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Choosing a robust quality of work life.

Business periodicals, trade journals, academic publications and even the popular press seem to offer ever-increasing prescriptions about management. Nearly all seem to agree on one point. As never before, organizations are being buffeted by changes that threaten their very survival. Issues such as Total Quality Management (TQM), global competition, and managing a diverse work force take their place in the queue along with traditional management concerns about cash flow, technology, and market share. During the 1980's, even the term "corporate chaos" worked its way into our collective vocabulary. With the precipitous free fall of corporate giants such as IBM, it is not difficult to understand why.

On one hand, many articles offer advice that reveals the apprehension about further rounds of corporate downsizings and how organizations should cope with sweeping change. On the other hand, this stream of management articles frequently boils down to management by platitude, sure to dull any appetite. Not surprisingly, quick fixes and bromides rarely get implemented. As with many management issues today, the problem is at the top of the organization, not the bottom.

Many senior managers quietly discount new management ideas because they do not believe there is any connection to the quarter's bottom line. For example, despite new techniques such as empowerment, self-managing work teams, or TQM, many senior managers act as if these concepts are vacuous buzzwords. Perhaps some executives do not embrace the fundamental shifts in power that these concepts imply. No doubt they prefer the accouterments of power and insular classicism that breed so rapidly in the rarefied air of executive suites. Other managers may prefer to run organizations characterized by the traditional top-down approach, in spite of the compelling evidence that control-dominated companies subvert the long term interests of the organization and the people in it.

A more serious difficulty occurs when managers pay lip service to new management concepts, but go about "business as usual." The problem is so severe that an article in Fortune stated flatly, "Ninety-five percent of American managers today say the right thing ... five percent actually do it" (Huey, 1994). To echo a phrase, they don't "walk the talk."

This creates two critical problems for those who are not CEO's. First, an enormous credibility gap exists. For example, during a corporate restructuring, executives try to project an aura of solidarity. Often, they ceremoniously intone, "We're all in this together." Yet, people quickly learn that senior executives take care of their own, rarely eliminating the excessive staffing and bloat in the upper levels of the organization. More fundamentally, the wide gap between what upper management says and what it does can imperil morale. Management acts as if it is oblivious to the rest of the organization. This self-fulfilling prophecy plays out as a numbing sense of being adrift in the sea of change. Add to this lack of direction unprecedented white-collar reductions in staff, and people become overwhelmed with concerns about personal and professional survival. This, of course, ravages morale in the organization (Emshoff, 1994). Using the lurid phrase, the "downsizing slaughterhouse," The Wall Street Journal (1994) reported that several organizations are characterized by apprehension, fear, and even clinical depression. Dr. Donald E. Rosen, Director of Professionals in Crisis at the Menninger Clinic, states flatly that managers have a deep questioning of the value of the tasks they perform. Stated more succinctly, they hate to go to work (Smith, 1994).

During these difficult times, and particularly in view of continuing corporate consolidations, people choose a range of organizational survival skills. They often manipulate situations and at times, people invoke the names of high-level people to induce support for projects; become calculating in the way they manage relationships; pay an inordinate amount of attention to what senior people want; and live with the belief that they must be cautious to get ahead.

These are the principal ingredients in the recipe of what is usually referred to as "playing the game." Regrettably, most books and popular folklore are quite grim about how to "win." They instruct us how to intimidate people, how to dress for success, how to use power, and how to climb the corporate ladder. It's simply accepted as a given that this is what the road most traveled looks like. Recite the mantra, try to sustain the next round of cutbacks, and you too can climb to the top of the corporate Matterhorn.

But it's not that simple. Even if the organization is not facing retrenchment, this kind of maneuvering causes widespread disillusionment. Although it sometimes works, corporate game playing is not a very satisfying process. Why get better at a bad game? Running the maze in the rat race after all, still makes you a rat. The alternative is to play a different game. It takes risks, conviction, and tests character, but it has many benefits.

At the top of the list is the importance of recognizing that each of us can choose how to respond to any given situation. Stephen Covey underscores this point in his best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People--each of us should be responsible (Covey, 1989). Taken in its literal form, we have the ability to choose how we respond. Ultimately, it is not so much what happens to us during periods of organizational turbulence, but how we choose to respond.

Author Peter Block once observed that the core of this approach emphasizes several fundamental choices that confront each of us. They are

* choosing between maintenance and greatness.

* choosing between caution and courage.

* choosing between debasement or self-enhancement.

* choosing between dependence and autonomy.

These choices define the tightrope we walk, the course of our professional lives, and a considerable part of our personal lives as well. To a large extent, they circumscribe whether we feast on the bounty of life's banquet, or are allowed to savor just a crumb here and there.

This article expands on these ideas by focusing on individual choice and how it can profoundly influence a robust quality of work life and the fate of the organization itself. Rather than focus on more broad-brush advice aimed at guiding senior management, here we take a different tack. No matter how inept management, or no matter how mixed or sometimes hypocritical the organizational signals might be, each of us has choices. No matter where a person is in his or her professional life, we begin with a simple but powerful premise. Listen to the whisper (or perhaps in a few cases, the shouts) of the little voice from within. Instead of emphasizing empowerment of others, this approach is more up close and personal. Take charge of the quality of your own work life. Empower yourself.

Maintenance vs. Greatness

When we choose maintenance, we are trying to hold on to what we have created or inherited. Our wish is not to lose ground. Traditionally managed, top-down organizations constantly impel us toward a maintenance mentality. To maintain what we have is to be preoccupied with safety. The popular desire of moving up in the organization is accompanied by the numbing fear of falling or being "booted out" in a corporate downsizing. The prevailing norm in many organizations often becomes--the way to move ahead is not to make mistakes. Since the common belief is that mistakes are punished much more vigorously than achievements are rewarded, apple-polishing is institutionalized into a new, high art form. Ironically, the higher that one goes in the organization, the more dominant this feeling becomes. One would think that the higher one rises, confidence and risk-taking increase. On the contrary, the higher people go, and the greater the compulsion to hang on to what they have, the greater the fear of falling. The incessant backbiting and negative aspects of politics in high places bears this out. We are surrounded by corporate game-players and often choose to be led by others--however self-serving or incompetent.

Ask many of these people how they're doing, and you'll hear "not bad." This is the top of the scale; this is as good as it gets. The possibility that things could be good or even great isn't even in the cards.

The option we have is to seek some form of greatness. This concept is difficult for most of us to come to terms with. It implies arrogance, and an immortality that in-bred modesty tells us is inappropriate in a work context. For example, when I ask managers what form of greatness they aspire to for themselves and their departments, the most common response is, "Give me a break. I'm just trying to keep my head above water." Many organizations often condition their members to accept this water-treading mentality, instead of focusing on getting some place. We tend to think that greatness is reserved for people such as Mother Theresa. Instead, the real issue is to recognize that the potential for greatness is within each individual, regardless of how humble the role, job title, or place in the organizational hierarchy.

The immense popularity of the 1980's best seller, In Search of Excellence (Peters, 1984), is an expression of the desire to find an alternative to bureaucratic organizational life. The choice for greatness is the commitment to behave differently ... to achieve in a unique way ... not to play the game. It is also a risky choice because by just choosing greatness we run the risk of not achieving it. Admittedly, choosing a unique path in a traditional organization can be dangerous. In many companies following a path of high risk means simply behaving like a human being. It's choosing this riskier path that is the essence of what Covey calls responsibility (1989).

Caution vs. Courage

Many of the external messages we receive in our careers seem to demand caution. There are highly institutionalized efforts that give us the feeling that we are being watched and evaluated. Coaching, of course, is a critically important ingredient in advancing one's professional development. All too often, however, feedback in performance reviews conveys the image that, "We, the management, have agreed that you need to work on the following areas." Who can help but feel cautious in the face of this powerful consensus? Performance reviews are but one of many types of events that impel us toward caution.

The alternative is to choose courage. It comes in the form of small steps, sometimes taken mostly in two-person conversations. It means confronting an issue, when others ignore it; to say that a meeting isn't going well, when everyone else seems satisfied. It means acting differently. It is summed up by Warren Bennis, former President of The University of Cincinnati: "Managers do things right--Leaders do the right thing." It means being a leader.

This is not a bells-and-whistles kind of courage. It is not the courage of theater, when truth, justice, and the American way are on our side. Organizational courage is murkier--when the issue in and of itself is less than monumental, and when we believe that management is not, in fact, on our side. The choice of self-assertion and risk is the only antidote for caution.

Debasement vs. Self Enhancement

In actual practice, of course, almost no one chooses debasement. More commonly, we just allow it to occur. As a result of widespread caution, it is not surprising that so many people in contemporary organizational life feel devalued. The two go hand-in-hand. This phenomenon is so prevalent that it cuts across both the private and public sectors, different industries and job titles. In consulting with several Fortune 500 and intermediate size companies, I have found that many people, from entry-level positions to the top of the hierarchy, often feel devalued. It is a curious common denominator of organizational life. Frequently, it results from second-guessing, professional jealousy, or self-centeredness that inhibits people from enjoying and appreciating the success of others. Feedback, when it comes, inevitably focuses on faultfinding.

Whatever the root cause or whatever form it takes, debasement can corrode the quality of anyone's work life. Even when performance appraisals indicate good performance, people often feel debased, put down and undervalued by the organization or associates. At best, devaluation of people leaves an acrid taste in one's mouth. At worst, it approaches slanderous vilification that can eviscerate the most robust sense of self.

This happens only if we choose to allow it. If we play the game when the cards are inherently stacked against us, is it any surprise that people come out feeling like losers? Fortunately, there are several self-enhancement recourses. To invoke a line sung by Kenny Rogers, you have to know "when to hold them and when to fold them." In other words, when the deck is stacked against you--don't play. When people engage in devaluing what you contribute, either individually or collectively, the only way to win is to walk away. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, people have to have your permission to make you feel inferior or put down.

From a practical standpoint, this means a second choice is necessary. One can turn to outside sources for professional recognition and "strokes." Indeed, this approach seems especially viable as a pragmatic means of dealing with work cultures that devalue achievement. Those who feel devalued by departmental colleagues rely on external confirmation. Many times these same people have an excellent reputation in other departments or from clients, vendors, associates outside of the organization, and family.

The final choice involves self-inoculation. The surest way to bolster one's immune system against devaluing comments is to draw upon inner strength. If I value myself, what does it matter what others think? If I genuinely feel and act with integrity, self-praise and self-acceptance become an impermeable antitoxin against those who seek to tear one down. As one distinguished colleague of mine at another institution once said, "They try to peel my self-esteem back like layers of an onion, but they--not I--are the ones who cry."

Dependence vs. Autonomy

The final choice we make is between dependence and autonomy. We are told that the organization values independent thinking and autonomy, yet it often treats us like children. The choices are between standing up (autonomy) for the right to be your own person and bending over (dependence) to the demands of the organization. Autonomy is the attitude that my actions are my own choices and the organization of which I am a part is, in many ways, my own creation. We are the cause, not the effect.

To be sure, it is difficult to maintain this in view of the breadth of evidence that autonomy makes us vulnerable. The numbing reality is that many organizations breed dependence. When we feel dependent, we are waiting for someone above or below us to give direction. It is comforting to be led. It feels safe and it implies a promise that if we follow, our future will somehow be assured. It's an old and not particularly enticing script. With minor variations, it reads, "Stray ye not far from the corporate mother ship, and ye shall be taken care of. Stray ye far, and ye shall reap eternal damnation."

I've heard sentiments like these expressed often: Stay in step...Don't rock the boat...I am concerned about how this looks...We're concerned about her fit in the organization. The high price we pay for buying into this conformity and dependence is learned helplessness. We actually start to believe that there's not much we can do to affect our own fate. This is lamentable, because the inevitable casualty is our own sense of self.

Each of us has to decide--whose organization is this? This organization is where I will spend the best days of my life, and I must confront my own fears and the security that dependence offers. When we choose autonomy, we realize that there is nothing to wait for. We do not require anyone from above us to tell us how to manage our unit, or whether or not to do the right thing. We will know. The heavy weight of the organization on my shoulders is burdensome, but can also liberating if I choose to respond by taking control of what happens to me.

If the people from on high don't like what I am doing, let them stop me. Better to proceed than sit and wait for direction. It is better to be seen as a stubborn independent than just another foot soldier in the army of incompetents. This is a high-risk, high integrity choice we have to make.

Often, the choices we make connect the subtle points that circumscribe who each of us is as a person. Referring to Figure 1, when we relinquish our ability to act boldly by attempting to "play it safe," we tacitly acknowledge that the organization controls our destiny. For many people, the surrender to compliance and the status quo takes its toll. Over the course of our careers, we begin to feel passive. Worse yet, the self-fulfilling prophecy overshadows how we see ourselves. Internalizing career fears and uncertainty leads to feelings of helplessness, which, in turn, leads to inaction. In other words, our behavior becomes compliant and unaggressive. Frequently, the inevitable casualty in this process is self-esteem. Who can maintain a hardy sense of self in the face of chronic apprehension and feelings of powerlessness?


In this way, we confront an inevitable paradox of our own making. Often, people discover that the safe route was an illusion. "Playing it safe" puts us more at risk in many organizational cultures. During restructurings in many organization, managers often engage in a collaborative process about who leaves and who stays. In these settings, it important to become more, not less, visible. For example, I have recommended that many of my clients devise a specific short-term career plan to increase their contribution levels. This approach deliberately avoids a defensive strategy by refusing to "lay low" and wait for the axe to fall.

Referring again to Figure 1, when we choose a more robust quality of work life, we consciously choose to play offense. We invigorate ourselves with a vitality that touches the human need to be masters of our fate. The self-fulfilling prophecy applies here too. When we feel empowered and proactive, we feel more of a sense of internal control and have confidence to act more boldly.

A brief anecdote illustrates the point. I recall an associate who chose to implement the tactics outlined in this paper. In many respects, it was an agonizing choice for him. The paternalistic corporate culture had been in his own words, "... very good to me." The first downsizing in the company's history came as culture shock for nearly everyone involved. Many people were lulled into a state of inaction and helplessness. Others vented feelings of rage and frustration, opining that the implied social contract between the company and its employees was broken. It was this event that forced him to call upon all his courage to examine what was really important at this mid-career juncture. During the process, he found out quite a bit about himself, including an undiscovered and somewhat repressed need to have considerably more career growth. Locked in by the perception of the golden handcuffs, he had long since stopped thinking that he had choices about the quality of his working life. To his complete astonishment, at age 44 he volunteered to leave the company with a buy-out package.

It is an arguable point how generalizable this episode is for others who might find themselves in similar circumstances. For some, choosing the robust course of action may be risky and might even place one's career in jeopardy. The logic might be to adopt the defensive set of choices as an appropriate short-term survival mechanism. In the long run, however, it is not difficult to imagine how career passivity might batter one's quality of work life and even psychological well-being. On the other hand, the feedback in Figure 1 suggests that exercising robust choices can help to insulate a person against the assault on quality of work life. When people feel empowered, they believe they have choices; they act upon those choices; and they become more resilient in dealing with the stress and anxiety that characterizes much of corporate life today. Whether the individual leaves or stays is not so much the issue. Instead, it is the act of choosing greatness, courage, self-enhancement, and autonomy that transforms our own field of vision. If the organization recognizes and rewards this transformation, so much the better. The real payoff is the fact that we have consciously recognized and acted upon on our ability to choose responses. When we rediscover who we are and what our professional and even personal lives are all about, it's this sharpened focus that engenders a healthier quality of work life. We literally see our lives and ourselves differently.

Without question, the changes that threaten the survival of many companies and the people in them show no signs of diminishing. The risk is not only to people who leave, but also to those who stay behind. Robert Tomakso, author of Rethinking the Corporation (1993), bemoans the "shell-shocked survivors," who must now cope with the debris that downsizings leave in their wake.

Is it possible to survive the corporate anorexia that makes organizations leaner, but unhealthy? The answer is, yes, of course. We can fret and allow these factors to tear at our sense of self. Or, we can choose to put our emotional, psychological, and physical energy into the things we can control. When we choose the latter, we take the road less traveled. By making these choices, I am convinced that we nurture a robust affirmation of our personal and professional selves.


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Emshoff, J. R. (1994, March/April). How to Increase Employee Loyalty While You Downsize. Business Horizons, 37, 2.

Grim Procedure: Fleet Financial's Plan To Reduce Its Payroll Involved Long Process (1994, March 10). The Wall Street Journal.

Huey, J. (1994, February). The New Post-heroic Leadership. Fortune.

Peters, Thomas. (1984). In Search of Excellence. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Smith, L. (1994, July). Burned-out Bosses. Fortune.

Tomakso, R. M. (1993). Rethinking the Corporation. New York: American Management Association.

Timothy T. Serey, retired Northern Kentucky University Highland Heights, Kentucky

Tim Serey, was a Professor of Management at Northern Kentucky University. In addition to a career in Marketing with a major oil company, he consulted with a wide variety of Fortune 500 and public sector organizations, and was President of a Cincinnati-based career consulting firm.
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Author:Serey, Timothy T.
Publication:Business Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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