Friday, June 16, 2020

Defining A Civilized Workplace

There’s a well-known story of a famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Hillel, who was challenged to define Judaism while standing on one leg. What he said can just as easily apply to what it takes to create a civilized workplace:
Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. All the rest is commentary.

—Rabbi Hillel

Would executives be so keen to cut costs by sacking people, if they considered how it might feel to be sacked themselves—without, of course, their elaborate golden parachutes? Would they take such a macho attitude to management if they suffered it in return?

Actually, I fear the answer is “yes.” Top executives have typically experienced a macho, winner-takes-all culture most of their working lives. They work excessive hours as a matter of course, which is perhaps why they feel no pangs of conscience at inflicting the same hours on people below them. The notion that what’s good for me is good for you—or, in this case, you must suffer what I suffered—accounts for much of the callous treatment meted out to people in organizations. Like military recruits subjected to cruel “hazing” rituals, those inflicting the harm are doing only what was done to them before. Since they reached the top, they don't question the route they took.

Besides, what you have learned to value pretty much makes you what you are. People rarely do anything that they don’t believe is somehow in their own best interests. These macho leaders probably believe the power-driven culture they grew up in was both natural and good for them. It certainly formed many of their values: the fixation on achievement that causes them to subordinate everything to feeding their egos; the blind belief in competition and it’s accompanying terror of finding themselves outside the winners’ circle; the obsession with speed and decisive action to prove their corporate virility; and the permanent focus on using quick results to build a political power base.

Our society has a bias towards valuing money and power, so it’s no surprise that ambitious people are willing to sacrifice health, relationships and other people’s welfare to gain them. Those whose rewards include stock options have a built-in incentive to drive the organization’s share price ever higher, which usually means taking any opportunity to boost reported profits. Putting an excessive value on power makes leaders into tyrants. Over-valuing money creates a climate of greed and dishonesty. Lust for recognition fuels the actions of corporate prima donnas.

How does this relate to creating a civilized workplace? As long as the majority place a higher value on material wealth than living a civilized life, they’ll choose actions that sacrifice living well in favor of making more money. The same goes for those who want power, status or constant massaging of their egos. In other aspects of our lives, we take steps to limit this phenomenon, if not to eradicate it totally. We have laws to curb fraudsters, punish power-crazed gangsters who terrorize whole neighborhoods, check corrupt politicians and generally limit people from exercising their urges in ways that harm others. Despite public adulation of celebrities, there’s still some sense of disgust when egos get out of hand. It’s only in the workplace that anti-social behavior is regularly applauded.

We won't get civilized workplaces until those in power choose civilized values over greed, power-mania and feathering their own nests: values like trust, honesty, creativity, concern for others and fair dealing. Workplace values always reflect the day-to-day choices of those in positions of power. Ignore what the top dogs say or write. Look at the culture they’ve created and you’ll see their values displayed in full view. A civilized workplace depends on civilized leaders, just as a barbaric, profit-obsessed sweat-shop is produced by leaders of the opposite nature. You are what you value, and that applies to organizations as much as individuals.

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Kent Blumberg said...

You ask, "would executives be so keen to cut costs by sacking people if they considered how it might feel to be sacked themselves," and suggest the answer is "yes."

I am an executive who has cut staff in order to save a business, and I have lost my own role twice in such down-sizings. I am never "keen" to reduce staffing levels, but sometimes sending some people packing is the only clear way to save the rest of the jobs in a business. As Spock said in one of the Star Trek movies, "Sometimes the needs of the many outway the needs of the few."

I've been through it myself, so I try to cut with humanity and dignity. But sometimes, cuts are the only way. That isn't macho - that's reality.

Kent Blumberg

7:36 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment. I am sure you do try to handle staff cuts with humanity.

Sadly, I think this misses the point. What I am pointing to is the way people's values determine their reactions. Managers brought up in a macho tradition of winner-takes-all develop values that are warped towards short-term, competitive advantage. They aren't "evil" or acting in some deliberately harmful way. They're doing what they've learned to see as "right."

I don't believe it is right, nor is cutting staff the inevitable (or even the best) response to rough times. You say it's happened to you twice. The fact that you still see it, apparently, as a normal (if regrettable) management action seems to prove my point.

Until leaders stop and question the values they've been taught, nothing will change. Religious groups have always seen a "conversion" or being "born again" as an essential precursor to radical shifts of lifestyle and values. Sometimes cuts are the only way — but far, far less often than they're used, I believe.

9:21 AM  
Kent Blumberg said...

I would have sent this as a private email, but I can't find an "email me" button on the blog. Perhaps you will read this comment, then delete it - or respond to my email ([email protected]). I'd love to carry this dialogue further, but I don't want to mess up your blog with a long stream of comments that may not fit your plan.

So, my comment:

Perhaps I did miss your point. What I am reacting to is your use of the word "typically" in the second or third paragraph. And to the overall tone that "all" leaders have the wrong approach - callous, ambitious, ego and power driven. I'd love to see your data that today's leaders have typically experienced a "macho winner takes all culture." I'm not convinced that your statement is true of today's leaders.

I am not the only business leader I know who has agonized over staffing reductions, and undertaken them only when none of us could find another way out of trouble. Other than in the headlines, I'm not convinced there really are that many callous leaders left. The "chainsaw Al" approach doesn't work (even for him), and most of us know it. Most of us understand, I believe, that anti-social leaders don't make a lasting, positive difference to those they touch. Just the opposite.

I have become an avid reader of this blog, because it helps me sort out how to "choose what needs to be done and give it whatever time it deserves." And many of my peers seem similarly inclined to lead well - and slowly. I assume you want those of us who lead businesses to pay attention to your ideas. We won't be learning from you if you turn us off.

When your blog takes a constructive tack, and carefully explains an alternative approach, I find it enlightening and challenging. For example, the series you posted last October on November on Dealing with Distractions was brilliant. And I am working my way through your early postings on the Eight Principles of Slow Leadership and learning a lot.

However, when a posting is predominantly negative, as I felt this posting was, it doesn't really help me lead better.

I'd love to hear your take on the Right approach when contemplating staffing cuts.


Kent Blumberg

1:02 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I suspect you're reacting more to your own doubts and concerns about letting people go than to what I have wriiten, since I don't feel I've been negative about anyone — just about an attitude no one has to hold.

I had a long career in commerical organizations, ending as President and CEO. What I found were leaders and managers whose decisions were mostly based on two things: the values they had learned on the way up, and what others had told them worked. As I spent more time in corporate boardrooms and executive suites, I came to understand the people at the top are much like everyone else. They’re doing the best they can with the tools available to them. They aren’t grasping megalomaniacs or crooked con-artists (at least, the vast majority are not). They don’t favor the current macho, short-term, hyper-competitive approach to management because they delight in the process of cutting costs and driving people near-insane with escalating work pressures. They act this way because they believe they have no alternative.

What's the right approach to staffing cuts? The one anybody can take: to think about it long and hard and consider all the alternatives. Sure, sometimes nothing else will work. Then you do what has to be done as humanely as possible. What bothers me is that, for many organizations (and I write this based on 40+ years direct experience), staff cuts are the first choice, not the last.

I shall be sorry if you decide not to read my posts any more, but that's your choice, not mine. The way to lead better is to question and challenge all your assumptions — especially the ones you least want to think may be incorrect.

1:39 PM  
Kent Blumberg said...

Don't worry - I'm still subscribed to your blog and look forward to learning more about myself and leadership with your help.

I like your last response, particularly the second to last paragraph. I wholeheartedly agree that staffing cuts need to be a last - not first - resort, and undertaken only after long and hard deliberation - with input from those who will be impacted (laid off) if cuts are taken.

In my posting on the subject ( I listed some of the steps I think are important in making humane cuts:

Focus on increasing productivity (output per person), not just on reducing headcount. Make the cuts quickly, once and deeply. (Don't subject your organization to drip torture.) Tell the truth throughout, and deliver on any promises you make. Give people plenty of ways to express their concerns and ask questions. Provide those who are leaving with appropriate assistance to make their transitions successfully.
And shift your focus quickly to what you need to do to support the remaining team.

Thanks for working through this with me. I appreciate your insights.

Kent Blumberg

11:07 AM  
Bernie May said...

I found it interesting you read your "Civilized Workspace" post, and be able to tie it to a counselling/leadership workshop I attended last week. The facilitator, who also has a background in psychology, made the off-hand observations that many work-a-holics are working so many hours because they're running away from something. What are they running away from? Usually a relationship issue of some kind.

So I'm thinking that much of the values theme in your post hit the nail on the head. Should we be surprised if the executive who reach for lay-offs as a first option have no empathy for those who's lives they are affecting so deeply, when the many hours they put into their work is the result of withdrawing from their own issues around their relationship with others?

Just thinking out loud.

3:47 PM  
Mark Harbeke said...

This is an interesting topic. I recently read an aticle in Fast Company ( that talks about a firm that specializes in deflating the egos of "alpha execs" -- especially when their public persona negatively affects the company's brand recognition (Michael Eisner was given as an example). My firm, Winning Workplaces, which is aimed at small and midsized businesses and nonprofits, attempts to foster civilized workplaces by promoting the tried-and-true values of trust, respect and fairness and open communication -- not just for employees, but for the boss, too.

3:17 PM  
catherine said...

A really interesting article and series of comments. I'd be interested to know if anyone nowadays considers pay cuts (across the board) as an alternative to job cuts? I remember my mother telling me that during the Depression her father, who was a professor at the university, and all the other university staff took a drastic pay cut because the only other option was job loss and in that environment, less pay was better than no pay.

1:27 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thank you, Catherine. You raise a fascinating point.

I think people are capable of great altruism and common sense, as well as considerable greed. That's the charm of human beings, they can be wonderfully sensible and awfully foolish too.

6:55 AM  

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