Re: Fear in the Workplace

Subject: Re: Fear in the Workplace
From: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- PLAMONDON -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 25 Feb 1997 08:00:57 PST

Carolyn Haley writes:

>Fear seems to rule the workplace.
>More times than I can count, people have failed to speak or act when they
>could have, so problems have gotten worse instead of better. The only
>reason for nonaction was fear . . . fear for one's position, fear of
>another person's opinion, fear of damaged reputation, fear of future
>punishment in the form of denied privilege or promotion, fear of <fill in
>the blank>. This leads to a lot of lying on a daily basis, which to me is
>as bad or worse than falsifying a resume. While I respect the need for
>self-preservation, I also know that when something is is seriously afoul
>and needs resolution, you have to participate in the process. But ofttimes
>these are the situations when people are most afraid!

When interviewing, you should always remember that the world is full
of corporate cultures that will kill you if they can. The pysiological
damage caused by stress is indisputable, and many companies have fallen
into an operating mode that seems to be designed to cause stomach trouble,
chest pain, and insomnia in as many employees as possible.

Generally, these places are so screwed up that everyone from the Chairman
on down is suffering. Democracy of sorts.

These companies are, of course, doomed. People are so busy worrying that
they can't focus on their jobs. They are likely to be put out of business
by cheerful, confident newcomers, whose indifference to difficulty allows
them to burst every barrier, or by cheerful, confident old-timers who have
the key to every lock.

Have you ever been relieved to be laid off from a company? I have. One
of my brothers found that quitting a bad job felt like getting a pardon
while on death row.

Fortunately, the interviewing process works both ways. The lousy companies
rarely put on a very good face during the usual day-long series of interviews.
Too many of the interviewers will seem bored, unenthusiastic, or possibly
eager to do the interview because it gets them out of whatever else they'd
be doing (though their eagerness won't extend to the point of working hard
to get you to sign up). In many cases, a company that seems unenthusiastic
about YOU is really suffering from having too many interviewers who are
burned out, or even feel guilty at the idea of dragging new blood into
their private hell.

When interviewing, I think it's wise to be more concerned about learning
about the job than making a wonderful impression. Since one of the most
potent interviewing techniques is to give the other person enough rope to
hang themselves with, it behooves you to pay out a lot of line to the other
person, which of course leaves less for yourself. Ask some intelligent
questions and listen intently to the answers. Don't bother trying to puff
yourself up -- the interviewers already believe that your are at least more
or less qualified, or you wouldn't be there at all. The interview is
mostly about giving the impression that you would be easy to work with.

(I've had a terrible time breaking myself of the habit of selling myself
to pre-sold clients, who tend to interrupt my pitch so they can press
documents and disks into my hands and ask when I can deliver the finished
product. Boring my clients makes me feel very foolish. Overselling
yourself bores your audience and tends to ring false, so watch your step.)

What if you can't find a congenial company to work for? There's something
to be said for working at a congenial Burger King while you wait for
better things, though I suppose that wouldn't look good on your resume.
The people I know aren't very good at keeping an emotional distance from
job-related stress, even when they know that their employer is hopelessly
screwed up. The hopelessness of getting work done properly tends to eat
away at your self-esteem, especially as screwed-up companies are lavish
with blame and belittlement. It's dangerous to your career and mental
health to work at such places, because it's easy to start believing their
bullshit and thinking that the problems lie with you.

I find that consulting provides a useful emotional distance from the
client company. (Working in a different part of the country from the
client also helps.) The natural instinct to over-identify with one's
employer and bleed every time they are cut is minimized when consulting,
especially when you have multiple clients. This improves the quality
of my work, and I sleep better. Working for a job shop or a temporary
agency can have much the same effect, so long as you don't identify
overmuch with the agency or job shop. Employers come and go, and you
do what you can with what you've got until they go away. You are the
constant; they are the ephemeral. With so-called permanent employment,
the impression is the opposite: you are the replaceable cog in their
eternal machine.

I'm taking a First Responder course at the local fire department (if you
flip your car in my area, I may well be the person who slaps the oxygen
mask on your face), and I've discovered that even hyper-macho dudes like
firemen and policemen now recognize the need for assistance in controlling
stress, and no longer expect to tough it out the way they used to. If
the guys who charge into burning buildings or confront gun-wielding
criminals aren't too macho for touchy-feely stress-management techniques,
technical writers should probably acquiese, too.

For what it's worth, here are the classic symptoms (from FIRST RESPONDER,
Bergeron and Bizjak, Fourth Edition, p. 534):


* Upset stomach
* Increased heart rate
* Elevated blood pressure
* Chest pain
* Sweaty palms
* Concentration problems
* Restlessness
* Fatigue
* Trouble with decision-making
* Decreased emotional control

While crises can cause acute stress in any line of work, technical desk jobs
such as writing should not cause these symptoms on a regular basis. The
nature of the work is reasonably straightforward; the stress comes not from
the work, but from requirements that are at odds with it. Management's
main responsibility is to guarantee that the workplace is organized in
such a way that the work gets done efficiently. Since causes of stress
are also impediments to production, a good management team will be
constantly removing causes of stress from the workplace. On the other
hand, bad management teams are constantly increasing stress, and the
company would be better served if they went on a permanent sabbatical.

So look for a company where people seem happy, and where new products are
flowing out the door. The two concepts go together, anyway. You'll
live longer. And fear in the workplace fades into a non-issue.

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon, High-Tech Technical Writing, Inc.
36475 Norton Creek Road * Blodgett * Oregon * 97326
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com * (541) 453-5841 * Fax: (541) 453-4139

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