I guess it has been my own private defense against meaninglessness to ask business people for their stories. How do you make meaning of your work? What are you really up to? It has been a way to engage, through my various careers as a hotel manager, reenginer, instructional designer, executive coach, and management consultant.
And now, after 17 years, listening to these stories has brought me to a dilemma.
On the one hand, I am amazed at how many of us have nagging questions and private doubts about our organizations, industries or professions. Apparently, these can arise early or late in our careers, depending on how idealistic we are and our chosen organization or profession. Yet even if we have very low expectations, they can be compromised – mostly mildly, but sometimes in very painful ways.
For example, a highly competent publishing executive agreed to turn around a division at risk of being closed down. Intrigued by the challenge, he moved his family out to the remote location and went to work. He had no illusions about the financial imperatives that might lead the parent organization to make a tough decision. Yet, when a year later he and the employees of the subsidiary did succeed in turning the business around, he expected that would mean rewards and recognition. Instead, it led the parent organization to reconsider their forecasts for the category and close the subsidiary business anyway – because such a high-volume business would need to be managed closer to home. He described the painful moment when he had to announce a layoff, and during the 90 seconds as the message was being translated into Spanish for some of the local staff, how they were smiling and nodding, expecting to hear that they were getting a bonus or an award.
Numerous people have described similar experiences to me, to a greater or lesser degree. For some, it was as stark as a leader who threatened to fire them if they did not do something illegal or questionable. For others, it was simply the realization that their organization was not really going to change, or did not really believe in the values it claimed to espouse. Over and over, people used phrases like, “you realize you might have made a deal with the devil”, “you have to drink the koolaid”, “you just do the dance”, “you cannot be honest”, or “I’m having trouble buying in”.
And herein lies my dilemma.
After 25 years and work in at least a dozen industries, assisting with countless change programs, reorganizations, and corporate initiatives, I know the rules. I know it’s “just business”, and that whining, pointing fingers, or even wearing rose-colored glasses can be recipes for isolation, labelling, and disillusionment.
I also know that the business people I respect are focused on progress, moving forward, creating the future. They are courageous and principled in the face of incredible pressure, strive to influence their organizations for the better, and often, work for inspired and purposeful organizations. Yes, there are some hard truths, but why spend your time on the negative?, they ask.
I have to ask myself the same question. And here is my proposition:
What if the single greatest enabler of our ability to live up to whatever personal purpose or mission we feel called to is our ability to confront a single ubiquitous dilemma: Might I have to sell my soul to succeed?
So many people told me they felt “lucky” their work aligned with their values. But what if our hands are forced? The corporate agenda shifts? A new leader sets a path, not knowing the valuable trajectories already underway? I remember a client saying to me one day, “Oh, no, Systems Thinking is out now — the CEO threw it out. We can’t do that kind of root-cause analysis anymore.” How do we act in good conscience then?
Knowing where we stand and what our priorities are is a crucial foundation for making any commitment. Otherwise, how will we respond when we are pressed to shift directions? As Senator John McCain says in Why Courage Matters, “We may strive for virtue, but without courage we are corruptible. Courage is the value that allows us to adhere to any other.”
So here is my invitation.
Let’s pool what we have learned — both about the pressures to compromise and about how to stay true. Let’s compare notes on the “dark side”, but without resorting to alarmism, righteousness or even naive idealism. Let’s simply look at these realities as the constraints on doing what we really want to do, as frontiers that, if expanded, could enable us and thousands of others to attempt and sustain more purposeful, actualized, and satisfying lives. And let’s talk about the “bigger games” we are striving toward…. or would like to if we could.
If corporations have as much influence over the future of our globalized society as is currently claimed, then engaging this inquiry has enormous ramifications. In my view, strengthening our ability to be true to ourselves at work not only increases our individual sanity and improves our organization’s ability to learn and innovate effectively, but enables us to “connect our dots” as a society. It allows our individual values and our natural human responses to the challenges of our time, to inform and guide our organizations’ actions and impact on the larger world around us.
So… how do we make a living without selling our souls? What experiences have you had that affect your point of view on this issue? What have you learned? (Please click on the Comments link below to add your perspective.)