As Tolstoy observes at the start of Anna Karenina,
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. [*1]
Equally, happiness at work is a doddle; unhappiness is much more complicated, runs much deeper and is more likely to be exogenous, ie not actually caused by the work.
I suggest that the primary blocks that people put in their way of being happy are around:
- self-worth (“I don’t deserve to be happy”)
- shame (“I am a bad person”)
- guilt (“I did a bad thing”).
Even where these appear to have arisen from something at work, their cause is outside work, for the simple reason that, in the west, by the time anyone is of legal working age, their personality has been pretty much been set. Which is certainly not to say that it doesn’t change and that they cannot change it, but it’s often not simple.
I have been on the receiving end of a bullying manager; it went on for some time and “unhappy” doesn’t even begin to cut it as a description of how I felt as a result. Or, was it is a result? I am certain now, twenty years later, that my decision to lie back and take it was not just a profound mistake it was, in a very real sense, colluding with the bully and perpetuating the abuse.
Had I stood up, five minutes into the first session and, calmly maintaining my Adult character [ie, as in the TA Parent-Adult-Child model], said that this behaviour was unacceptable and I wanted it to stop at that moment, I am pretty sure that the bullying would have stopped. At worst, I could have fast-forwarded what I actually did, months later, which was (a) explore the legal aspects of constructive dismissal and (b) look for another job.
The parallels with the rare occasions when I was on the receiving end of a bullying father were not lost on me then. I am confident that that manager (who was actually the MD of an SME) was experiencing shame—the time was the early 1990s and the economy was in recession; all our blue chip clients had melted away and the business was facing disaster (which it did eventually hit). The shame was linked to wounded pride, that the business was failing all around him, but where the shame really came from, in the MD’s case, was/is a mystery to me; the shame my father felt was/is more explicable to me. I probably lacked a sense of self-worth.
However, even this superficial little analysis demonstrates the pointlessness of engaging in mediation or dispute resolution. The problems had nothing to do with the dispute or what was talked about/shouted about during the bullying. Equally, mainstream coaching and mentoring would have been, and still is, entirely unequipped to address issues like these. In my case, I learned the hard way that you need to be assertive in these situations, even if you feel you can’t/shouldn’t be; whether that dealt with the underlying blocks—of course not.
One of my clients was running his business in a rather risky way; after a discussion, he realised he had been doing that “since I was a little boy” and, indeed, he had had an “unhappy” childhood. Another client assiduously spent the business’s money on training her staff, but never on herself. A third was making her staff unhappy (or at least disillusioned) because she never demonstrated that she cared about them, though she was always saying that she did (it was the dissonance that was the problem, not the lack of interest, in itself).
External things do not block us; we block ourselves. At a simple level it is always about the response we choose to have to a particular situation. The fact that the response results in negative experiences and feelings does not invalidate this theory. It simply speaks to the fact that a lot of stuff goes on subconsciously.
[*1] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans Constance Garnett, opening line
by Jeremy Marchant . copyright © 2014 Jeremy Marchant . uploaded 4 may 2014. image: Free images