Today I’ve decided to tackle a different subject. Why? Because once again, just this week, I’ve been horrified by the sociopathic behaviour of a corporation towards one of my dearest friends. This friend of mine, I’ll call him Jack, is a hugely talented, dedicated professional who has worked all his life in the people industry. He is a Managing Director, and has the most incredible people-skills. Teams who work with him – even those who may have been somewhat disparate before his arrival – will galvanize together and with him to deliver outstanding results. He is, in my opinion, a superstar who genuinely cares for people and who gives his all to his employers. He’s always been that way. Oh – his input also ensures that his teams win countless national awards for their efforts.
Pretty good credentials eh, wouldn’t you think? Well, I would. And so would his team. And so does just about everybody who knows him – he has an incredible reputation, is well-liked, and fantastic at what he does, because he loves what he does. His most recent employer is a massive and well-respected organization who list among their values “honesty, integrity, courage and fairness”. Yes, they are big words. But those big words can be found in so many typically cheesy mission statements that are stuck up on so many walls of global businesses – and ignored. Jack and I are no strangers to corporate-speak. We’ve both played in the professional arena for most of our lives and have experienced many kinds of corporate animal along the way.
“But you know what, Mel?” he’d enthused at the beginning of last year “This is such a refreshing difference, because this company actually means what they say. They’re true to their values, and I’m really glad to be here!”
But… and it’s a huge but… his faith was mis-guided because, these values on which my dear friend and so many others had hung their hats, turned out to be nothing more than pathological lies.
“Oh, come along now Mel, isn’t that a bit harsh?” Yes, some people may well say that. And the thing is, it’s because so many people continue with that line whenever corporations behave badly towards their employees (and suppliers, and customers, and so many human beings who are touched by their actions) that they continue to get away with what I now term text-book corporate sociopathic behaviour.
“It’s a dog eat dog world out there!” “It’s not personal, it’s just business!” “Well, you’ve got to be tough to survive in this industry!” Those are typical examples of the excuses for poor behaviour that I hear time and time again during my professional career as a leadership and team development specialist. And it concerns me that it’s deemed “ok” to treat people in the business world in a completely different fashion from the “real” world. It’s “ok” to squeeze every last drop of loyalty from employees. It’s “ok” to promise great rewards, and then cull people at the whim of a new board executive who “didn’t like somebody’s face”
In business, human beings often become faceless numbers – and ambitious, hard-hitting leaders can get away with being ruthless manipulators. “The bottom line is king!” is a mantra that seems to excuse what I would deem inhuman behaviour towards the lifeblood of the organization – the human beings who make it happen. Figures, statistics and profit have taken over – yes, I realize, of course, that these elements are what make the wheels of industry turn. Don’t worry, I’m not turning in to some flakey hippy-type, burning josticks and spouting free-love and peace to all (well, not yet in any case!). I am a successful businesswoman myself. Of course I work to create money – that’s why I’m in business! But… and here’s the important difference… I know that my business depends on the people within it. My team. My clients. My suppliers. We have a simple mission statement “To create raving fans”. And that’s what we do. And in order to do that, we therefore have to be honest courageous, fair – and whatever other number of values Jack’s employers spouted as their guiding values. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Jack’s employers, however, like so many other companies I have come across in my time, have proven themselves as little more than conmen who will manipulate the truth, believing themselves to be above the law, and turning on the very people who have upheld their banner for them – showing no remorse and no empathy. Hmmm… does this ring any bells here?
Fine, some may suggest that I’m merely jumping on the sociopathic bandwagon to make a point. Others may say that I will spot psychopaths everywhere since I now know what to look out for. I say that my personal experience has now simply allowed me to pinpoint more clearly where those sociopathic tendencies are showing themselves within an organization. Whether it’s seeped in to the culture, whether it’s led and encouraged by the board, or whether it’s just the specific behaviour of an individual. How far it may have spread, and what steps can be taken to counter it. And, trust me – these behaviours can be so hard to spot, and can lull so many wide-eyed and loyal employees in to a false sense of security, that by the time they realise what’s happening it’s too late. Another all-too familiar story perhaps…?
Is it really right that people should come in to work and behave completely differently as human beings? There is an advert on British TV at the moment, asking why we behave aggressively when we’re driving cars, if we wouldn’t behave that way walking down a crowded street? It conveys its message in an amusing and clever way. And to me, it’s exactly the same thing in business. For many years (way before I knew anything about sociopathy!) I have been banging on about the dangers of what I call “corporate double-speak” – the business-babble language that seems to exist purely in the business world. Why say, for example, “we must secure more resources” when what they mean is “I could do with some more people”…? In my mind, that kind of distancing terminology at the very least merely serve to depersonalize, and in the worst cases desensitizes to the point where we forget we are dealing with human beings. Real people who have real feelings and real lives! It’s clever and it’s subtle – but it’s brainwashing.
Control and Manipulation
Let me ask this in another way. How ‘just’ do you think it is that a company hires a highly respected and experienced people-manager on the promise of long employment and great rewards? That the same company encourages this manager to go out on a limb and “do things differently” in order to get the job done? And that at the flick of a switch, that same company then tells the manager (who has succeeded in achieving the impossible, through dedication, devotion, and putting years of valuable experience in to play) that they have decided on an organisational re-structure and that his role is no longer valid? Fair enough, you may say, business changes. Of course it does. I agree. But what I don’t agree with was the fact that this manager was then accompanied off the premises like a criminal, but wasn’t allowed to say anything to his team. In fact, he wasn’t given any further information – nor was he allowed to share his news or voice his fears to anyone else within the company. He was forbidden to answer calls and emails from his concerned staff. He was given no opportunity to ask for detailed explanations (“your case will be discussed at next week’s meeting – not before”). He was isolated in every sense of the word. Or, as another person put it, was treated to “Mushroom Management”… kept in the dark and fed on shit.
Now, I’d call that kind of behaviour abusive – wouldn’t you?
This treatment went on for over three weeks – can you imagine how his team must have been feeling, deserted by a boss they respect and admire? Are they really going to be willing or able to give their heart and soul again in the future – once bitten twice shy and all that. On top of that, does this kind of short-sighted decision-making really take in to account the long-term health of the company? Surely this is just another example of impulsive behaviour, and a failure to accept responsibility for such actions – you can bet your bottom dollar my friend will be paraded as the scapegoat, while ‘those at the top’ continue to twist and turn their decisions, re-defining the goal-posts whenever boredom strikes again? Leaving the teams to wonder “what did I do wrong? Is it going to be me next” and forcing people to keep their heads down and walk gingerly over the scattered eggshells.
Does this sound familiar…?
At the end of the three weeks, by the way, this particular “values-driven” company went back on what they had promised in the first meeting, ultimately implying that my friend is a liar.
“There’s nothing we can do” said my friend’s solicitor “There were two of them in the meeting and one of you. It’s their word against yours.”
He is finally out of there, with a pretty measly pay-off, having been forced to sign a legal contract promising that he will never say anything derogatory about the company or about his treatment at their hands. His team, however, still have to wait another few days to be told the truth.
Corporate sociopathy to a tee, wouldn’t you agree? There are so many more examples, and I’m only just starting to get my teeth in to this massively unexplored area. So the business world had better watch out, because as you know, I’m not one to stay quiet.