The poisoning of the American worker

Not trying to be optimistic with this remark, but are American workers — those who still are working, that is — better off working from home than the pre-COVID world of work? As someone who retired in July, the first year of COVID, I’ve been thinking about all the bullshit and assorted crap that workers have to deal with from superiors, using classic HR verbiage here (which actually sounds a lot like slave-master language). Has the crap-levels lessoned for those who previously got up every day, dressed in their work attire, put on their work face and personality, and commuted by their preferred or required-by-circumstance transport to their work place?

Like others who were able to shift to tele-work in March 2020, I worked from home, or really from Mama Bear’s home, where I lived temporarily after Papa Bear died in March, leaving his bride of almost 69 years alone and haunted by the dementia that had been lurking and in hiding while Papa was there.

Once we were all working from home, people seemed a bit nicer, less demanding, more patient. Is it harder to be an ass over Zoom than it is in person? Everyone was suddenly working away from the eyes and ears of their superiors, and god forbid, had to be trusted. Hmmm…for those who were treated as though they shouldn’t be trusted, eg, dogged by a demanding boss who was also unreasonable despite having a great team who should be trusted, probably had fucked themselves by being asses prior to COVID. Post the stay home they all were in flop sweat constantly as their physical-presence command-and-control method was suddenly not available. They couldn’t walk down the hall and corner their subordinates (again, lovely HR-speak) anymore. Now they had to rely on someone’s willingness to answer their phone or Zoom call. And guess what? Now they could be put on mute if they were spouting their weak shit so their underlings didn’t have to hear the broken record again. Was the COVID work environment actually better for one’s health for those working from home??

Very little has changed in management styles since I was wearing a shit-ugly uniform at the burger joint I worked at as a 16 year old high schooler in 1975. How many management seminars, retreats, conferences have we all been to that help managers be better superiors and supposedly better people who lead by example and by accepted and ancient productivity measures? And now, drum roll, how many of those leadership interventions seemed to do anything at all to change our boss’ style of management? Or ours for that matter?

For all the talk of equity and diversity and leadership, the same types of people often seem to rise to the top. Not always of course, there are examples of good managers who actually seem to be the same humane person both on and off the job. One of my bosses accused me of being conflict averse because I didn’t force hourly workers to work for free on the weekends or after 5pm. He looked down on them for not having “fire in the belly” and wanting to volunteer their time at weekend events to get ahead, despite the fact that asking them to do such things would have brought an unfair labor practice by the union. If he was working until 3am every night and all weekend, then anyone who wasn’t working that hard was a loser, unmotivated, etc., etc. To hell with actually having a guilt-free life outside of work where you spend time with your family, take time to shed the work day stress, oh, and take a vacation once in a while. All those were weaknesses. The superior even haunted one’s life when not at work, as worry over not being “on-line” or finishing a project loomed large over one’s free-time world. Our families just have to get used to it. We start treating them like shit sometimes as they “don’t get it.” But, gosh, they probably do.

I have literally seen people completely change their personalities when they move up and become managers. They were nice people before and then turned into the 1950s manager that berate their employees and demand anything, with threats of putting notes in their HR file if they didn’t follow to the tee what the superior said. I guess we are supposed to have the same reverence for the superior as we would God or a cult leader, which is, never questioning the man or woman in charge. And this isn’t just a man thing. Some of the worst managers I’ve dealt with are women. Some were American, some not. Some were older than me, some not. Some I reported to and some were peers “leading” other areas of the organization.

One of the reasons that so many people try to make it on their own these days by working in the gig economy probably has something to do with working for these Unreasonables for so many years. It certainly can have a psychological impact on one’s self-esteem, one’s family life, and even on how we treat and feel about others. It can actually be poison. Managers get off on having the power. That’s why they have to throw it around by being bully bosses. The best know how to do it so subtly that they can rarely be called on it. The tortured either leave or slink through with their head down if they have few choices but to stay. They are the Miserables.

Having gone through some of the highest levels of leadership training available in the U.S., including The Center for Creative Leadership, a couple fellowships and loads of other stuff both in a graduate program and in the workplace, I’m not sure any of these teachings and trainings are even effective, especially long term. If someone invited me in to speak with a group of up and coming managers/leaders, I feel like my talk would be really short. With the hindsight of a 40 year career I think I would just say, Be a fucking human being, people. Treat the people who work with you like you want others to treat you. Have a knock down drag out with yourself on your biases, because almost everyone has them, especially white folk, and especially male white folk, but we all have baggage we don’t even know we have because it’s baked in culturally so it’s invisible to ourselves unless we really work to recognize and eliminate it. Think of it like food poisoning: it won’t be gone until you puke and poop it all out. Ignore all the other shit about management and leadership because if it worked then our workplaces would be so much better than they were 50 years ago, but guess what, they really aren’t. They were just black and white before and now they are in living color.

So if you’re still in the workplace, just be a human being to each other. Everything else will follow from there. If you think you need a stick to get productivity out of people then you probably do because your people think you’re such as asshole that they don’t work hard unless you threaten. As Chinua Achebe said, Things Fall Apart. And they always will for managers who power-trip their way through life, sooner or later. Just check out the news over the last few years about the leaders in a variety of industries — Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, higher education, politics/government, restaurants, etc. — who everyone admired until they didn’t because their power trip was exposed by their abuse of people and/or money most often.

If you’re an Unreasonable, you’re probably saying, “Fuck you,” and thinking that I was probably a crap manager. Fine. But if you are a Miserable or can relate to the stomach-aches induced by a bully boss superior, then you get it. Sorry I don’t have some solution to this situation. I just know that our so-called modern workplace really isn’t that modern in how we manage. And it never will be until the power-trippers stop trippin’. Good luck out there, team! You’re going to need it!

By Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast.

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