I’ve been reading about the Verge’s exposé on American luggage-maker Away’s toxic work environment back in 2019, and even now it’s unnerving. It shows how aggressively we can react with denial when faced with overwhelming evidence about our own dysfunctional behavior. And it’s characteristic of a common human phenomenon: Aggressive bullying and “poorly veiled” hostility.
The way that a vision of growth, success and a shared dream can derail into a mess of demoralized, dejected employees is gut-wrenching. What’s worse is the picture that’s painted of how Away’s CEO “gently bent” the truth in such a way that, upon reflection, would be a nightmare to be exposed to on a daily basis.
Sit down, take a read from the link above, and brace yourself. Any thoughts of innocence are promptly squashed (not to mention the earlier leaked memo from Away’s CEO in an attempt to clamp down on any employee dissent).
I’ve experienced this sort of thing first-hand, albeit in a (fortunately) smaller and more restricted way (i.e., I got out promptly). See, when you’re in your early 20’s, you’ll take any kind of job you can get while in school. I ended up working as a barista for a local coffee chain in downtown Seattle, and it was probably one of the better experiences in my life. Until I started getting promises of promotion.
The deal was this: Move to a remote store, work extra shifts and take on additional duties, at no pay, for six months. After that, I was to be promoted to the assistant night manager, in all its glory. Boy, was I young and dumb, and I fell for it. But that’s not the knife that twists.
Fast forward six months later, and nothing happened. Nada. Continue on for seven, eight and ultimately nine months, and nothing whatsoever. After ten months, I finally decided to flag down the owner who happened to be stopping by the store. “Enough is enough,” I though, and decided to stand my ground. I brought up “The Case of the Missing Promotion” with him, hopeful that this was simply an oversight and easily corrected. Promotions equal more pay, and customer tips weren’t cutting it that summer.
The owner paused and took one long, slow look at me. I still remember the intensity of his gaze to this day. “I’m glad you brought this up,” he finally offered. “I can understand how it must feel like you’ve been forgotten and misled.” So far, so good.
But then the bombshell dropped, as he quietly added, “Since I can see you’re concerned about this not happening, I think this is a good indication that you’re not ready for the management track.” I was floored. All the extra work, the extra shifts, and the promises of change, for nothing.
As I said, I promptly got out of there. I had no backup plans and no savings to speak of. But, as I mentioned previously, young and dumb. It worked out in the end, but that’s not the point of this story.
What’s really alarming is this: Why do well-meaning people act this way? Are they secretly using bullying behavior as their tactic of choice? Do they lack a soul or are they just not concerned about others? While the answer can often be yes, what’s more alarming is that the answer can still be no to all of this.
Even the most well-intentioned, kind-hearted person can pull the wool over their own eyes and act in a way that would bring shame to their grandparents and beyond. Including you and I.
Here’s a big reason why. We say to ourselves, “I don’t have a choice”. For example:
- “I have to yell at my employees. If I don’t, they won’t stay on task.”
- “I can’t get a new job, there aren’t anything but crappy jobs out there.”
- “If I stop smoking weed, I’ll never be able to manage my anxiety.”
- “My marriage won’t get any better until my spouse changes first.”
When we put limits on ourselves, we’re at risk. And this risk is called an External Locus of Control. We firmly believe that in order for things to change, other things must happen first. Implied in this mindset is a belief that we don’t have control unless something else changes first. After doing this for a while, we start to believe our own logic. And that’s where we get ourselves stuck.
Let’s take that last example for a spin: Marital therapy. When I sit down with a couple for their first session, I usually go over a list of “Reality Points” that often has an interesting effect. In short, I let them know that in order for marital therapy to be effective, they have to be willing to:
- …give up blaming, shaming, and trying to change your partner.
- …commit to the next six months of staying together to repair the relationship.
- …focus entirely on changing themselves, and not their partner.
- …take 100% of the responsibility for the problems in the relationship, regardless of whether their spouse or partner changes, fails to do any homework, or even neglects to show up for sessions.
The effect is often highly useful. Those that are willing to hear these sobering truths stand a darned good chance at saving their relationship. Those that come back and argue often are at risk. They:
- …argue with me about why one or more of these things don’t apply to their situation.
- …attempt to negotiate with me for their responsibility (“I’ll do two months, but I won’t promise to stay with the bastard for six” is one refrain I hear; often those drop out after three weeks, max).
- …act as if I haven’t said anything and continue their litany of complaints about why their partner is bad / no good / too lazy / too stupid to change.
All of this happens from well-meaning, good-intentioned people. It’s an easy trap to fall into: I can’t change until something else changes first. And this is one of the biggest reasons that change is hard. We have to get out of our own way first.