My Dutch Pal Erno Mijland asks a very interesting question:
Last week I watched the film Our Daily Bread which is a documentary on how food is produced in Europe. It shows an industry in which there’s not a lot of respect for plants and animals: lots of poison, young chickens being thrown around, pigs transported in small boxes etc. etc.
Because I was a bit prepared these images didn’t shock me very much. What did shock me, were the scenes in which the workers in this industry where shown. People showing no emotion whatsoever in what they where doing, big automated halls where a worker works (and lunches) alone, people doing mind torturing repetitive work all day long.
It made me wonder: who could possibly be happy at work in these kind of conditions?
What a great question. The easy answer would be “No one. No one can be happy under these conditions.” But the truth is a little more complicated.
If you haven’t seen Our Daily Bread and you’re not squeamish, you can see a short clip from the movie here:
Interestingly, I’m currently reading a book called Gig, which simply consists of interviews with working Americans. I just read about the HR manager in a slaughterhouse, who talks about the same issue:
Last month, I hired eighty-five people and ninety-two left. That’s not uncommon. We’re bleeding people. I hire them and they leave… Some people will quit fifteen minutes after they get on the floor because it is so ugly to them.
The interview also has some graphic descriptions of employees walking around in a couple of inches of cow blood… No wonder so many people quit!
But this is not just about killing cows. Could you be happy working for a company that makes land mines? Or a company that pollutes the environment? Or a tobacco company? Or working for Microsoft? Just kidding!
The larger question is this: Can you be happy at work if you deeply believe that your workplace ultimately makes the world a worse place?
Here are some factors to take into account:
1: Mismatch between personal and company values is a huge stress factor
When your job goes against your personal values, you’re in a very difficult situation. This means, that on a daily basis you are doing things that you can’t defend to yourself.
This causes what we might call values stress – a feeling of stress that comes from a conflict of values. This can be every bit as serious and damaging as the old garden-variety stress that comes from being busy.
Even if you’re not actually making the land mines – let’s say you’re just the receptionist – this may weigh heavily on you. Every single day.
2: You can temporarily ignore this mismatch
However, you can keep yourself from dealing with this stress factor simply by ignoring it. The human mind has a fantastic ability to shut things out and adapt. If you so choose, you can simply keep yourself from realizing that this is bad.
You can focus on the good aspects on your job, have fun with nice co-workers, and even still take pleasure from doing your job well.
A lot of people certainly do this for a while, particularly when they really need the salary. But while it can enable you to be happy at work for a time, it is not a good long term strategy.
Even CEOs are not immune to this temporary blindness. Here, Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface the world’s largest manufacturer of carpets, explains how he suddenly realized that his company was bad for the environment:
…it dawned on me that they way I’d been running Interface is the way of the plunderer. Plundering something that is not mine, something that belongs to every creature on earth.
And I said to myself “My goodness, a day must come where this is illegal, where plundering is not allowed. I mean, it must come.”
So I said to myself “My goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail.”
The good news is that he made this realization and that he was in a position to act on it and make Interface environmentally responsible. If you’re an employee of an evil workplace, your main option is probably to get out of Dodge and find another job you can be proud of.
3: The higher your investment in the company, the easier it is to blind yourself
And I’m not just talking stocks. You can invest money, but also time and identity in your work.
The more you have invested already, the harder it will be for you to realize that things are just plain wrong. This specifically means that the longer you stay, the harder it gets to leave.
4: Being part of a bad system changes your perception
And more than anything, the system you exist in can shape your perception. If everyone around you acts like “hey, spending your day knee-deep in cow guts is perfectly normal” or “sure it’s OK to cheat about the company finances – everybody does it” then you’re more likely to think so too.
The Milgram experiment may be the most chilling reminder of this effect. In it, subjects were lead to believe that they were part of a study in learning that required them to give another test subject electrical shocks. In reality the other person was an actor and no shocks were given.
The study showed that 65% of the subjects continued administering ever more powerful electrical shocks – even though the actor was screaming in pain and later on pretended to pass out. The subjects were never pressured – if they protested they were simply told in a calm voice that “The experiment requires that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.”
Here’s part of Milgram’s chilling conclusion:
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
So when people in authority tell us to do something that we know is wrong, when the entire system just acts as if unethical, damaging behavior is just business as usual, many of us are powerless to resist. You may think that YOU are exempt from this, but in reality we’re all subject to this effect.
This is part of the reason that the Enron scandal could go on for as long as it did, even though many people inside the company ought to have known that something was rotten: everyone acted like everything was fine. As in “The company requires that you continue.”
Ultimately, it may even explain something like Abu Ghraib.
What’s your take?
Have you ever held a job in a horrible business? What did it do to you and your happiness at work?