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Work is so important. For most of us, it takes up the best hours of the great majority of our days. And most everything else gets organized around it.

When it comes to Radical Decency – being habitually decent to our selves, others, and the world – this is a big problem. Why? Because, at work, the culture’s predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – are typically rehearsed with unrestrained virulence. And there it sits, at the center of our lives, a constant impediment to our ability to give ourselves over to more decent ways of living.

While no one is exempt from this unforgiving equation, it is, without question, much tougher on people with salaried and hourly jobs. In this blog, I address the special challenges these people face and offer a number of strategies to deal with them.

The problem for salaried and hourly workers begins with the most basic notions of freedom. While we seldom think of it in this way, they are, effectively, indentured servants. They work from 9 to 5 – or longer if the boss demands it – get an hour for lunch, 2 vacation weeks, and “x” number of sick days. That’s it. No choice.

Compounding the situation is the highly authoritarian nature of the organizations for which they work. In the workplace, supervisors have enormous control over workers’ lives. And so long as they are making money for the company and are not causing problems for their bosses, their power is virtually unchecked.

There was a time when workers had the ability to fight back. But over the last few decades, the laws protecting workers’ rights have steadily eroded. Today, most unions and human resource departments – if they exist at all – are paper tigers, with little or no power to enforce effective solutions. Too often, the net effect of raising a grievance is this: No relief, plus the animus of your boss. The result? Most workers suffer in silence.

What follows is a discussion of key initiatives that individual workers can take, based on principles of Radical Decency, to deal with these realities. Doing so, note importantly that the interpersonal approaches I discuss are only one piece of the puzzle. A true transformation of the workplace will also require initiatives that allow workers to collectively assert their rights more effectively.

As Philip Lichtenberg explains in Encountering Bigotry (1997, 2002), the characteristic dynamic in an authoritarian relationship is for the dominant party to project his anxiety, frustrations, etc. onto the subordinate. So, for example, the boss – getting ready for a meeting – barks at his assistant, “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.

The key to creating a different and better interpersonal environment at work is to consistently act in ways that subvert this dynamic.

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But this is no easy task. Authoritarian interactions are deeply intertwined with our fight or flight brain, and that part of our brain is highly infectious. The uncomfortable truth is that we are biologically wired to respond to a bullying boss with anger (fight) or sullen silence (flight), behaviors that only encourage a further round of bullying by the boss.

The starting place, if we hope to undo this pattern, is to consistently cultivate mutual and authentic contact – the antithesis of the workplace’s fight or flight mindset. Dealing with the substance of the boss’ “requests” calmly, and with curiosity and respect, we put ourselves in the best possible position to interrupt and subvert the biologically engrained rhythm of reaction/counter-reaction that fight or flight sets up.

Unfortunately, this is no magic pill. Even when we fully commit ourselves to this approach, we cannot expect a magical transformation. Consistently applied, however, it offers the best hope for turning you into “that” person in the office who, inexplicably, is spared the boss’ most unpleasant excesses.

It is also important to note that, as challenging as this step is, it is only step one in the process. Fully transforming your relationship with the boss into one based on trust, ease and shared respect requires mutuality. In other words, you need to work toward an environment where you can express your legitimate needs and desires as well.

Meaningful progress toward this second goal is a tricky and uncertain proposition. It is likely to depend on your ability to establish yourself as a competent and valued employee and, therefore, as someone whose needs matter. It is also greatly facilitated by success in implementing step one: By your boss’ growing perception of you as an empowered listener.

Even with all of this in place, however, the only way to get reciprocal respect from your boss is to ask for it. At some point, you need to say: I need “x” to do my job more effectively – or, I am not getting the support I need from your executive assistant – or, I need to take Thursday afternoon off to attend to a personal matter.

In asking, you need to be clear and assertive. If your request is equivocal, the boss, steeped in authoritarian entitlement, is likely to ignore it. And, having established a new ground rule, act on it. If you continually make exceptions – to please the boss or out of fear irritating him – you can be sure that his commitment to it will recede as well.

A final note: The strategies I describe operate in a deeply authoritarian environment. Even if they are employed with impeccable discretion and judgment, nothing may change. But that does not mean the effort shouldn’t be made. Without regard to their ultimate effectiveness, always remember this: More decent choices grow the best part of our humanity and are, therefore, their own reward.

Jeff Garson is a Philadelphia-based attorney, psychotherapist, and activist. A principal at the Decency Group, offering collaborative, values-based consulting to individuals and businesses, he writes extensively about Radical Decency, an inclusive approach to change. You can contact him at wjgarson@comcast.net or www.radicaldecency.com.

 


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