I have a dear friend, colleague and mentor who spent her whole life in the government and was sidelined for almost as many years.
The “funny” thing is, she’s a genius. And whenever they had a problem, they’d come to her.
“That’s alright,” she used to say, “I keep everything in Outlook.”
And she would reach in to one of her folders from five years back and retrieve exactly the thing they wanted to know about right now.
“I told them a long time ago this would come back to bite them,” she used to say. “But of course and as usual, they never wanted to hear.”
My friend is still around and I’ve urged her to write a book about her professional travels. I want her to tell you about the time they stuck an adult toy in the cubby of a high-ranking female executive, during that era (is it over?) when women were very rarely seen in the high ranks.
I want her to tell you about the boss, a woman (surely conscious of her stature), who “made up” for sexism with the words “we never close,” and who sequestered her in a hotel room for months away from her very young child because “these are sensitive negotiations and I can’t afford the risk of a leak.”
It would be better if you could hear from her mouth how she submitted an idea very practical in nature to the “suggestion box,” only to hear “we’ll get back to you, thanks,” and later to learn that a high school student was getting nationwide press for the exact same idea.
Yes, my friend put up with a lot.
“Back in the day, you had to go drinking after work with the guys,” she also told me. “Because if you didn’t, forget getting anything done from 9 to 5.”
My friend did what the system told her to. And by the grace of G-d, she was saved from one of those guys she had gone drinking with.
It was this friend who told me we could do incredible Tweets even before people knew how to use Tweet as a verb (i.e. they used to say “I’m Twittering.”)
9:00…9:15…10:30 a.m. and we could wait until the end of time to get a single “status update” approved.
“It’s a big game, Dannielle, you see?”
She was telling me how executives get recruited.
“They only get people who have something on them. That way they can keep them under control.”
I didn’t believe it. She must have been lying, or making something up.
But the comment did make me think.
We frequently read about suffering employees in the news. And the corresponding bullying bosses who – quite literally – throw their weight around.
“I told one of them that he should keep throwing things,” she said once. “Because the next time he did it, I’d be calling the cops.”
We hear about women, and men, who are sexually harassed and who keep their mouths sealed firmly shut.
Whistleblowers warned about the possible consequences to themselves and their families.
And “ordinary” talented people who just can’t seem to make it in the workplace, while sycophants and incompetents rise to rule the roost.
If any of the statistics are even remotely correct, most of the salaries paid and earned on any given day are a total waste of time – managers and employees alike are often, essentially, “checked out.”
And yet the workplace goes on and goes on. Don’t tell me that it’s the government because I’ve been around. In the public sector, private sector or academia, the same toxic dynamics.
What I believe, in my heart of hearts, is that the problem is not a lack of data. Data we have aplenty.
Nor is it a lack of will. I don’t say this to be a sycophant myself, but most people I know really are essentially good. They need to earn a paycheck, but they want to do a good job, and to make a positive difference in the process.
Here is where the problem comes in: a gigantic, complicated, massive superstructure of a social-economic system that beats them down every day. It’s all mixed together: work, education, relationships, caregiving, health, “the meaning of life,” church/synagogue/mosque/temple, getting the car fixed, shoveling snow, going shopping for food and you can’t find tomato sauce in Aisle 5…all of it is impossible.
Another friend said the other day, “I called customer service at the airline and they told me they’re not in the business of customer service, they’re in the business of transportation.”
And so dismantling any of this, especially the more problematic aspects, starts to seem impossible.
Almost like someone trying to re-architect the Empire State Building, beam by supporting beam.
I am here to tell you that the system can be changed.
It can be transformed.
It can be overcome.
We, together, can do it.
It isn’t a big deal. It’s not as daunting as it seems.
It doesn’t have to take exaggerated drama.
And it doesn’t require cruelty to those who are doing just fine in the toxic system, thank you.
All it takes is that collective “aha,” that single breakthrough moment. Not just by “the people in charge” but by the workforce, the community, as a whole.
We have to decide, together, that there are certain things we will and will not tolerate. Not for ourselves, and not for each other.
The day we decide to make the workplace better – by taking concrete steps to support and encourage one another in health – is the day all the pain is going to end.
And in the end, the people who seemed content to live in a broken castle will reveal themselves to be sorrowful at having been contained within its walls.
It’s time to build a better village.
All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by FromTheNorth via Flickr.