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Work. But not mine. I don't think. [May. 7th, 2006|01:44 pm]
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So, a while back, a friend said that she was having a tough time at work, and I responded:
I'm pretty sure that most people's relationship to work is an abusive one. Things like "work doesn't like it if I go out, so I can't be friends with you any more" and "work was bad for a long time, but yesterday it was good, so I think it's changed and we've made progress in our relationship" and "it's not work, it's me" and "if I just loved work more and was better then it wouldn't be so mean to me" etc.
I have since then gotten more people than I am comfortable with privately telling me that my analogy is exactly accurate.

Yowza. This sucks, and is indicative of an epidemic. But why is it true? Is it because we are all working for someone other than ourselves, and that the feedback loops are screwed up? As John Allen Paulos notes, regression to the mean implies that after being praised for a good job we will probably do worse, and after being punished for a bad job we will do better. Does this mean that every innumerate organization that tries to manage people will tend to punish but not praise, because punishment is proven to work, while praise merely allows people to fail?

Or is it something deeper? Is it because, among most of the people I know, the whole food/shelter/survival thing is taken care of, and so we've moved to a higher level in the hierarchy of needs, but the tools we used to just blow right past level 2 actively work against us getting through 3 and 4 up to 5? Work doesn't seem to inspire community, love, or self-esteem among its participants, as a matter of fact, it seems to do just the opposite. In many workplaces you will find people who harbor tiny petty grudges and nurse them throughout the day as they semi-diligently work at a job they hate and then their boss tells them that their most recent work was crap.

It doesn't have to be that way. It seems like modern "scientific management" techniques that MBAs are taught generally stem from a need to raise the floor and make sure everyone is doing a part. If we let people be self-motivated and let them do their own thing (which they nominally do as members of modern society, but this whole abusive relationship thing gets in the way) then I'm pretty sure the slackers will completely slack, but the motivated people will produce more than you previously imagined. I wonder if the area under the curve will go up or down? In computer stuff, the area under the curve seems to go up - see Google, etc.. In tax-form processing, it might go down. Because who the hell gives a damn about tax-form processing?

I like to hope that the human psyche is such that, if people are free, they will do better. Then all that is required to turn this situation around is for organizations to give their employees maximum freedom, not turn into fascists internally, and watch their competitors lose. Whole Foods seems to have adopted this approach, and Visa apparently used to be this way as well. I do wonder, however. Is the problem that people who are in a screwed up situation still do okay work, because they are still striving for self-esteem even though they are in an environment working against that? In my copious spare time, perhaps I should check out D.L. Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” pp. 205-213 in Ronald Weitzer, ed., Deviance and Social Control.. I looked on the web for what I thought was a craig_r_meyer quote that went something like "there's nothing okay with being sane in a fucked up environment", but I only found that article referenced again and again.

Is your work abusive? How? Why are you still there? Can you even imagine a non-abusive work situation? All these questions are serious. When so many intelligent people I respect tell that my analogy is right, it seems like something has gone deeply wrong. What is it, and how can it be fixed? Your thoughts, please.

--UPDATE, after reading "On Being Sane in Insane Places"--
The link is unfortunately not particularly relevant to this whole screed. The only possible thing of interest is the fact that all the inmates could tell when people were actually sane. And I do recall meeting people whose attitude towards works was one of pride about their work, but a detachment WRT their environment and they seemed to have exactly found the Zen of caring and not caring that would allow them to leave a sinking ship. I recall being almost shocked at their attitudes, in part because the sort of fealty and loyalty I had always associated with being a "good worker" was completely not present. They were proud of their work, friendly to their colleagues, but their well-being was NOT inextricably linked to the organization's. And I could pick out who these people were VERY quickly. Perhaps those people truly were sane in an insane place.

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[User Picture]From: scarla
2006-05-07 09:08 pm (UTC)

tax form processing

maybe tax form processing would go up as well, if instead of feeling pressured by superiors and suffocated by beaurocracy, from somewhere in the mass of generally useless feeling tax form processors somebody suddenly feels inspired, not to mention free and confident enough, to speak up and say there is a better way to do this. they could make it less complicated, without compromising the material.

because probably those people are the only ones who do care at all about tax forms, but not in the way that they really want to process more of them.
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[User Picture]From: pmb
2006-05-07 09:35 pm (UTC)

Re: tax form processing

That could very well be true. So are there any jobs that you think are so onerous that allowing people to be free and not making them feel trapped and small will mean that those jobs simply would not get done? My gut says there might be - perhaps migrant farm worker day labor type stuff. But what about jobs that aren't probably illegal? Are there any jobs in which it is profitable to employ people legally (at least min. wage, OSHA compliant workplace, etc.) which are so brainsucking by their very nature that nobody would do them if they weren't beaten into it?
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[User Picture]From: pmb
2006-05-07 09:37 pm (UTC)
Many of these people were once self motivated, and are all very competent. But self motivation and esteem take time to grow back. The effects of a bad job take 6+ months of non-abuse to wear off, and there's a high probability of picking up another bad job in that time.

The abuse metaphor strikes again.
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[User Picture]From: pmb
2006-05-07 09:53 pm (UTC)
Did you recognize them for what they were while you were there, or not until afterwards? Did that knowledge help in either of dealing with the environment or with the recovery afterwards?
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[User Picture]From: zellandyne
2006-05-07 10:29 pm (UTC)
That's disturbing. Looking back, the jobs I most disliked seemed to follow that model of punishing after success. Certainly the job at PCC that I fled had that element. At the jobs I've loved, the mode is much more praise oriented, which is probably why I did so well in them.

It's so frustrating to think that employers actually believe that. I know I work in the exact opposite way: punish me, and I'll curl up and go into a cycle of self doubt and self recrimination which will prevent me from doing a good job until I get out of the situation, praise me for something I've done well, and I will outdo it the next time if at all possible. Academically, personally, and professionally, that's how I work. How very depressing that the current workplace wisdom runs counter.

I do have to agree with your analogy, also. That back and forth waffling you describe is exactly how I feel far too often. Interesting that people who wouldn't allow that in a personal relationship will allow it in a professional one... I'm going to be thinking on this for a while. Thank you for bringing it up.
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[User Picture]From: naomi_traveller
2006-05-08 03:54 am (UTC)
The flipside of the punishment mentality is that it can create very strong bonds between co-workers. Every terrible job I've left, I felt like I was betraying the team by leaving, that if I stayed we might have turned things around.

I have changed jobs four times in seven years. People keep telling me that having so many short-term stays on my resume is a bad thing, but each time I've moved my salary and working conditions have improved markedly. And I get nibbles from bigger and bigger fish. The employers I interview with don't seem to mind all that much.

But you know, all those jobs were great relationships at the start. They only turned bad later: when the money went, when the org chart shifted, when the company lost its course... A lot like personal relationships, too.

I do think that abuse in the workplace is so prevalent because a work relationship is so hard to leave, and because there is such a strongly-held belief that leaving too soon or too often will be held against you. That and the very real need for benefits.

(hi... I'm a friend of a friend joining the discussion :) )
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From: starmom
2006-05-07 10:40 pm (UTC)


Yes, I think those people were truly sane.
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[User Picture]From: kuddliphish
2006-05-07 11:54 pm (UTC)
While the examples you give are indicative of an abusive relationship, they aren't the cause of abuse. I think (given what I observed in my parent's abusive relationship) that abuse comes from a power imbalance. If your SO doesn't like your friends, and would rather have you stay home with them, that alone isn't abuse (it'll be a problem in the relationship, most likely, but you can have problems without having abuse) If for whatever reason you think you have to do what your SO wants, that their desires/opinions/feelings are more important than your own, then you are looking at a power imbalance and a situation that is ripe for abuse.

The problem with work is that there is an inherent power imbalance. One person is the boss, or manager or what-have-you, and the other is a subordinate. If that boss likes to exploit their power, or is simply not a very good leader, then the relationship is going to turn sour.

And a lot of people feel trapped in their jobs because a paycheck is a pretty necessary item, and frankly job hunting is worse than dating.

I can also think of jobs that just inherently suck (I can't imagine that working at a meat processing plant is anybody's vocation) but I'm not sure that an unpleasant job is necessarily an abusive one.
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[User Picture]From: mycrust
2006-05-08 12:36 am (UTC)
Graduate school is, of course, a particularly insidious form of job because it manages to masquerade as something else.
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[User Picture]From: olstad
2006-05-08 01:55 am (UTC)
I think that none of my jobs (excepting teaching) had these characteristics. Teaching doesn't have the whole boss/power imbalance (my principal is if anything too absent/undemanding), but my first several years I felt hostage to all those great teachers I'd had and/or read about, who either were much better than me at their jobs, had absolutely no lives outside of school, and/or posessed time machines.

The biggest difference in my job satisfaction has come from having a kid, and telling my job to stuff it at the end of (most of) the days(s).
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[User Picture]From: roninspoon
2006-05-08 04:46 am (UTC)
I don't let that bitch push me around. She and I hang out because she gives me money to spend time with her. She's a means to an end.
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[User Picture]From: moropus
2006-05-08 11:07 am (UTC)
Me too. I'm a ho, but I have standards.
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[User Picture]From: esmesquall
2006-05-08 05:40 am (UTC)
Dude this is the exact analogy I used when ranting about my lousy newspaper job a year and a half ago: http://esmesquall.livejournal.com/27421.html. OMG GMTA BBQ
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[User Picture]From: pmb
2006-05-08 05:58 am (UTC)


I steal all your ideas without EVEN KNOWING IT.

I'm also glad that great minds and ours think alike.
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[User Picture]From: sertrel
2006-05-08 06:07 am (UTC)
Well, we're now at three degrees of sharing, linked in wintersweet, who was linked from joedecker.

I'd say it's a little more complicated than that.

Your description compares work to an abusive relationship between equals (e.g. spousal relationship), but it's got aspects of an abusive provider relationship (e.g. parent-child relationship). Work is a provider and caregiver. It gives you the money so you can pay rent, utilities, transportation, etc. Many jobs also subsidize your health insurance. Also, since many rental residences require proof of ability to pay, without a job, so it's difficult to even relocate without a job.

I'd also hesitate before dumping all the blame on the faceless employers. I briefly skimmed parts of a book called "The Disposable American" or something like that, about how the culture of layoffs emerged. And I see in some of my older coworkers the career-long effects of living under the knife and surviving layoffs. From what I understand, there used to be a mutual loyalty between employer and employee, and that's all but disappeared. Many within my age cohort (I'm in my 20's) have jumped from employer to employer, often staying less than 24 months. I've known people to quit their job because of dissatisfaction, without another job already lined up. So for every person who stays in an abusive job, there are the people who will drop two weeks notice not because the job is bad, but because it's not good enough.

Part of the problem is cross-purposes. To reduce system failure, there should be no single point of failure. There is process and procedure, with peer review, quality control, committee-approved forms and methods and standards, etc. Decentralization. No one operates without a safety net. But at the same time, the value of individual contributions are minimized. And so people perform their duties perfunctorily, with apathy and indifference, because even if they screw up, it will be someone else's job to catch it.

I don't know if you CAN fix it. People value consistency, reliability, and quantity over quality. This is why fast food and chain restaurants have spread across the country. And most average people couldn't recognize the real measures of actual quality without help. People would prefer a kind, caring, gentle, but inept doctor who performs excess tests and procedures to get a cure and keeps patients in the hospital for days longer, rather than an unsympathetic, methodical doctor who heals people quickly and gets them out the door. And more people will go to the highly advertised, cookie-cutter Hollywood blockbuster star vehicle at the multiplex, rather than do the resesarch to find the lesser-known movie with plot, character, and setting at the art theater an hour away.

Producers rely on consumers far more than the reverse, and thus, producers are far more responsive to consumers than the other way around. Consumers get what they are willing to consume.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2006-05-08 06:34 am (UTC)
(Here via joedecker. I'm intrigued to see this showing up just as this article hits my flist as well. Apparently a lot of people are thinking about these things.)

I suspect a lot of this is that people are used to abuse-like patterns in their personal lives, and so they come to expect them everywhere. I'm a relationship geek and I know a great deal about the healthy functioning of relationships and how to fix broken ones; it's very hard for me to work at any job for long without starting to pick at the ways that it mirrors abuse. I strongly prefer to work for small companies because I stand a much better chance of being able to change the damaging patterns, ideally from the top down.

My favorite non-abusive job was at Tekserve, a Mac sales and repair shop in New York. Their salespeople are straight salary, no commission, to ensure that they don't sell more than the customer needs. The employee discount is cost minus 10% and they let you pay off big purchases straight from your pre-tax pay, in installments. I miss them. If I could afford to work there again, I would.
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[User Picture]From: crimmycat
2006-05-08 06:37 am (UTC)

obligatory dissenting voice

My work is not abusive - I do not find it to be an inherent power imbalance. They pay a good chunk of money, not only in wages but 401K, medical, and taxes, to lure me to work there. In return, I give them the expertise and human element they hired me to be. I do not have to have this job, and I am not trapped here - hell, I acidentally fell into an interview last week. Living frugally, I have quite a lot of time to not need a job in the bank.

I am not a wage-slave; I am more like a cat that is a good mouser. Keep giving me warmth, shelter, food, and praise, and I'll keep purring at you and killing your mice. Kick me, and I might come back once - but I'm no dog, and I'll leave if I want to. For this cat, the door's always open. I am very clear about this, and my boss is very clear that he understands he'll be in a world of hurt if I go. I wouldn't do anything bad - his pain would be self-inflicted by having to deal with all my workload, responsibilities, and systems until he found someone as competant as me.

I'm not a total bitch; when I leave a job, I make sure to leave a trained kitten, already housebroken, behind me who'll grow into all my duties. It leaves fond memories, good references, and the option of coming back higher up the food chain.

To be in an abusive relationship, you have to be willing to play the part of the abused. I'm not. So I like my job, the pay and the bennies are great, the people amuse me, the work is all right, and I find my self-esteem defined and fulfilled by the things I do outside of work, instead of at it.
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[User Picture]From: lunaetstellae
2006-05-09 03:12 am (UTC)

Re: obligatory dissenting voice

"I find my self-esteem defined and fulfilled by the things I do outside of work, instead of at it. "

Well said. To me, this is the key....
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[User Picture]From: akjdg
2006-05-08 09:05 am (UTC)

Obligatory Dissenting Voice #2, Qualified.

While I think there is certainly truth in your premise, and examples of it abound (my work in Boston for 3 years is an example, although it doesn't fit your model well), it isn't universal, and - joyfully - it doesn't apply to my current situation.

1) The Boston job was abusive, but that was because of the personality of the employer, and as such was abuse at a personal level, not a job level. I don't think that the job dynamics etc that you describe quite matched the situation there. Nonetheless, the recovery period of 6 months was pretty apt. Of course, the first six months were spent extricating myself from the work, and the next six months recovering from the experience, but whatever. I stayed with it because the money was good, the learning experience was valuable, the work was generally interesting and meaningful, and I had a lot of responsibility. Something about duty-bound, too.

2) My current job is totally non-abusive. My employer recognizes that I am a valuable element of the team, with a skill set and attitude not easily replaced or replicated, and hence worth keeping on board through thick and thin. Also, the size of the company for which I work is sufficiently small that my labors have a pretty direct trickle-down effect to my bottom line. Thirdly, the work environment is way cool, and the work is generally sufficiently rewarding and important to be gratifying.

The handful of previous jobs (high school and similar stuff) weren't abusive at all. Perhaps this is because they were pretty low stakes for me.
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[User Picture]From: avitzur
2006-05-08 04:02 pm (UTC)
I love my work. The question I ask myself about any job is: Would I do this if I weren't getting paid? I've been blessed with a number of work situations where I can wholeheartedly say Yes.

I often wonder how society would look if people didn't have to put up with abuse to ensure shelter and food and healthcare for themselves and their loved ones.

- Ron
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