As I See It: Censoring the Self
February 16, 2004 Victor Rozek
At a recent dinner party, I met a woman whose husband was a former CEO with a hospital management firm. Over cocktails, I asked her how he was adjusting to retirement. She didn’t have to think long about her answer: “He’s hurt and disappointed that the team of top management people he put together abandoned him after he left the company. One day everybody was friendly and solicitous; the next, it was almost as if he didn’t exist.”
Her husband apparently believed he had a different sort of relationship with his employees than one based on status and power. But in the end, when no one had any pragmatic or self-serving reason to be nice to him, they dropped the pretense. It’s not surprising that this is the case. What is surprising is that so many people in positions of power are seduced into believing that they are held in esteem because they’re such swell people, not because of their authority and influence on the lives of those beneath them.
Like medieval kings who bestowed wealth by conferring titles and personal fiefdoms in return for allegiance, top managers accept the devotion of their subordinates as their rightful entitlement. The reasoning seems to be, I’m at the top, so I must be deserving. Sort of like Dick Cheney’s now-famous justification for granting more tax cuts to the wealthy: We won; it’s our due.
What is typically down-played by those in positions of power, and left unspoken by those without it, is that top managers can also, with regal disdain and impunity, destroy a career at whim. That fact has behavior-shaping implications and is not lost on those seeking royal patronage. Being courteous and attentive to superiors becomes a tactical weapon for those engaged in the fight for corporate survival.
But the result is that only those at the top can afford the luxury of their authentic thoughts, wants, and feelings. Ironically, by the time they reach their exalted positions, many already have a long history of being guarded and strategic and may no longer even know how to act authentically. Meanwhile, those below the top management rungs learn to edit their authentic selves, lest they should offend, reveal their disagreements, or expose a vulnerability that could be used against them. In our current business model, the person above us is always a greater potential threat than a likely ally.
The impact of self censorship on teamwork, collaboration, and creativity can only be inferred because alternate models exist on a very limited basis. Authenticity has the best chance of emerging on projects that require a high level of collaborative creativity and where some degree of eccentricity is tolerated–such as software development or movie production. In the day-to-day conduct of business, however, the perceived need for self censorship spreads throughout the organization.
Indeed, in many ways it remains the dominant injunction of the modern workplace, little changed since the onset of industrialization: Do your job and mind your own business. As a particularly odious example of that axiom, it has been reported that, at WalMart, employees caught chatting with customers (and presumably each other) are docked for “time theft.” Apparently, low prices are thought to make friendliness superfluous, and employees can be punished simply for being authentically congenial.
As globalization begins to squeeze the middle class with the outsourcing of white-collar jobs, there is more pressure to go along in order to get along. In all of the companies recently racked with scandal, lots of people knew things were spinning out of control, but speaking to the facts was judged too risky. Those employees who were genuinely concerned had to weigh their personal integrity against financial security; and very few were in the position to value their authenticity enough to risk the loss of income. And when they looked to management for behavioral guidance, they found that those on top of the economic pyramid live by a very different set of rules yet have the power to enforce the rules the rest of us are required to live by. That spawns caution and resentment, and since the expression of resentment is not encouraged in the workplace, it goes underground and leaks out in unanticipated ways.
Sometimes it isn’t apparent until a CEO retires and wonders what happened to all of his “friends.”
At the very least, the lack of authenticity spawns illness and inefficiency. It’s paradoxical that humans, the creatures with the highest level of consciousness, are the only species capable of not being fully authentic. Animals have no choice in the matter, unless they interact with us and we beat it or breed it out of them in the name of domestication. Left alone, animals do not suffer from identity crises, nor do they need to self-medicate the anxieties of repeatedly suppressing their truth.
The practice of repressing the self has predictable results: rage, high blood pressure, addictions, and immune system disorders. (If you believe in the connection between body, mind, and spirit, it’s not surprising that the immune system would become stressed by the lack of internal congruence and eventually cease to function properly.) If the current cost of health care is any indication, the price paid by both employers and employees for lack of authenticity is significant.
Efficiency also becomes a casualty because so many people are involved in the ongoing, energy-draining project of covering their ass, both in the classic sense and as an effort to continuously hide their true selves. Stuffing feelings is particularly problematic because they come from the side of the brain where intuition and creativity reside. Shutting down that part of ourselves also closes off our access to much of our imagination and inventiveness. It’s one reason why we see so little “out of the box” thinking in the workplace, even though it is highly prized and loudly encouraged.
In an atmosphere of self-censorship, empowerment–another prized aspiration of modern business organizations–becomes impossible. You won’t find it on an employment application, and it won’t be discussed in an interview. No one will ever ask if you are willing to abdicate your responsibility to be fully present and speak your truth. They don’t need to. Workers willingly give their power away to management, managers give their power away to executives, executives defer to the CEO, the CEO feels disempowered by the demands of shareholders, and most of the shareholders don’t know or care what’s going on as long as their dividends stay high. Everyone colludes; no one is responsible. To this day, Ken Lay’s doleful defense is that he knew nothing about his company’s illegal activities. Essentially, he now sees himself as an unempowered victim. Not surprising in one sense. With such a long history of deceit, he probably hasn’t had an authentic moment in decades.
The self-evident fact is that behaviors we know to be unauthentic always require explanation or defense. When those behaviors have the potential to be part of the public record, we even have a cultural cliché for the strategy employed by offenders: plausible deniability.
Shakespeare defined censorship as “art made tongue-tied by authority.” If we think of each individual as a unique work of art in progress, Shakespeare’s definition applies splendidly to self-censorship in the workplace.
As the dinner party was breaking up, I asked the woman married to the retired CEO why, if he missed his former colleagues, didn’t he simply call and invite them over for a meal? She paused on that one. “I think he’s embarrassed,” she said. And there, in that simple observation, was the key to all of the self-censorship that’s so rampant in the workplace.
Who has the courage to be authentic first?