On Work: A Demanding Work Environment Is Not The Same As A Dehumanizing One

Recently, someone on Quora posted a question about the pros and cons of open-plan offices. Quora member Michael O. Church offered a thoughtful, intelligent answer, and buried within that answer was a gem:

…the negatives of these office spaces are under-reported, because people are afraid of appearing weak (like they “can’t handle” the stress of a “demanding” work environment).

— Michael O. Church (emphasis mine)

…And I thought, “Eureka!”

Right now, I’m job-hunting. I have the luxury of being picky, to a certain extent: we don’t need my income to keep a roof over our heads and food in our mouths; its primary purpose is to pay for ballet and surgery and, later on, to start whacking away at my student loan balance in the interim between my graduation and the beginning of grad school.

This means that when I look at job listings, I do a fair bit of reading between the lines. I’ve gained enough experience in the world to mostly be able to figure out which potential employers have unrealistic expectations*.

*Employers: when your list of desired qualities reads like the ingredients for an “everything and the kitchen sink” pizza, you are very likely looking for someone who doesn’t exist. This isn’t to say that folks you hire won’t try to be that pizza — but for all but a very, very few, the effort will be enormous and unsustainable. Fortunately, most jobs don’t actually require everything and the kitchen sink.

Usually, these expectations are totally benign. People making hiring decisions are faced with a difficult problem, and it’s much harder to figure out which positive, desirable traits are really necessary to succeed in a given position than to simply list every single positive, desirable trait that exist in the panoply of positive, desirable human traits.

However, there is a less-benign trend as well — one less related to hiring and more related to retention: the trend of mistaking a dehumanizing work environment for a demanding one.

In short, every work environment is demanding in one way or another. After all, if it wasn’t demanding, we probably wouldn’t call it work!** Some work environments, however, are not reasonable about their demands.

This is, by the way, probably related to the language we use when it comes to ballet class, training for bike races, and exercising at the gym. In ballet, we work. On the bike, when I was on a serious ride (as opposed to just tooling around for fun) and I wasn’t making the effort, I would say to my self, “Come on, get up. Work.” When we go to the gym, what do we do? We work out (girl, look at that body).

Here, we can draw an analogy to romantic relationships.

In a healthy relationship, there are good times and bad times, and it behooves both partners to, well, work on the relationship.

In an abusive relationship, the recipient of the abuse winds up doing all the work, and also doing far more work than a human being should have to. The answer, in that kind of situation, is to leave (though it is so very, very hard to do, especially when one’s emotional, spiritual, relational, and financial resources have been crushed and drained). Maybe the abuser will change, maybe he or she won’t — but sticking around to find out doesn’t usually get that job done.

It is not uncommon for abusive partners to deride their victims as “weak.” They often act as if their own behavior is perfectly fair and reasonable (generally, I would argue, because they actually believe that!), and as if those whose lives they transform into living hells just don’t have the spine to handle the pressures inherent in a relationship.

None of us who are reasonable, decent human beings agree with them.

However, we often let our working environments get away with exactly the same thing — because, in short, as workers, we generally don’t have very much power.

This isn’t to say that everyone who feels that his or her job is too demanding is right. There are many very fine employers in the world who treat their employees with the full complement of human decency.

However, as culture, we have come to accept some pretty unreasonable demands — we have, in fact, allowed ourselves to enshrine them as virtues. The Protestant Work Ethic has run amok, and we’re all paying the price.

For example: many of us complain about unreasonably long work hours, but we also pride ourselves on working them — even when it has been demonstrated time and again that longer hours don’t equal greater productivity, and that humans fare better overall when they have more balanced lives. We tacitly or not-so-tacitly regard the ability to survive (note that I don’t say “thrive,” because most people frankly don’t thrive under such conditions) as a mark of honor.

Likewise, we enshrine busy-ness as if it was itself the pinnacle of productivity. It’s not. Mere busy-ness indicates nothing: anyone who has ever been handed a sheaf of genuine busywork knows that. Yes, someone who is in the middle of tackling a challenging project may, in fact, be very busy — but being busy doesn’t mean any of us are actually achieving anything. Nonetheless, we’ve so enshrined busy-ness that we now regard with suspicion our neighbors whose personal lives are quiet and calm and offer room for stillness and reflection. We’re supposed to be busy, aren’t we? Doesn’t being busy mean we’re “making it?”

Perhaps even worse, we don’t seem, as a culture, to discriminate between the inherent pressure of competition (which can be a formative force as long as it’s kept in balance) and the completely unnecessary pressure of poor sportsmanship. We regard ruthlessness as a virtue. It’s not: one can succeed in business without being a complete ass to one’s fellow man. Cutting throats and stabbing backs may, on the surface, appear to be a necessary component of doing business, but it’s not: and we shouldn’t make a virtue of it. When we do, we guarantee ourselves a life lived on high alert.

Even criticism — a normal part of any work environment; we all make mistakes and we all have to learn new skills — can and often does become a problem. Criticism is important and necessary; we all need to know what we’re doing wrong so we can fix it. It can, however, be delivered in human-friendly ways: and anyone who has ever been a student would probably agree that a teacher who snarls is less effective than one who guides.

This isn’t to say that the ability to live through all this stuff doesn’t reflect a degree of moral fortitude. Strength is still strength: but imagine how much more we could do if we didn’t waste so much of it just surviving, eh?

The problem of the open office is that it’s a busy-looking place wherein people tend merely to survive and are derided as “weak” if they find the conditions counterproductive (for what it’s worth, I think it might be possible to organize open-ish offices in a way that might work for human beings, but that’s a topic for another time). This problem is also the problem of our work culture as a whole: we are, too often, asked to survive in an environment that we wouldn’t tolerate for a second in any other relationship; we are derided as weaklings if we find it inhospitable to human life.

This doesn’t mean we should all be molly-coddled and packed in down all the time, of course. It simply means that, as a culture, we would do well to learn the difference between motivation and scare tactics; between busyness and productivity; between weakness and merely being human.

Come to think of it, these are problems of our society at large, aren’t they?

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/03/22, in life, work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. EXCELLENT! You are a fly upon the wall of many corporate firms. Your words resonated with me, as well they will with others. We’ve all been in the mixmaster, the office pretending to be productive, while it is obvious to all ‘that something is just not “working'” and so we plod along. We entertain the thought that things will improve, but then there is always a rebuttal. It comes generally at review time when we are asked, “What can XYZ Corp., do to make this company better?” Oftentimes it has felt as if the managers were handed a sheet of questions to ask. The ones where they expect little comeback. During the process we will list out specifics only to receive a pat answer. When we do stand and cross the line, peacefully offering up suggestions, we are praised for bringing something to ‘light.’

    I worked in the corporate world for years, on both sides of the coin. I’ve learned that middle management is caught in the twix of things. Often they feel and know to a great extent where the problems are, but are caught in the catch22 of a fix because higher management is one of two things, incompetent or uncaring. Sadly, that old mixmaster simply runs amok and the workplace drones drop like flies. We move forward, getting very serious about what we want, and even more important, what we need in an agency. We simply quit, moving on in hopes of a better environment.

    Again Ash, I admire your tenacity. You’re looking right into the center of the sphere and you aren’t wearing rose-colored shades. Good work!

    • You hit on a really important point, here (several of them, in fact!). I have to admit, I would really hate to be in middle-management. They get stuck taking crap from both sides and dealing out solutions that aren’t tenable for either side (which often isn’t their fault: they’re told, “You can spend this much,” and they have to do what they can with it).

      There are some people who really have a gift for making the best of that, and I admire them … but wow, even theirs is a tough and often thankless job. I don’t think I could do it (it’s one of those things: were I to find myself in that position, I’d make the best of it, but I think I’d be terrible at it and would implode in a matter of days).

      Very important insights, here. Thank you for your added perspective.

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