The Vicious Cycle at Work

Burbank, California; March,2003;
Joan Marques, MBA, Doctoral Student

Just this morning I received an email from a management secretary who had been reading one of my recent articles on spirituality in the workplace in which I stated that spirituality starts within every individual. To clarify my perception to the reader: spirituality at work, to me, is the sense of belonging and meaning one needs to feel in the environment where he or she spends such an important part of his or her time anyway. It has nothing to do with religion, yet everything with interconnectedness.

In her response to my article the management secretary explained the situation at her job: since her new boss came into the office, there seemed to be nothing left for her to do. He was not open to comments or suggestions and did not delegate anything. All that was left for her to do was accepting phone calls, sorting the mail, and filing documents. Now and then she was "honored" to print out a letter on letterhead, after he had drafted and typed it out himself first. She felt superfluous with all her diplomas and her 15 years of secretarial experience. Needless to say that the feeling of redundancy affected her self-esteem: she started suffering from stomachaches and depression. After discussing her problem with several people, she followed up the advice to go ahead and "do something" that would bring her the fulfillment she so lacked in her job. Since she is still fairly young-not even 40-she decided to take on a new challenge: she enrolled in a course on journalism and thus regained much of her feeling of sense in life.

Although this lady expressed her accordance with my statement that spirituality starts within every individual, she also wondered what happens to spiritual individuals when managers don't value their spirituality, or even neglect it. And that was exactly the point I had been contemplating on earlier this morning: What was there first, an unspiritual workplace, or unspiritual workers?

It's one of the eternal vicious cycles: a hostile work environment breeds hostile workers: every employee has to either fight to stand his or her own ground or quit. In these workplaces people, who may have come aboard with a friendly, empathetic attitude, turn into mean backstabbers and harsh, incompliant colleagues, if only to maintain their own position for as long as they can. And on goes the cycle. The workers in search for meaning at work -- like the management secretary described above -- will find a constructive alternative for themselves in order to keep their sanity, and ultimately exit the unsatisfactory environment. And the managers that established or encouraged the hostile workplace will continue to be their own adamant self and never attend any seminar or course in interpersonal relationships, because they simply don't see the need for improvement of their approach. After all, the insane never want to visit a psychiatrist, the emotionally disturbed never want to see a psychologist, and the runarounds never want to see a marriage counselor, right?

So how can the circle be broken? It all depends on the specific circumstances, of course. But there may be some general ideas to reflect on:

1. If you know that there are more employees experiencing the same trouble as yours, you may want to consider meeting with them in order to brainstorm about a positive turn of the status quo. Several souls carry more weight than one. The team could schedule a meeting with the manager and explain in well-chosen words the feelings that exist among the team members. In a meeting like this, it is definitely important to remember that everything can be said in different ways: it is better to express the team's willingness to take on more responsibilities and assist in work-related decisions than to rub in the manager's noticed lack of worker-involvement.

2. If you are afraid of sharing your problem with others, due to the possibility of them selling you out, you may try to find a moment when the manager seems to be somewhat relaxed and good-humored to carefully bring up the issue. The best occasion for a conversation about work-involvement may be in a less conventional setting, for instance, at a party where all employees are invited. When the daily stress is absent, the right words may sound exactly as they are meant to sound: right! However, always make sure that your dialogue never sounds as if you are accusing or attacking this person. You may consider starting out with a compliment of his or her efficiency and dedication, and subsequently express your readiness to contribute your two cents based on your experience if he or she wants to allow you to.

Every other possible action focused on maintaining your initial position will be a variant to the two described above, since complaining to Human Resources or higher authorities is not really an option in this regard: it may only brand you as a backstabber, and pollute the relationship between you and your manager even further.

The last action that can be considered is exit. Unfortunately, it's the most probably one for people who find themselves cornered in an ungratifying situation. Unless you are so scared of being without a job, so apathetic about finding yourself something more rewarding, or so determined to survive this disinclined manager in this particular workplace, you will reexamine your skills, upgrade them if you feel that is necessary, and find opportunities that they are attuned to.

Conclusion: spirituality begins within the individual, but it can be enhanced or poisoned by the existing level of spirituality in the workplace. However, as an individual you always have choices, some of which have been laid out in this article. Don't let your workplace rob you from your spirituality. Either try to improve it or exit, but in any case: do something about it!