This post is going to focus on the cultural quasi-myth most commonly referred to as the “American Dream”; it will be a bit longer than the first post, so thanks for tuning in.
The premise of this dream is that in the United States (the land of opportunity), if one works hard enough they will advance and achieve great success. If you follow the rules and show that you are a productive worker, if you put the numbers up on the score board that makes management gasp in astonishment, then you will be rewarded with career progression and enhanced compensation. Sadly, this is not the case today. In fact, it is clearly not the case today. I can’t begin to tell you how many engineers and finance associates, friends and acquaintances of my family, continue to stand as undeniably pathetic monuments of just how flawed this conception of the American Dream really is. Work hard and you’ll make it to the top? Bullshit. Most of these guys have been stuck in the same job position for decades. I can remember them occupying these roles before I even began my undergraduate education. Their failure to advance is made more pathetic given both that the companies most of them work for are big names (i.e. Raytheon, JPMorgan, State Street, etc.) and that these individuals are talented! They do not even have the excuse of lacking adequate skill/expertise in their department as justification for their parade of careers that are more static than our cryogenically frozen friend Walt Disney.
So what IS IT then that has as-near-as-makes-no-difference planted and rooted their feet in the same ground they have occupied for decades and will most likely occupy for the coming decades pending their retirement? Simple: a sinister joke is being played on the American people. The sheer ridiculousness of this joke is elucidated by the analogy of buying a box of ammunition but backing down from purchasing the gun. The joke is this: the American Dream is really a two-sided coin, but most Americans have only discovered one of those sides. A strong work ethic is undoubtedly important to achieving success, but the side of the coin most Americans have yet to discover is that which corresponds to the requirement that the individual who seeks to achieve great things must be willing to take on and accept an element of risk.
Let me relate to you a story that a friend of mine shared with me not very long ago. My buddy, who works for JPMorgan as an entry level associate, was at his cubicle one day, handling routine reports and other day-to-day projects, when he happened to notice three of his fellow coworkers from a neighboring team standing nearby, quietly talking about what they did over the weekend. Their voices were practically inaudible, despite how close they were to his cubicle–just so you can grasp the non-existent degree of disruption they were generating by their little clandestine rendezvous. They did not make it past the two-minute mark of their conversation, my friend relates, when all of a sudden one of their managers stalks over, beet red.
“Hey! Will you guys SHUT UP ALREADY?”
My friend, who was not even the target/victim of this brief warpath, was shocked; naturally, his attention became totally fixated upon the spontaneously escalated confrontation that only moments ago had been a mime performance, for all the noise that the three coworkers had made. As he was relating this story to me, he tells me that he sat there waiting for one of them to issue a response or retort to the effect that such an outburst was extremely unprofessional and inappropriate, particularly for a manager. Even a brief “excuse me?” would have satisfied my friend, but he tells me that none of this happened–instead, the three employees accept their public, highly visible verbal thrashing with a faintly mumbled “yessir” and with heads hanging heavy, they meekly filed back to their cubicles. The end.
This begs analysis, not only because what happened was so absurd, but because it was becoming an increasingly frequent occurrence. “Yessir”? Is this the appropriate response when challenged with a wild, explosive and worst of all inappropriate demand to SHUT UP? It seems that for many employees working in corporate America today, it is; as such, please allow me to tell you now, emphatically and with absolutely no hesitation, that their response was arguably the worst one possible. But that was the answer they gave, and the reason is because of their fear of standing up for themselves in opposition to management even when they (the employees) clearly have every right to respond with critical indignation. The reason why is, again, quite simple: fear of taking the risk necessary to do so.
Risk. Much of the American labor force exhibits an intense and irrational aversion towards risk. Despite their pursuit of the Dream. It is important to recognize that risk takes many different forms. The form encountered in the preceding case corresponds to the employee’s uncertainty regarding how their managers would react to post-brutalization objections of the employees. Faced with incomplete information regarding the most likely outcome of such a vindicating response, the employees choose to remain silent, to accept their abuse, and on the way back to their cubicles the peons console themselves with the fact that even though they had just taken a beating that had stripped them of their pride and dignity and humiliated them before the entire office, at least they still had their jobs! There are at least two flaws to this single avenue of self-consolation: 1) How can they be certain that the risk of employment termination would be greater if they defend their dignity; and 2) less than two weeks later, all three of those employees were pink-slipped.
It is important to note how the employees assumed that their jobs were somehow made safer by their aversion to risky courses of action. Their safety-first decision-making model equates attention with death. To attract any more attention than absolutely necessary is tantamount to occupational suicide, their behaviors suggest. Consistent with this ideology, they make every effort to avoid making any waves, in hopes that managerial sharks will pass them by and snap somebody else, some other thrashing fish, as a meal. These types of individuals are what have commonly been referred to as “yes men.” The rules of the club are simple: agree with everything management says, no matter how ridiculous it sounds or how unfair it might be to you. Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes sir. After all, you can’t get on the manager’s bad side if you agree with him on everything, can you? In all honesty, this type of activity crosses the boundary from subordinated employee behavior into the realm of slave-like behavior.
The sad thing is that it does not matter how skilled you are; if you act weak, then the strong will treat you like a weakling and trample all over you whenever they feel like it. The obsessive aversion towards taking on any form of risk that might conceivably jeopardize one’s job acts like a straight jacket that prevents the individual from exercising the fundamental, uniquely human capacity for critical thinking. Critical thinking is inherently risky because it does not follow the safe blueprints of agreeing with what management says at all times, or that of doing things the same way they have always been done, even when an alternative strategy should logically produce better outcomes. This latter example of risk-aversive behavior is undesirable for the average employee because it requires the individual to assume a measure of accountability for their divergent decision(s). Accountability is a big no-no for these employee-slaves because in the employee-slave’s playbook, failure equates to employment termination, and naturally (in their eyes), the only thing worst than that is death of course (this was a sarcastic statement).
Risk-aversive behavior precludes any possibility of achieving extraordinary occupational/professional successes because it arrests critical thinking, and like the muscles of the human body, this fundamental aspect of human thought atrophies over time as it is exercised less and less frequently. Critical thinking doesn’t peace this party alone, however; when it goes, it takes with it a posse consisting of creativity, innovation, initiative, autonomy, self-determination, reflection, analytical acumen, independence, and self-respect just to name a few. What remains is the now dysfunctional husk of the employee–unremarkable and undifferentiated, and therefore completely replaceable.