While businesses built on impersonal left brained frameworks of separation, scarcity and inauthenticity feel like the modern-day norm, they’re leaning—ever-more structurally unstable—as their foundational human element is fast crumbling under their weight.
Business as usual = framework for failure
The first sign you’re in a business as usual culture? You wake up stiff.
Then, at work you begin to notice your own or others’ “tightly-crossed arms and legs, taut facial muscles, and locked jaws,” reflecting a defensive attitude. “They walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and drink copious amounts of coffee just to keep going,” writes Barbara Killinger Ph.D. and author of “The Workaholics“ on Psychology Today.
These are the first individual and cultural signs of separation, or “the trance of unworthiness” as Tara Brach, Ph.D. refers to it in her clinical psychology and mindfulness work on radical self acceptance. It begins with a literal separation from the body, the self, through movements and structural postures that show physical stress and contraction. It exudes more subtly and insidiously as separation from coworkers through the defensive, competitive and inflexible attitude it begins to physically embody—giving off those exact nonverbal cues to others. Signals to others to hurry up or be left behind, not waste my time, push through at the expense of personal discomfort, or even at the expense of my teammates’ wellbeing.
What these body signals are really expressing is an attempt to protect oneself from the onslaught of continual self betrayal. Protect. Control. Hold your ground. Hold on tight so you don’t fall down or get run over by the competition.
Lifestyle let down
You remember reading the line “promotes work/life balance” under the list of cultural benefits of your organization, but what you see and experience daily is in stark contrast. Somehow the “flexible work schedule” didn’t translate to your manager’s style, or your particular team, project or role.
In a grasping attempt at dealing with the physical, mental and emotional stress caused by one’s work environment, work relationships, and perceived work responsibilities, boundaries wear thin, becoming permeable. Like a leaky gut, the healthy separations between focused work time and personal time begin to bleed into one another, causing a whole slew of undigested materials to ooze out, eventually impacting the whole system’s function.
Suddenly, lifestyle choices that are self-harmful become normalized: from the postural impacts discussed above to inattentive dietary choices, managing energy levels through subtle substance abuse, and environmental enslavement.
The quality of meals regresses. In an attempt to control waning energy levels while choked for time, food choices turn away nourishment and focus their addictive attention on what will have the quickest impact in the moment: caffeine highs for focus, sugar highs for sociability, alcoholic sedation of an overstressed nervous system, laboratory-flavored refined fats, salts and over-processed non-foods that are quick-to-prep and flavorfully formulated to mask the lack of … well, actual food in them. Nourishment suffers. Over time, meals are missed entirely.
Lack of “effective workplaces designed to enable collaboration without sacrificing employees’ ability to focus” (2013 study Gensler’s Workplace Index) and inconsistent opportunities to find a focused workspace or opt to work from home further fragment worker attention.
Overall, self care becomes marginalized in this type of business as usual culture. Eventually permeable boundaries combine with ill health, waning energy levels and fragmented focus to create a crash-and-burn-out cocktail that leads some to either emotionally, mentally or physically collapse under the weight.
In a 2000 survey by Integra workers reported that:
- 62% routinely find that they end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% reported stressed-out eyes, 38% complained of hurting hands and 34% reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out
- 12% had called in sick because of job stress
- Over half said they often spend 12-hour days on work related duties and an equal number frequently skip lunch because of the stress of job demands
And The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported the following on job stress’s relation to mental and physical burnout:
- 26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work”
- Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems
These are sure signs of grasping, which rely on “strain, push and worry as our only hope to avert disaster,” writes Victoria Castle in her book “The Trance of Scarcity.”
Business as usual head games
“Out-of-touch with their body because the obsessional left brain Thinking function is dominant and their right brain Feeling function is repressed,” what she terms as workaholics “remain unaware of the increase in the amount of adrenalin that is being pumped into their body,” writes Killinger, author of “The Workaholic Breakdown – The Loss of Health“. Killinger, who specializes her therapy practice on Workaholism, refers to those with this behavior as “the respectable addicts.”
In this sort of physical and mental environment, the appearance of busyness suddenly becomes an office-wide badge of honor or, as Silvia Bellezza, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, and co-author of the research paper “Conspicuous Consumption of Time” puts it: busyness and lack of leisure time have become a status symbol. Meanwhile, a lack of presence in group meetings, with others, and operating from a constant “state-of-emergency” are further culturally normalized.
You’ve likely done it yourself in the past, or watched co-workers do it time and again. When prompted to engage in a conversation at work that could potentially deepen the relationship or connection between two co-workers the response is something like, “Things are good, just buried in work.” End connection.
“Employees over age 35 are twice as likely to be unhappy at work as millennials,” says Bloomberg, from a survey by Happiness Works/Robert Half UK. The key ingredients for employee happiness, from the same survey, turned out to be (in ranking order of highest to lowest importance, with only eight percentage points between the top and bottom ranked ingredients): pride, fairness and respect, feeling appreciated, accomplishment and freedom.
In contrast to the qualities that make employees happy, you may notice some of your office conversations are based only in complaints. Or, even a sense of unconscious mental and emotional “dumping” as co-workers caught up in ceaselessly busy emergency-management grasp for ground and validation with others that they are okay. The only way they can imagine to rid themselves of the incessant pressure dumped upon them being to dump piles of it all around themselves on whoever else will listen.
In group meetings people show up late, trickling in. Most are on their phones or laptops. Some proud to feel important, valued, yet appearing frazzled, distractedly entering and exiting to address emergency clients or deadlines. Some hungry but haven’t eaten. Some, never even show up— lost, hiding and overwhelmed somewhere in the office. Very few who are physically present in the meeting room even look one another in the eye. Instead, the group appears as talking heads with dilated pupils focused intently on glowing screens.
In a business as usual culture, “self-centeredness replaces empathy, and intolerance destroys compassion.” One “neglects or refuses to acknowledge the rights and dignity of others. Trust and respect are pillared as a hurry-hurry, rush-rush attitude leaves little time for working things out together and solving unfinished problems, or even gaining insight into another’s needs and wishes,” explains Killinger in her article on the workaholic culture and the loss of empathy and compassion.
A former colleague recently shared her insecurities about managing a new client project she’d been placed on. Her attempts at communication with the new project lead weren’t getting her anywhere, and so she and the team felt both gagged and frozen, for fear they may misspeak on any false promises made to the client. The project schedule and approach seemed both unclear and completely unrealistic given the timeline and, especially given, that the company had positioned itself as an expert to their client on a tool they hadn’t yet used.
So the relationship was initiated on a lie, I observed internally, and then asked my colleague aloud, “What happens when you begin a new relationship on a lie?”
And almost every internet-searchable relationship article or study seems to agree that building trust—the opposite of a lie—is the foundational element of cultivating healthy relationship. In therapies that deeply study relationship, like Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy, or Hakomi method, great emphasis is placed on building relationship with self and other. The two foundational ingredients of building relationship: to embody a state of loving presence and to relate to one another from a place of mindfulness. Hakomi method takes it a step further, using trust-building communication techniques like tracking, noticing the present felt experience of another, and making contact, acknowledging that present felt sense, as the basis for creating that trust relationship gently, over time.
Trust is also one of the two pillars that make up the “weight bearing walls” of the Sound Relationship House, a concept from The Gottman Institute’s approach to relationship development. “Trust forms the basis for the overall stability of a relationship,” writes Certified Gottman Therapist, Zach Brittle, LMHC.
The Taoist view, a heavy influencer of Hakomi method, “differentiates between “authentic” and “oppressive” structures in relationships and within the self,” explains Cynthia Jaffe in her article on transcending duality in relationship. “In an oppressive structure we perceive ourselves as being controlled externally. In an authentic structure we may more easily perceive ourselves as being controlled internally.”
“In a very short time, loving presence can establish … a sense of being safe, cared for, heard, and understood.”
– Ron Kurtz, founder of the Hakomi Institute, from “Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice”
So, why doesn’t bypassing the trust-building part work in establishing business relationships?
“Building trust is the foundation of every peace negotiation, every business collaboration and every truly meaningful endeavour,” writes Margie Warrell, Forbes contributor, author and women’s leadership coach in her Forbes article “How To Build High-Trust Relationships.”
“… without trust, influence wanes, intimacy erodes, relationships crumble, careers derail, organizations fail to prosper (and ultimately, also crumble) and, in short, nothing much works. Wherever trust is missing, opportunity is lost. Opportunity to collaborate, exert influence, deepen intimacy, build understanding, resolve conflict, expand peace and succeed at the very things that matter most—individually and collectively.”
Office fiefdom v. freedom
This deeply ingrained trust breakdown erodes away the very foundations of organizations operating from a business as usual mindset. Erosion often takes the form of underprepared managers who use scare tactics to mobilize teams into emergency response.
Rather than setting realistic boundaries with clients and customers, allowing the necessary time to provide estimates of effort, realistic cost or deliver appropriate services or products, rulers of office fiefdoms rule from a place of deep distrust—of their own intentions, their team’s and their client’s intentions. As a result, teams are “always on” as an expectation of boundarylessness rolls downhill from group manager, to team manager to worker and gets spread around the team with looks of apology and words of “no choice. They need it now.”
These same middle managers, insecure and often inexperienced in group behavior dynamics, yet imagining they should appear as if they know it all, force individuals and entire teams to use outdated tools, follow inefficient processes or commute into offices—against the flow of traffic, time and the energy levels of their employees—in an attempt to feel a sense of control of the output for which they imagine they’re responsible.
“Leaders who cannot trust themselves enough to hire people they can trust will always revert to power and control mechanisms, including forcing people to drive a car or take a train to work every day so that their supervisors can keep an eye on them,” explains Liz Ryan, Forbes contributing writer and author of “Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve.”
Research tells us implicitly that these micro-managing control tactics don’t work, and have serious impacts to an employee’s internal emotional and mental health, and their creativity and productivity.
Hundreds of employees across companies kept daily journals that a Harvard professor and a psychologist poured over—twelve thousand diary entries in total. What they found is that insecure micro-management “stifles creativity and productivity in the long run.”
“When people lack the autonomy, information, and expert help they need to make progress, their thoughts, feelings, and drives take a downward turn—resulting in pedestrian ideas and lackluster output,” writes the researchers, who later summarized their findings in a co-authored book, “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.”
“Managers panic when they see performance lagging, which leads them to hover over subordinates’ shoulders even more intrusively and criticize them even more harshly—which engenders even worse inner work life.”
This endless, painful looping is a tell-tale sign that a middle manager is operating from a belief of scarcity—or as Castle, “Trance of Scarcity” author defines it: “the unexamined predisposition that lack, struggle, and separation are our defining reality.”
Comparatively, 12 years of research on investment bankers done by University of Pennsylvania Professor, Alexandra Michel, showed that the simple offer of autonomy—in the form of management giving employees control over their own work schedule—increased not only motivation, but also productivity and quality.
A lost pause
Is this feeling familiar?
What can employees of business as usual companies, or leaders of companies with a business as usual mindset do? And, why should they even do anything?
“… the most effective way to start is to pause. With a machine, hitting the pause button stops the action. But if you’re a human being, that’s when you start. You pause to make sense of your situation and to reconnect with your deepest beliefs.” writes Dov Seidman, author of “HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything.”
“For business leaders, you pause to consider the fundamental issues that led your company down its current path and to its present challenges. Building trust is not just a matter of practices and policies. It requires getting in touch with your humanity. And when a business leader takes the necessary steps to do that, such behavior can be broadcast as an example for the entire organization to emulate,” explains Seidman, who’s been named as one of the “Top 60 Global Thinkers of the Last Decade” by “The Economic Times.”
And when you take this pause, this deeper breathe, what happens? In the moment you pause, you’re allowing the mind, the emotions, the body’s nervous system to rest. You’re offering yourself a momentary space of nourishment in which different bodily sensations can be noticed, different emotions witnessed and, ultimately, different mental-emotional possibilities considered.
Because why? Because “we (and potentially everyone) are in the people business,” explains Chairman and CEO, David K. Williams. No matter if you sell a service or a product or a way of living. Trusting relationships are the most valuable business commodity, Williams emphasizes, they are non-negotiable qualities of a healthy organization.
Trusting the truth
“To rebuild the trustworthiness and reputation of your business, you must trust people with the truth, engage in candid conversations about critical issues, and recognize the capacity people have for doing the right thing,” posits Seidman.
To some, this may sound daunting. Scary even. For companies operating from a business as usual mindset it can feel impossible. How do you practice trusting others with the truth when the organizational culture is built around inauthenticity? (Which looks like employees, managers and leaders who are closely “managing experience” so the truth gets buried under what everyone has silently agreed is culturally acceptable to share, do or be?)
It still starts inside the pause.
The pause is a moment of building trust with yourself, first. Even when the pressure feels overwhelming, this tiny pause to rest, to acknowledge your own experience can offer you the opportunity to open up to entirely new possibilities. Possibilities which can translate into new actions, new perspectives, approaches and habitual behaviors.
What’s there in that pause can be so simple and at the same time some of the richest awareness you’ve encountered of the landscape inside of you. This mindful moment you’re allowing yourself may show up as an awareness of blankness, body tensions or discomforts, as images, memories, words or even full messages. Gently take note of what comes up for you during this mindful pause.
When was the last time you paused amidst the overwhelm of your work day? Or, do you have pauses already built into your day, and what do those look like? Tell us about how you pause (or don’t) in the comments below.
Need to practice your pause?
Want to work together with someone who can hold what comes up for you in your pause? Want guidance on getting familiar with your relationship with you? Schedule time for a Consultation or a ReConnection™ session with me.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carolyn Elder is a published writer and digital project manager who’s been writing and consulting for a decade with nonprofits and conscious businesses, digital agencies, and fortune 50s to 500s in the Top 50 list.
Beginning in 2011, she invested more deeply in her own mindfulness practice and education as a Sahaja yoga/meditation guide and two-time apprentice of spiritual teacher and humanitarian, Vanessa Stone. Carolyn is an Ayurvedic Kitchen Sadhana Consultant, having completed training in 2018 under her teacher, Maya Tiwari. Maya served for two decades as a Vedic monk belonging to India’s prestigious Veda Vyasa lineage, and is founder of Wise Earth School of Ayurveda.
Founder of Conscious Content, a mindfulness movement for business that serves the greater collective good, her intention is to bring ancient mindfulness technology first to individuals, and then their teams and organizations to connect them more authentically with themselves, one another, and their tribe.
Conscious Content’s guiding inquiry is: what would business look like if work became our sadhana—our personal growth practice?