Wednesday, February 07, 2020

The unseen toxic waste from organizations: battered people and stunted lives

We all know about the kind of toxic waste that pollutes waterways and groundwater. Rightly, there are laws to limit and, where possible, prevent this unpleasant result of modern business practices. But what about a different kind of toxic waste: one that typically goes unnoticed? The pollution and destruction of working people’s lives and peace of mind caused by bullying bosses and aggressive organizational cultures.

Hamburger Management is institutionalized bullying on a corporate scale: a culture of macho disregard for anything other that personal, short-term gain and admittance to the ruling clique. It only “delivers results” because those results are defined in the narrowest of terms: typically quarterly corporate profits. The true results it delivers undermine the organization’s future well-being and act as a cancer in the communities of those who work there.

This modern flashy, shoot-from-the-hip kind of management has spawned a corporate culture that favors those who believe that the simplest way to get what they want is to push other people around. Here’s a quote from an article in Fast Company magazine, published in 2006:
A business culture that celebrates aggression, toughness, endurance, and the ability to endure pain, as our does, runs dangerously close to endorsing bully bosses. As long as we perpetuate the myth that business is not emotional, we fail to develop the language we need to deal with the emotion which business will always engender. Moreover, our tradition of keeping our work lives and our private lives severely compartmentalized makes it feasible for people to behave at work in ways they would never dream of behaving at home.
Much of our corporate and business culture is riddled with bullying in various forms: from outright aggressive unpleasantness to more subtle pressures to toe the line and deliver what is required—or suffer the consequences. This macho style of operation seems to be rooted in much of conventional management thinking and actions. While some degree of lip service is paid to “softer” approaches, when you look at what actually takes place in most business environments—and listen to the pronouncements of business leaders—what you get is a continuation of the myth of the strong, no-nonsense, tough-talking, never-mind-the-heat leader. The one who simply gets results, whatever it takes—and whoever gets hurt along the way.

Macho-style leadership may work for Hollywood epics and TV dramas—neither of them reliable guides to how to deal with real life—but it has little relevance to running a successful organization.

For a start, it does matter who gets hurt. Hurt people cost money: in time off work, in lowered productivity, in extra turnover, in an inability to hire and keep the best people, and in potential litigation costs when things get too far out of hand.

Even the “business is war” metaphor has gotten out of hand. According to research reported by the BBC:
“The symptoms displayed by people who have been in conflict situations and workplaces where bullying happens are strikingly similar.”
Do we really want working in our organizations to resemble serving in a war zone—complete with post-traumatic stress syndrome for many of those involved? And hurt people don’t simply disappear. They tell friends and neighbors about their experiences. They move away to work for competitors, taking knowledge and skills with them. In extreme cases, some of them seek revenge.

Nor does getting results whatever it takes make much sense. Today’s business world is highly integrated. Rival companies use the same suppliers, deal with the same authorities, face the same laws and regulations, and serve the same communities. Using business practices that cause unease and anger can easily backfire. Everyone may be out to make a buck, but not everyone wishes to be marked down for the way that they do it.

Many businesses claim that what they mean by a phrase like “get results, whatever it takes” isn’t to be taken literally. What they mean is whatever it takes out of you, the employee. Whatever hours have to be worked, whatever journeys made, whatever time spent away from home and family. But that’s exactly what hurts people, causing stress and burnout.

The continual, unthinking pressure to “get results” acts as a license for bullies of every kind.

Just about everyone has suffered from at least one thoughtless, callous, bully of a boss, who throws tantrums and demands total obedience. Many have also suffered from the cruel boss: the one who delights in humiliating you in from of everyone else, usually as a punishment for some infraction of his or her unwritten rules of subservience. Then there’s the bigoted boss, the one who goes in for harassment, and the type who likes to pick on minorities and the weak to show off their supposed toughness.

What’s worst of all is the organization that tolerates such abusive and uncivilized behavior on the spurious grounds that the person “gets results.” Thieves and embezzlers get results and make lots of money, but no one suggests tolerating anyone who steals from the organization. Mafia bosses get results. Are they a good role model for the corporate executive? Of course, the bully boss makes money for the organization and those in charge, and that seems to excuse the plain fact that the person is a jerk who deserves to be fired.

Cary Cooper, Professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, claims the way that we work has altered considerably over the last decade:
There are fewer people to do more work, and the work tends to be more bottom line driven, with short delivery dates. There is much more stress and so much more bullying.
According to, workplace stress in the United Kingdom cost the country close to £30 billion a year in 1997. With nearly four times the population of Great Britain, and a far larger economy, the cost to the USA every year is likely to be astronomical. And none of that includes the social cost in unhappiness, wrecked relationships, damaged children, and wasted careers.

We need to stop seeing organizational leaders as steely-eyed warriors in Armani suits and get back to reality.

All organizational leaders are merely stewards of things that do not belong to them: other people’s money, other people’s resources, and other people’s lives and well-being. They must be held to account for their total stewardship, not just the limited financial element. Running a business is not fighting a war for survival. It’s more like running a farm, where actions taken today may affect the fertility and returns from that land for decades to come. Bad stewards can be replaced, but inept warriors get people hurt.

So before organizations subscribe to the “business is war” scenario, they should perhaps ponder a while on the casualty count. Even generals aren’t immune from featuring in it.

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I have worked for and in such organizations. It affected me to the core. As a result I have a new outlook on people and how and who I work with in the workplace. Also, I am in constant CYA mode. I am very cautious on what I say and who I say it to. People are too eager to take what you say and make policy of it. It's too easy for something you say to come back and harm you. Sometimes I feel that we are all in government politics now. Hamburger management is run by sound bites and who can create the most work, irrespective of value.

This strategy may hurt me in the long run, at least while I work in a "big corporation". But I am ok with this. I have learned that my peace of mind and well being is worth more than any paycheck can provide.

In my off hours I work hard to create my own business. This gives me some hope that I won't be living this nightmare for the next 30 years.
Thanks for your comment, Richard.

I'm glad that you have found a way to survive and have hope for the future.

Hang in there!

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