Constant corporate Kool-Aid

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I could never bear to drink so never lived (or died) by the cult of corporate life. But it is certainly a journey, often surreal, when you’re in it. It seems mostly the same everywhere with certain exceptions and differences across cultures. It is a softer place, the Swedish corporate world, than say, America, but it’s no less filled with bureaucracy, blame shifting and euphemism. And much more filled with Swenglish.

The constant back slaps and pats on the head for stuff that people supposedly did or achieved that never actually happened or came to fruition. Yes, hiding behind and getting credit (and subsequent promotions and accolades) for never-implemented ideas that lingered on people’s lips and in countless PowerPoint presentations and Excel-bound plans but never lived a day outside the planning phases. It’s never the results – it’s the planning process that is rewarded.

The constant outflow of talent when actual talent realized they were being indoctrinated into a cult rather than going to a job – and needed to escape. At the big goodbye-speech event (of which there were many), filled with cake and other local pastries, the “lifers” standing around the kitchen making hollow speeches about having had “the really good pleasure of working with” so-and-so, who could always “walk the talk”?!

The constant admonishment from middle management to “prioritize right”, “using our strategy as a filter”. What does that even mean? If they understood the strategy or how strategy works, they would not use it this way, as a fluff-filler to leave their employees to their own devices in figuring out, “What the hell am I meant to prioritize?”

The constant self-praise of the middle manager, proud about the growing size of her team, as if “size is everything” and a vote of confidence in her (non-existent) leadership abilities. No, in fact, if enough competent people leave, and you are one of these lifers, floating along and not making waves, eventually you will secure yourself a relatively senior position based only on seniority. “We have to put her someplace”: A senior position (on paper) that has no teeth, of course, and about which no one actually cares. But a comfortable senior position in a creaking and decrepit old-way-of-doing-business organization, so there are still some perks.

The constant need of every person in every meeting, every department, to chime in with their “reflections”. I don’t know where they got the word “reflect” and its variations, but they have taken it too far. “Reflection” is constant, when what they really ought to say is “thought”, “observation”, “criticism” or even “mental fart”. But no, it’s always, “I reflected and…”, “my reflection is…”, or better yet, to Swedify, “One reflection we all did was…”. No, you don’t DO a reflection.

The constant and classic, in keeping with the self-important need to voice every “reflection”, interrupter. The middle management “leader” who constantly interrupts her “underlings”, because what she has to say is most important (never mind that it’s babble), often to repeat herself, and even well after she seemed to be finished and someone wants to make a point and starts talking, and she interrupts to snap, “Let me finish!”

In finishing, she delivers a speech on how everyone now needs to get to know each other on a personal level in order to process all the organizational changes. Because we don’t know what is going on in another person’s life away from work, or how they handle change or anxiety, we should become friends to ease this process. Poured liberally throughout this touchy-feely talk – references to glasses of wine. “This activity will be fun, especially with a glass of wine.” This of course must be her not-so-hidden “thing”. Drinking. If not wine, the Kool-Aid. Or, in corporate life, perhaps they are one and the same.

Photo (c) 2009 Greg Pye

The comedy of corporate life

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Actively comparing environments in which I have worked, I laughed out loud imagining inviting someone like Reggie Watts to perform for the corporate puppets. The polite smiling but not really understanding what’s going on. Corporate life provides its own brand of lunacy and crazy entertainment. We wouldn’t need a comedy genius like Watts, who would be misunderstood anyway. The average giant company is plump with self-congratulatory pomp and unintentional hilarity.

Hesitation and Doing

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On the first commute of 2014 back to Gothenburg I encountered no wild animals at all unless we count the scattered, scrambled, sparse remains of an unidentified animal on the roadway not far from a car that was flipped upside-down in the trees next to the road. I did, however, encounter a ridiculously high number of cars on the road for it being the middle of the night. I am not sure if it is because it is the first day back for a lot of people after a long holiday break or just because it was a Sunday – and Monday is a first day back in general – or perhaps if the fact that I left 15 minutes earlier than usual somehow contributed to the difference in traffic.

Making this long drive again and facing the same patterns from last year that led me to such restlessness and, dare I even say, depression, I know that change has to happen. I have to make it happen. Sometimes even when you know what to do, have decided to do it, it’s still very hard to pull the trigger.

The American way – a light extinguished

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus”

I like to ignore the realities of America now that I don’t live there, but it is true that what happens in the US does affect the world.

Brainwashing in the US begins early. Most people don’t think of it that way – and even rather anti-American people I meet in Europe sometimes think I am going too far when I describe the US system as a form of slavery (especially if one compares it to actual slavery, which of course is an entirely different, toxic and horrifying institution/monstrosity). It might be better to call it indentured servitude, with the indenture owed to student loan companies and increasingly inhumane workplaces. People are too brainwashed to know that that is the machine they are a part of – indoctrinated into the idea that they are would-be millionaires (as John Steinbeck said, ““Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) or that “anything is possible” if they work hard enough – and taught from an early age to value material goods over anything else, so that, unless they are actually hit by real hardship, an average American thinks he is prospering because he managed to buy … a new Jeep or something.

I often tell the disembodied and soulless story as one in which you are born and are told from the earliest time that you must get an education, so you go to public school (or whatever form you attend) and basically learn how not to think while a lot of nonsense is hammered into your head and creativity is systematically removed – stay in line, be quiet, color inside the lines, do what everyone else is doing, no that is not the right interpretation of this, there is only one right answer and only one way to get there). Then you are told you have to go to college or else you will not get a job. You go into great debt to do so. Naturally after that your hands are tied by the debt, so you take whatever job you can get rather than whatever job will make you happy – but you are also convinced that you will be happy if you buy the aforementioned Jeep. And of course unquestionably America is the greatest country in the world (and if you question it, get out because you’re no patriot!), so it does not matter that you don’t have the money or time to travel to see the world. You have a Jeep you can drive around with since you have cheap oil! And since you are stuck wherever you are anyway paying your student debt, you might as well do what everyone else does. Buy a house. Get married. You might start to question whether you are happy in your job, but you know you won’t find another one easily anyway … and now you have a kid or two, so you need to stay in your job to keep your healthcare. Then you play the tug-of-war with yourself about whether you can be a good parent, whether you have enough money for their daycare, whether one of the parents should leave their job (if there are two parents, of course) until you enroll your own kid into the same system that produced you just the way you are now and the same story repeats. And repeats and repeats.

This story, even if it differs from individual to individual, is somewhat amazing to incredulous Europeans, who actually don’t think of the details and intricacy of how this average American mind is formed/created. They often just imagine that “Americans are dumb” (broad strokes of generalization, of course) but fail to take the whole system into consideration. When I tell this story to the average American, it is equally amazing because the semi-awake one never thinks about the fact that each chain in the link of his life is some spot where he has been further handcuffed into the, shall we say, chain gang? University costs – mostly free in much of Europe – healthcare – largely free in Europe – daycare subsidized by the state – lots of vacation time and maternity/paternity leave … sure, taxes are slightly higher (but honestly not that much) – and most do not feel like they are enslaved by their jobs. You can leave any time without risking health coverage. These too are generalizations, especially in this era of steep austerity cuts and unemployment at unheard of rates in much of mainland Europe (Scandinavia is not quite in the same position).

The general theme here, though, is that there is a tremendous freedom to this and an impetus to then really think. But how could an average American be expected to think with that whole backstory forming and informing his life?

The American lifestyle and system creates a certain kind of constant fear. Fear of losing one’s job, fear of violence, fear of being sued, fear of in any way being out of step with the norm. I thought about this one night as I was driving my long-distance commute back home and saw a guy hitchhiking trying to get from a town called Bengtsfors to Årjäng (none of which will be familiar to or mean anything to anyone reading this). It may not be charitable of me not to have offered a ride since I was driving right through Årjäng. But hitchhiking is dangerous territory. I have no idea if this guy posed any danger, and maybe anywhere in the world, it would be foolish to chance it, but even if it were almost a guarantee that it would have been safe, I still would not have done it. You can take an American out of America but not shake the full American paranoia out of them. I have more than my share of this paranoia, assuming that everyone has bad or dangerous intentions and ulterior motives. Being American has taught me never to trust anything.

Maybe it is crazy and sounds like I am looking for the boogieman around every corner, particularly in the working world. Somewhere in me, I find it fun to search and apply for (and interview for, if called) jobs. It did not start as a fun hobby – it was more out of necessity when I searched like mad to find a job (as was always the case in my earlier life – applying for 100 jobs and getting maybe one interview or something). But eventually when I did not need to worry about it anymore and did not need a job, I decided it was partly fun, a bit of a game and one can always use interview practice (and potentially a free trip somewhere). But it was partly this paranoia showing its face – companies go under, companies downsize, industries change – you need to be ready and out there and know what the bloody hell is going on. Be ye ever ready, right? And I am.

Before the big crash of 2008, I was living in Iceland and actually went on a lot of interview trips around Europe… Dublin, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, London, a few times to Helsinki… cannot complain. While it is not always practical, it usually pays off. I have never once been blindsided. If you are paranoid (and/or American) enough, you will always see the writing on the wall and READ IT.

One of my freelance/side “careers” has ended up being job counselor/life coach/resume-and-interview consultant. Not that I ever wanted to do that. Europeans especially need a bit of coaching in this department because they have never experienced the dog-eat-dog American work culture (and I hope they never reach a point that they experience something quite like that). But Europeans are too soft, and there is no doubt that some things in Europe are slowly moving in a more American direction (although I don’t think it will ever go to the extremes). In my last job, there was a huge reorganization a few years ago, and something like one-third of the company was laid off. When this happens, employment laws offer considerable protection, and most decent employers extend protection and assistance beyond what the law requires. Despite the “helping hand” and the clear signs everywhere that change was afoot, those affected by this first reorg (which they euphemistically called “right sizing”) were completely blindsided because they have never been taught (how nice for them) to read the signs of what is coming. I think most aware Americans in a corporate environment are always paying attention to little things because paying just a bit of attention may pay dividends one way or another. Of course Europeans might be told pointblank that change is coming but never imagine that it will have any effect on them. Many of them were devastated in the first round of layoffs, even though they were poised to get at least half a year of pay (even if they got a new job the next day, they would still get the full pay). And the Norwegian economy was not affected much at all by the global economic downturn – so most people found jobs immediately. Their sense of panic was almost cute in its “working world naivete”. Not that I think it is great that I am so on my toes and ready for anything all the time.

It turned out for the best, of course, when I was sort of part of a later “right sizing” process. I was, as always, prepared. It was rather hilarious when my manager called me to give me the “bad news” – kept saying stuff about how I must feel so devastated and would feel it when the shock wore off. But all these strategies and acute situation awareness enabled an automatic prewarning. I was not shocked; I was not surprised. I was ready.

As we know (or should know), life is not defined by work – or should not be. Somehow, this is where American life and “ideals” derail. Increasingly, people work and work and don’t get anywhere and won’t be able to afford (in terms of time or money) some way out of the situation they are in (this is probably already the case, and I am just out of touch). When I consider that people who work in the service industry do not come close to earning living wages, I am appalled. But the system is set up this way – to glorify and maximize corporate profit, to supply consumer demand for impossibly cheaper and cheaper goods sold in stores staffed by people who cannot afford to eat.

Lovely. What a happy Thanksgiving, America.