she is AND she gets to work a job she chooses to do. It’s a joy behold.
If you are someone who is feeling bullied, yes, it’s possible to get to this place. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it takes work. And yes, it is worth it. You get your life back. You get to be you. One part of your path to this sort of freedom and joy is really ditching the 200 pound weight on your back that is tying your worth and identity to your job. Because work won’t love you back.
And if you are someone who leads and manages other people, I ask you to examine what assumptions you are making about how much you get to dictate to them about who they are supposed to be. “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives.”
How much autonomy are you giving to your staff? How much are you expecting them to follow certain norms that really have nothing at all to do with their capacity to get their work done? There is an inverse relationship between control and trust: the more you control, the less people feel trusted, and the less they feel trusted, the less well they perform. “When a trustworthy work climate exists, information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail. Such behavior, over time, leads to outcomes that make companies more creative, innovative, cooperative, and fast moving, which are all factors that drive performance in direct ways.” (What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the Importance of Trust at Work, Knowledge@Wharton).
Our jobs can give us great meaning and purpose. They can be places of tremendous personal and professional fulfillment and growth. We can look forward to going to work every day. And feel valued and trusted.
And they can also be places of misery and suffering. A lot of this is due to organizational structures and systems, yes.
But not all of it.
In Nonviolent Communication we teach that “There is no system in the world that reliably has enough physical force that can oppress large numbers of people without their partial cooperation or consent.” Malcolm Gladwell explores these themes in David and Goliath. When we conflate who we are with what we do, we give some of our power, some of our innate rights to self-determination, away. We partially consent to the very system that causes us so much misery.
We are not to blame for that. Society and our education systems actively socialize us into that belief.
And, if we are to bring humanity, dignity and compassion back to the workplace, so that all can thrive, it starts with not
carving workplaces out as the expectation to “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere.”
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.