Tolstoy observes at the start of Anna Karenina,
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. *1
Equally, if happiness at work is a doddle; unhappiness is much more complicated, runs much deeper and is more likely not actually to be caused by the work. The “doddleness” of happiness at work is, at root, to do with the work and one’s satisfaction doing it, whereas unhappiness is about one’s personal attitude to any given situation.
I suggest that one of the basic blocks that people put in their way of being happy is around self-worth (“I don’t deserve to be happy”). This is true whatever the domain of life we are discussing. I suspect that people are more likely to accept this when it applies to personal relationships. When it applies to work, it can be a bit more challenging. Can it really be the case that we bring our own stuff into the planning of a marketing campaign, sending out invoices or calling a reluctant client?
I suggest that all problems in business arise outside the business, and specifically, they arise in the people in the business from their stuff which they have helpful dragged into the office, like a cat bringing a small dead animal into the house.
And I suggest further that this is true even when it appears not to be.
And I suggest even further that each person’s stuff (which they are now helpfully dragging into the workplace, and possibly even having competitions with each other about whose stuff is the most ghastly―all subconscious, of course) happened before they even started the job. Or any job.
So, why would people with a deficit in the self-worth department be running a story that they don’t deserve to be happy? Judgment. They are deciding to be their own judge, jury and executioner. Their “crime” is either
- guilt (“I did a bad thing”)
- shame (“I am a bad person”).
Another basic block people put in their own way I call “Buttons”. People let other people press their buttons. This manager is crap. All the managers are crap. This job is so boring. And so on. But as Viktor Frankl said, and he was speaking after surviving years in Nazi concentration camps,
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. *2
We always have a choice about how we respond to a given situation―and Frankl’s position is that the attitude I’ve quoted kept him alive when many of his fellows died.
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 as 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 maintained, in as Adult a way as I could, 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.
I let this manager―let’s call him Dick―press my buttons over and over again. The fact that others also did the same isn’t the point. The fact that he could detect those buttons and press them so spitefully isn’t the point either.
The parallels with the occasions when I was on the receiving end of a bullying father were not lost on me then. I am confident that that manager was experiencing shame—the time was the early 1990s, 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. But I have to say that I felt at least guilt that I hadn’t been more successful in bringing on clients. It’s as if I felt, at the time, that my guilt warranted his punishment.
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 for 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. As the Zen proverb has it,
Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark.
At a simple level it is always about the response we choose to have to a particular situation. The fact that one response results in negative experiences and feelings does not invalidate this theory. In fact, it underlines it: we wouldn’t do it if there weren’t a payoff somewhere. But is there a better response?
1 . Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans Constance Garnett, opening line
2 . Viktor Frankl, Man’s search for meaning
© 2019 Jeremy Marchant
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