Why Today's Workplace Creates Emotional Conflicts: The Dark Side of Success

It's time we recognize the negative psychological impact that the management culture and the "requirements" for success can have on people and the organizations they work for. They exist at great cost to both.
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One of the most poorly understood -- though frequently experienced -- realities of work and career today is that success often takes an enormous toll on people's emotions and overall lives. It sounds ironic, I know, but it's true. And to the extent it's noticed at all, the downside of success is usually assumed to be understandable stress or work-life balance problems of modern lives.

But that misses the larger problem: Career success often generates a range of emotional conflicts that affect the person, job performance and ultimately the company's success. Conflicts range from questioning the value and worth of the toll you pay along the path to success to more troubling problems. For example, feeling constrained by long hours, work that often lacks meaning, vigilance about political conflicts that can suck you in, and frustration with management practices. More serious emotional problems include anxiety, depression and chronic physical ailments. All of the above can be triggered by successful career advancement.

Though the problem is underrecognized, it's widespread. Periodically a new survey appears, documenting depression in the workplace and dissatisfaction with leadership. Other research confirms that demoralization rises when work isn't very engaging; or when opportunities for continued growth and expanding competencies are too limited or blocked. It's time we recognize the negative psychological impact that the management culture and the "requirements" for success can have on people and the organizations they work for. They exist at great cost to both.

When I investigated and wrote about career-related conflicts a few decades ago I found that these "working wounded" often expressed a sense of entrapment -- living with compromises, trade-offs and anger; and often, feelings of self-betrayal. Those were the products of embracing both the values and behavior "required" for success at the time -- defined by increasing power, money and recognition along a fairly clear path of career advancement.

Men and women accepted those requirements and the suffering they produced. But it wasn't because of inability to cope well with stress that's part of life, or adapt to the norms of their company cultures. They weren't neurotic personalities. Rather, their conflicts reflected a healthy though unconscious rebellion against those very features of the workplace, and an often dehumanized, demoralizing work culture. They couldn't envision a better alternative. Or, they had become too socially conditioned into accepting it.

Today, much of that has changed. The workplace is more tumultuous and nonlinear. People experience new conflicts along the road to success from two sources: retromanagement -- from companies who react against transformations underway in society that directly impact the business world and individual lives; and growing pains -- the products of the transformations themselves within organizations that are dealing with them. Both are sources of new conflicts for workers that harm their emotional lives, and they have negative impact upon an organization's long-term success.

Some career-related conflicts occur from leadership and management straining to maintain itself under the pressures of changes in the business world -- particularly the need for creative innovation and collaboration within a fluid, unpredictable environment. Either they don't recognize these shifts or don't know how to respond to them. So they double down with old practices and a management culture that makes the problems worse.

But old-style top-down autocratic/authoritarian model doesn't work very well, anymore.
Interestingly, recent research found that men (who populate most leadership positions) are often socially conditioned to manage fear in ways that prime them to subordinate and harm others. This can reinforce wanting to perpetuate the old model. But today's 21st Century workplace thrives on flexibility, collaboration and team-oriented leadership. Consequently, retromanagement creates two sets of conflicts: debilitating boredom, and abusive management.

Boredom -- This often occurs when there's a major disconnect between you and your work. Perhaps it's between the job and your talents, experience, your values. Or, between the job and its potential for future opportunities. Boredom also results from underutilization. You feel invisible when your skills and capabilities aren't being utilized, or are misutilized, even. Moreover, the lack of opportunity for new learning and development can create a sense of confinement. When there are too few of those opportunities, you don't have room to stretch. And that's another source of boredom.

Abusive Management- - This is marked by a lack of transparency, poor or deceptive communication, arbitrary rewards, workaholic demands, or psychologically unhealthy behavior by the actions of narcissistic, arrogant bosses; or by more directly abusive, bullying people who create a great deal of suffering for those reporting to them. Either way, people on the receiving end often experience anxiety and depression. They may show passive resistance, undermining behavior and diminished productivity.

Both forms of retromanagement have a negative impact upon both the employees and the company's success. Research confirms this, and shows that such environments diminish the mental efficiency of workers subjected to it. A Gallup survey found that such work groups are on average 50 percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than more positively managed groups. And a 2011 poll by Harris Interactive found that nearly 50 percent report heavy workload, long hours and unrealistic expectations as sources of emotional conflict. Nearly 50 percent say they don't feel valued on the job at all.

The Growing Pains of Transformation
The other source of career-related conflicts today is the disruption and turmoil from transformations within society and the business world. These are transitional conflicts, as people and organizations continue to evolve within ongoing change. But they can be debilitating for personal lives at all career levels.

These conflicts are the product of emerging, new orientations to work, and of pressures to survive and thrive in the changing business environment. The emerging orientation is what I've called the 4.0 career. It's an evolution beyond the career concerns that grew over the last 20 years about seeking personal meaning and self-development through work. The 4.0 career includes those more personal concerns, but is focused more on having impact on something larger than oneself; on contributing something socially useful; that connects with the needs of the larger human community. It includes looking for continuous learning and creative innovation at work. The 4.0 orientation is in sync with the movement to create successful businesses that also contribute to the solution of social problems, as Richard Branson and other business leaders have described. In effect, the 4.0 careerist thinks of work as a vehicle for change and influence upon the larger human community.

This transition's conflicts take the form of frustrations and anxieties, particularly for those of the younger generations who embody much of the new orientation. (known as Generation X -- those born between 1965 and 1980; Generation Y, born from 1980 onward. Among the latter, those born from about 1980 to the early 1990s are also known as Millennials).

Conflicts occur because, for example, they look for immediate feedback loops in both their social and work lives. They anticipate that transparent and honest feedback will filter out the best ideas and people in the office, as entrepreneur Michael Fertik has written. They expect to work harder and to be paid less at first, and they are hungrier to develop marketable skills and a trajectory for their careers. And a survey by MetLife finds that they recognize that "...times are challenging, and they have an entrepreneurial spirit that's coming out. They've had to go out and get creative to find extra sources of income."

Greenbiz.com recently highlighted how the views of this group differ from the generations before them. When they hit a wall, emotional and relational conflicts arise. And conflicts also arise among the older generation of leaders, who tend to not grasp their younger counterparts' motivations. That is this transformation generates frustration and impatience when the work culture fails to provide paths for growth, impact and stretching into new areas. The latter describes features of the changing business world and its new challenges recently described in Fast Company. The new environment requires keeping up with rapid change, having an innovative mindset, and thriving on flux and unpredictability. It's an orientation that embraces instability, even enjoys it.

Bad management in the context of this larger transformation can produce situational anxiety and depression, as well as unproductive frustration and tension. Younger workers are prone to leave an environment that stirs these conflicts. They'll look for one that provides better opportunities for growth and innovation on the one hand; and is more in sync with their values, especially around sustainability, collaboration and openness.

Consequently, work-related conflicts from both retromanagement and transformation undermine people emotionally, as well as business success. That's especially unfortunate in the face of accumulating research and evidence that's pretty clear about what how to supports a psychologically healthy and productive workplace culture.

Just two of many examples: Recent research shows a link between a positive mood about work, generated by a supportive leadership and management culture, and high level performance. Another study found that healthy leadership has positive effects on employees' overall health and well-being. For example, in lower rates of anxiety, depression, and job stress; as well as decreased sick leave and disability. In a similar vein, management consultant Dov Seidman has argued that the hyper-transparency, hyper-connectivity, and ever-deepening interdependencies that now exist require new governance structures, organization models and leadership styles for bringing out the best in people and companies.

Leadership and organizational strategies that aim to build value; that support creative innovation for business, people and society can rectify the conditions that otherwise produce more of the working wounded. Many have described this from different perspectives, such as management strategist Umair Haque in his Harvard Business Review blog posts; green business leader Joel Makower; and John Friedman, in his work on sustainability and corporate responsibility. New practices promote both personal wellbeing and business success.

I have less confidence in my own psychologist and psychiatric colleagues, however. Practitioners look at work-related conflicts mostly through an antiquated and largely irrelevant lens. They tend to interpret these conflicts as stress reactions, best handled by stress-management techniques or drugs. Or, internal conflicts that interfere with the person's ability to embrace and adapt to the behavior necessary for success -- but without critiquing it. While that's helpful for some individuals, it fails to recognize the source of conflict for most -- the workplace culture, it's leadership, social values about success, and the impact those have on the lives of people.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.

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