Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Because I like to live indoors

Bottom line: if you control a person's paycheck you affect their food and shelter, and when they get scared they will lie to you. It's that simple.

Managers in various walks of corporate life like to tell themselves a different story: if we work hard to gain employee trust, if we are good to our word, if we provide well-understood performance expectations, employees will have no reason to deceive us.

But it ain't so. Yes, you should do all that, but it won't fix this. This is not just about being good or not being evil, because when someone is scared, when they think their rent or mortgage or food supply is threatened - even if it's not true - they will do what they think they need to do to survive. These are really primitive fears. If you think you're not like that, imagine having to choose between telling an employer some unpleasant fact you can avoid telling them, and your child going hungry.

When we're afraid, we spin stories. We tint our explanations to what we think our listener wants to hear, so we can make whatever point we're trying to make. It's not a hard line, that line from slant to lie, not when you're using language, which is challenging enough already, and not when you're standing in front of a manager, wondering in one gut-wrenching awful moment if you're about to lose your job.

People are touchy about their paychecks, especially these days. Perfectly understandable.  They figure it's maybe not a good time to  cause trouble. When they're talking to the guy who controls the money, they consider every word they say.

So managers hear what employees think they want to hear. And when employees get scared, what managers hear can get real confusing.

Is there a way out of this mess? I think there is, but it means, at very least, restructuring corporate control, and that's a sticky wicket because those in corporate power positions are just as afraid as anyone else of losing what they have. Wealthy powerful executives and less wealthy less powerful middle managers get scared about food and shelter, too, even if they don't say it that way. Yeah, it's absurd, but this is about perception, not about facts. For the most part, humans don't act from observation of facts, but from fear. And we do, very much, like to live indoors.

If there's a way out of this mess, I want to find it. Better yet, I want to live it. I want to work in that corporation where people are not afraid of their managers, where when management says their job is about service, they mean it and employees believe it.

Yeah, it takes risk to get there. When I had control of the corporate reigns, I took those risks. I didn't take them all. I tried to straddle the line between what seemed possible and what seemed sensible. That edge is a scary place to play, especially when you've got responsibility for other people's food and shelter - not to mention your own. Because I like to live indoors, too.


  1. Good point about how even wealthy executives and upper middle management types have fears of being cast to the scary out-of-doors. I see that my tendency is to discount those above me on the hierarchy rather than acknowledge the irrational nature of everyone:-)

  2. That's because we think that people who have control over our paychecks are more secure than we are. But it ain't so, and if you scratch the surface of their insecurities (and careful when doing that) you'll see the same fears. Who isn't afraid? The person who isn't afraid to live outside. Metaphorically. Literally, maybe, too.