Achy breaky workplace

Alternatives to holding it all in

Fred Mael

Have you ever wondered about the enduring attraction of sad country music songs? Or why people get misty-eyed or feel empowered listening to Breakup Songs, Divorce Songs, and Jilted Love songs that have nothing to do with their own lives? The answer may move you to change how you manage your organization, especially as the year winds down.

No resolutions

People have messy lives. Looking for satisfying relationships, discarding and severing empty and hurtful ones, trying to help agitated offspring and aging and ailing relatives, and coping with legal problems, may all drag on for long periods of time. Sometimes the only saving grace is hope for resolution – an open conversation, a cathartic argument, or demanding and receiving an apology or restitution. Sometimes just being thanked for your sacrifices makes it possible to go on.

Not so in the workplace. Many are “no emotion” zones. As my colleague Blake Ashforth has written, it is “a convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action.” Anne Kreamer, in an April 2011 Time magazine essay, elaborates on this idea. “We’re still largely clueless about how to display and react to more commonplace emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety, so we handicap ourselves, trying to check our human side at the office door”.


Groupthink is a term coined by William Whyte in 1952 and later popularized by Yale research psychologist Irving Janis in 1971. The latter defined groupthink as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action”. In other words, pressure within a group to have everyone agree to a course of action (rather than having the minority agree to disagree) leads to stifling of any concerns about a course of action. The members of a decision group become so close (or awed by the leader) and so concerned about being “on board” that they stifle or suppress any qualms that the group’s decisions may be disastrous, illegal, or even harmful to other people.

In fact, in many organizations big and small, emotions run downhill, if at all. Employees who are publicly humiliated, screamed at, scapegoated for others’ failings, and teased continuously are supposed to put on frozen smiles – and be ready for some more. The more powerful the CEO, (and that can include elected officials, celebrities, and business owners), the more excuses are made for bullying behavior.

So people take it.. People put on their blank faces and it freezes other parts of them as well. They talk about feeling physically sick and personally devalued when coming to work. They lie when they stay (“it’s not so bad”) and they lie when they leave. In one study I did of one hundred former employees, everyone gave politically correct reasons for leaving at their exit interview: “personal reasons”, career changes, “opportunities”. When contacted six or more months later, safely ensconced in their new jobs, they gave their real reasons: Abusive, groping, vulgar, irrational, and nepotistic managers or coworkers. And by the way, don’t tell anyone they said that, so as not to burn their bridges…

And so they listen to these songs through which they can vicariously tell off someone who has betrayed their trust, used them, or stopped talking to them (while being their boss!), yet retains the leverage in any showdown. They dream of what it would be like to get it off their chest and maybe make things change – but it never happens.

A happier ending

The end of the year is coming, when many people try to be upbeat and in good cheer, even or especially in their workplaces. As CEO or leader, perhaps you will be holding parties or luncheons for your staff, or walking the halls a bit more. Will your efforts bring people together or just reemphasize the divisions? You can go the traditional route – take a few tables at a restaurant, sit at one end with your lieutenants, and let the rest sitting at the other end be grateful for a free meal. You can put together a fancy party and watch people naturally congregate with their preexisting cliques.

Or you could try to make things better by finding out what your employees need from you to make working in your company a better experience. Perhaps this year you will be able to mend a feud between managers, stop verbal harassment by certain staff, and convince some folks to make use of your “open door policy,” especially if work is less hectic. Perhaps you yourself will open a window to clear the air, make an overdue apology, have the tough talk with an instigator, or give someone the chance to redeem themselves.

Then your employees can sing an upbeat tune, instead of another gloomy country heartbreak song.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared in the December 2011 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine