Somehow the workplace suffering seems free of cost | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to the Bellingham Business Journal

Pain, as experienced in the workplace, is something most of us learn to accept. Pain comes from misunderstanding, an inadvertent action interpreted as disrespect, a request denied, a promise broken and not accounted for. These events will all inevitably occur. We learn that pain is a part of the “game.” We learn to provide the benefit of the doubt, we forgive when offered apology, we apologize when recognizing damage done, we offer to atone for promises broken, we understand we are not going to get everything we ask for. We get over it.

In part what allows us to get over it is the knowledge that the game of business is largely competition. Business attracts many people who are highly competitive and even the least competitive among us generally enjoy friendly competition and know our businesses must experience winning to survive.

What we don’t enjoy, what we did not sign on for, what we don’t get over, what we resent and expect special compensation for is the suffering. One of the definitions offered me by my online Merriam Webster unabridged dictionary for suffering is “to endure with distress.” That gets it for me!

Suffering overheard: “This is not my idea of fun.”
“I don’t recall agreeing to put up with this.”
“They are expecting us to be working again this weekend.”

Suffering being spoken: “I’ll speak to you any way I want to, I am your boss.”
“You should be thankful you have a job in this economy.”

Pain is a natural experience in the game of business. Suffering is what we add to the game that has no place in the game, serves no useful purpose, and yet has a very high cost. Most of the suffering that we either inflict or endure is brought about by unconscious or highly justified action and is rarely intentional. Actions such as these:

• A manager finds herself being asked repeatedly by an overly mistake-averse human resources representative for several levels of documentation before terminating a poor performer. Finally in frustration the manager gives up and just decides to put up with the underperforming employee. Her other direct reports notice this occurrence, talk about it among themselves and the performance and engagement level of the entire group declines.

• A human resources manager becomes aware that certain line managers are damaging her group’s reputation, making excuses to not bother with proper documentation and justifying not taking appropriate action with underperforming employees. She says nothing to the managers involved, choosing instead to kibitz with her colleagues about how lame those managers are and joke about how it’s a wonder they can keep their jobs.

• A district level sales manager receives a call from a representative, his top producer, letting him know that for the third month in a row he’ll be processing his orders at the last minute and with some incomplete paperwork. The sales manager tells the representative not to worry; push the orders through and he’ll handle any blowback at his level.

There is a cost to all these actions but there is no way to calculate this cost, and we have it all nicely justified in such a way that the likelihood of change is miniscule. The cost remains untouched by “engagement initiatives” because it is a crisis of being. We see how others are inducing suffering, but we do not see ourselves so clearly. If you are wondering about yourself and want some idea of the price you’ve been paying I have a suggestion.

I am midway through a wonderful little book recommended to me recently by a friend. It is titled “Leadership and Self Deception.” Somehow this quiet little book written in the parable format has sold over 750,000 copies worldwide and is available in 22 different languages.

Quoting from the publisher, Berrett-Koehler’s website:

Since its original publication Leadership and Self-Deception has become an international word-of-mouth phenomenon. Rather than tapering off, it has sold more copies each year since 2004 than it did in any of the first four years after publication.

This is not the kind of book you buy because you see it advertised, you have it recommended by a friend. The message may be painful to hear but it illuminates the path to alleviating suffering. A small sample may pique your interest.

Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions. To the extent that we are self-deceived both our happiness and our leadership are undermined at every turn.

Do you know someone who is managing and cannot see the suffering they are causing?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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