A Most Welcome Surprise
For the past several weeks I have been freelancing onsite with one of the best managers I have ever experienced. Following a really grim experience in a strikingly dysfunctional department, this is a breath of fresh air. What is the difference between this experience and the prior one? Simply put: appreciation. This manager who actively appreciates not only the people she interacts with outside the department, but more importantly, each member of the department. It is a pleasure to be around her as she takes a moment to make note of the things she appreciates in others. I smile a lot.
Appreciation? That’s the big difference? Cheap words, you ask? Actually, there is something much deeper here than a few spoken words or word scripts. Appreciation is part of our relationships, that is, it exists in the space that only a trust-based relationship creates. And, yes, that includes our working lives even though this is not much discussed and it is sometimes even derided. Appreciation is mentioned as part of motivational media, but what I am referring to is appreciation of the entire human being performing the job. Not a mere “atta boy/atta girl” for a job well done.
Task-based compliments, although nice occasionally, are a far cry from appreciation; just as a TV dinner is not nearly the experience that dining in a four star restaurant is. Compliments given for a task are forgotten as soon as another task takes center stage. They are about what one did, not what one is. Genuine appreciation is rooted in empathy; empathy is forged in relational trust and respect. Dysfunctional work groups, by definition, lack empathy and therefore lack appreciation, whereas healthy work groups are empathy-based and appreciation flows easily.
There are some who decry the very presence of feelings/emotions in the workplace as ‘touchy-feely” or even labeled as “personal,” something to be banished from the work place. My observation is that the very individuals who insist upon ‘leaving personal things at home’ nearly always exclude anger from the list of “personal” and seem to use their rage liberally to bully and seek vengeance upon those that have displeased them.
Okay, let me back up somewhat and say more about genuine appreciation. It is larger in scope than task-specific compliments, for it is a noun reporting relational activity—almost a verb in that sense. Not a mere recognition, but a place to be in, to emotionally inhabit, for much more time than it takes to hand a minion an achievement plaque, slap them on the back and continue onto the next agenda item. Appreciation begins with an emotional resonance—empathy—and is then expressed as a verbal recognition and extends into the relating beyond the few minutes of speaking. It is heart-warming and human. A healthy work environment is based upon respectful, empathic relationships and produces generous doses of appreciation.
At the aforementioned dysfunctional department I worked with a fellow—let’s call him Ben—who repeatedly stated that his paycheck was appreciation enough; he did not need accolades from our manager or anything that came close to appreciation.
Our manager was bloodlessly driven, never spoke a kind word, was very quick to point out perceived errors and department members were pretty certain that he was continually disappointed with the performance of each department member. He had an especially sharp eye for fault-finding. His perfectionism made working for him utterly dreadful. The worst of all was his ambition to be promoted and recognized by his upper management. We, the department he managed, existed only to further his ambitions. Empathy was something that simply did not exist in his world, as if it were inefficient or non-productive or would encourage workplace laxness. As a result of his obvious obsession to advance his career, everyone in the department was miserable. Each week the department grew more and more dysfunctional with the cast of characters becoming quite vicious in their grabs for the few scraps that were tossed out. Some became passive and dissociated. Some became full-blown bullies and some became occasional accomplices to those bullies. The department sunk into scapegoating and blaming—with everyone dug deep in defensive trenches to avoid the shrapnel of blaming.
Over and over, Ben stated that the twice-monthly paycheck was appreciation enough and then lean way back in his chair with crossed arms as if to assume a satisfied posture. But why did his face look so pained if the unappreciative managerial style was really okay with him?
And why did he quit in utter frustration after 18 months? According to his own theories, the dysfunction in the department should never have mattered to him—he worked and got paid—period. Yet, he was deeply unhappy with his job. It truly was a miserable job, I will give him that. And I am pretty certain that his primary complaint is that he never felt that our manager was ever satisfied with his performance. Ben never, ever felt appreciated.
Uh-oh, Something is More Than Just A Little Wrong Here…
I grumbled about this manager never being satisfied and expecting 60-plus hour work weeks. I wanted a more balanced life and a more appreciative manager and a kinder department. Half of the time, I was annoyed with myself for being so malcontent.
Then I heard the following story from my manager told flatly without a shred of shame, grief or pain:
My then-manager worked so many hours that his young daughters, then about seven and five, did not see him through the week. He was gone to work when they awoke and he returned well after they went to bed at night. This had gone on for so many years that one night he came home before his daughters went to bed and upon seeing him one of them was so frightened that she began screaming in fright and began crying inconsolably.
At seven years old, the sight of her own father was so unusual that she was frightened into an outburst of tears. He recounted the story with cavalier composure, as if this was not an alarming sign that something was seriously wrong with his life, his family.
Did he take an emergency vacation to reconnect with his children, with his wife? No, he did not. He worked late again that very night. And every night after that.
Holy crap! If his daughter’s alarm was not a wake-up call, what will it take to get the man’s attention? I knew right then I was dealing with something really more than mere ambition.
Because I was quite familiar with the effects of process addictions on those around the addicts, his retelling of this event let me know that I was dealing with an addict. My manager was a work addict. And the entire department was caught in the web of his addiction. No wonder there was a complete absence of appreciation in the department! Addicts lack empathy. (Narcissists also lack empathy.) I was dealing with something more than office politics. I was dealing with the absence of empathy and that is always highly dysfunctional.
By definition, all addicts are so utterly caught up in their addiction that they are blind to the realities and sensitivities of others. Which precludes empathic relating to others. Everything in addicts’ worlds—people, places and things—exist to serve the addiction. Period. Anyone interfering with the addicts’ active addiction will be treated to an outburst of rage. A work-addicted boss cannot relate or manage with empathy or appreciation. He is too consumed assuring his future addictive behavior.
That our department had become a desperate grab for whatever was there to get made perfect sense. Even the most blatant grabs were denied, covered up—the subtler maneuvering simply did not exist—even as questions. The dysfunction increased to scapegoating, rigidity, blaming and an every-person-for-himself mentality combined with defensive intra-departmental cliques. Each day was increasingly more miserable.
Sooner or later, a workgroup without empathy will implode and a work-addicted manager will be exposed. There is really nothing noble at all about any addiction, and this one—work addiction—is especially tricky, carrying a degree of admiration even though it inflicts the identical damage as heroin addiction to both the addict and those in its periphery.
Addiction is Ugly—Even If The Addict Plays the Workplace Hero
The reality is that the very same brain chemistry process occurs in work addiction as occurs in heroin addiction. And work addiction is serving the same purpose in the work addict as heroin addiction serves a street junkie. All addictions exist to ward off overwhelming feelings the addict wants to avoid more than anything else in his life. An addicts’ primary relationship is with his drug of choice, be it methamphetamine or work. No one and no thing will be allowed to stand between an active addict and his substance/process. The relational damage done by an addict to those around him is done no matter what kind of addiction is at play. The most assuredly includes work associates. And especially affects those directly reporting to an addict. Power plus addiction and/or narcissism equals dysfunctionality.
A work-addicted manager leaves metaphoric needles lying around, no doubt about that. Even as he strides around ever the work hero, a work addict is an addict and not one iota “nicer” than any other addict. Eventually, he will wear out his supporting cast, but the woundings are subtle enough to be believably denied for a while and the process takes longer. In some cases, heroin addiction is a kinder than work addiction to those forced to observe it—as it is more easily identified.
The Dysfunctional Swirl Surrounding Addiction
Dysfunctionality is a group’s unconscious attempt to create structure in place of empathic relating when the collective anxiety rises in response to chaotic forces. An active addiction is certainly chaotic. Narcissism is equally chaotic. A manager who is an addict and/or a narcissist exacerbates the chaos.
If your workplace is experiencing scapegoating, blaming, defensive cliquing, or is deep into survival mode— every person for themselves—no one is getting appreciated and empathy is a workplace no-show. What can you do? Some companies recognize work addiction and more have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for both addiction and personality disorders (although, sadly, there is no effective treatment for narcissism). Sometimes you can get assistance from outside the department. That was not my experience.
It takes courage to refuse to engage in the dysfunction, but most of all it takes education; it takes emotional intelligence and a personal commitment to functional relationships to refuse the dysfunction swirling about. That can be a very lonely stance in a very unstable situation. You will need to be very cognizant of the effects of addiction and/or personality disorders upon your own mental health. Leaving may be your best option.
We humans are utterly unable to continue relating without appreciation; ask any manager who has tried bribery, threats and power coercion. Short-term gains, long-term resentment with the resultant plummeting morale and productivity are the inevitable result of unempathethic management. Savvy, mentally healthy managers know this and respond with heartfelt appreciation.
Appreciation cannot be faked or formulaic. The absence of appreciation or insincere/flat appreciation is a sure sign of workplace dysfunctionality. For it takes empathy to appreciate another. Addiction, narcissism and other personality disorders are the primary partial or total blocks to appropriate workplace empathy.
Without empathic relating and its natural outgrowth—appreciation—human groups move into ever-greater dysfunctions. Sans appreciation, employees range from vaguely disconnected/dissociated to miserably unhappy.
It takes a constant reminding that the addiction/personality disorder existed prior to working with this person or in Al-Anon terminology: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it and I cannot cure it, became my survival mantra. Lord, I must have repeated that aphorism that to myself tens of thousands of times during my tenure with a work-addicted manager. Even armed with the knowledge of addiction, that had to be the worst twenty-eight working months in my life. When the job ended, I was a kind of exhausted that I could barely articulate. It showed up as wariness, a tired distance that took many months to heal, to re-connect with life again. I was drained on many levels.
Sometimes it is not what is happening that is diagnostic, it is what does not happen. Lack of appreciation indicates a lack of empathy: look for narcissism and/or addiction.
Back to Appreciating the Appreciation
My really bad experience has rendered me especially grateful for my current manager. Even though this is a temporary job, it is a real joy to come to work, to be part of an empathic, appreciative workgroup. Yes, we have the same deadline pressures, and crazy customer requests and last-minute changes but we smile and we like each other and I very much appreciate being a part of such a vibrant work group. Thank you, Rebecca, for being so empathetic, so appreciative. I really appreciate that! And I appreciate you.