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In It But Not of It: The Art of Detachment at Work

Christians routinely say they are in this world but not of it. Zen Buddhists talk of the art of detachment, of not being attached to any particular outcome. I'll have to learn to embrace both of these notions in my work life, at least for a while.

I thought American workplaces had advanced beyond the rigid hierarchical practice of emotionally flogging and demeaning your subordinates and publicly criticizing your predecessors as incompetent just because you can. What was I thinking? Clearly they haven't, and my workplace has, in the last five months, joined this race to the workplace morale bottom, so much so that there's a race to the exits among those who can retire.

After speaking up to my immediate superior in what I can see now were far too polite exchanges, I finally had it and escalated my complaints up to the next level in concert with a few of my colleagues. I knew that by speaking up and speaking against someone higher in the hierarchy, I was going to have a proverbial target on my back. But who better? I'm civil service, I'm an attorney, I'm union, I'm good at what I do, and I rarely insert myself in personnel issues. And I was prepared, by no other than Black Man Not Blogging (BMNB).

"You know you're going to have a target on your back, right?", he said.

"Yep," I replied.

BMNB, who spends way too much time reading "The Art of War" and watching The Military Channel, put it this way: "Sounds like the person you're speaking up against has been successful because the person has been able to pick off each of the employees who've complained, not unlike a sniper. Give the person so many targets that no one target can be easily picked off. Get some allies."

Good advice. I did. But I still have a target on my back. It's just that I now have company.

The other good piece of advice BMNB gave me? "You know that once you start this, it will consume a lot of your energy at work."

"Yep," I replied.

But I've decided otherwise. I can't allow it to. I have too many other important things to do in my life than to try to fix the workplace moral compass of my superiors, who would much prefer to duck their heads and pretend not to see how one of their colleagues overworks and demeans the rank and file employees. The workplace hasn't changed. They have.

And so must I.

I'm the kind of employee who brings in cakes and pies on the fly, decorates shared work spaces, and makes sure the admins get a joint Christmas gift from the attorneys. I'm the kind of employee who takes up a collection for donations in the names of departed relatives of co-workers, who makes sure the sympathy cards get signed. I'm the kind of employee who buys ground Peets coffee for work, puts on two pots -- regular and decaf -- of coffee every morning for myself and my co-workers, and cleans the pots before I catch my bus home or drive home with BMNB.

But no more. I can no longer care about the quality of life in my workplace because I don't have the power to change it, and continuing to fight to maintain it will only consume me. I have too many other important things to do in my life than to have my energy consumed by a fight I know I can't win. All the good I do doesn't matter because it can't overcome the evil perpetrated and tolerated by the higher-ups. I refuse to continue to put lipstick on this pig of a workplace.

I am officially in, but not of, my workplace. Color me detached, not unlike many other American workers.

That is, until I create my own workplace.

Oh, and the last piece of advice I received from BMNB after I spoke up?

"You know you're toast, right?"

"Yep," I replied.


Kirk said…

I liked the comments by BMNB, kind of like a divide-and-conquer approach. This is the standard operating procedure for managers at least in the American workforce. Managers have one-on-ones with employees, not to necessarily make the workplace or environment for the employee better, but to rather get "inside information" from each employee that that manager can later use to his advantage. I guess he picks them off one-by-one, kind of like a sniper.

WMB had to unfortuntely (or more like fortunately) give up his high tech career because of health reasons. You'd think that it wouldn't take 15 doctors 8+ years to figure out that someone has arthritis, but you'd figure wrong. Well, suffice it to say if you don't treat it early enough then all hell breaks loose. Lucky for Phil Michelson they got it right on him very early.

But after working in tech for quite a while, I realized this: American managers don't care about building anything good. They are trained to get in, get their stock options, stomp on employees as much as necessary, cash out those same stock options, and get out so they can retire early and laugh at others that still have to work. And employees work against each other - not with - because they believe that it might give them a slight tactical edge for the short-to-medium term. Bad mistake. (I understand the need for unions as I have been in them in the past, even though they do have issues. Unions will get very mad if you undermine other union members.)

One thing I've learned in life: people never change. They have always been "evil" and they always will stay "evil." Not much that can be done about that.

Anonymous said…
I was trying to find an article or advice on the art of detachment for my workplace because I am sick and tired of being the one picked on for during my job and being damn good at it. However the past 3 jobs have taught me not to really trust people and let them know 1/3 about myself. I came across this and realize this was me. From one black woman to another, thanks for the advice and the heads up......being in business for myself is sounding more and more of a wonderful idea to me each day I work at a place where people do not understand that getting a job these days is hard and yes you can be replace...also to stop bitching about the place if you are not doing anything to make it are part of the problem.]

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