The American View: Avalanche of Despondency

Sure, the previous American View column was pretty depressing. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger apologizes for bringing everyone down and tries to re-phrase his core argument (that we all need to help our depressed co-workers).

Last month I posted an American View column called Dead Inside Like Retsuko. I started off describing a bleak worldview that started from dark and rapidly cascaded to crushingly depressing like an avalanche of dread. If you don’t want to re-visit that column, just skim footnote [1] below. I’ll understand if you don’t want to re-experience the original; a lot of people told me (quite enthusiastically) that they didn’t even want to read it once.

‘This is awful,’ one person wrote. ‘It’s so depressing!’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘That was my intent.’

‘But it’s vile and miserable and sad!’ the person wrote.

‘Yeeeesssss.’ I wrote, biting my lip. ‘You’re on the right track. Keep going with that thought.’

‘But I don’t see the world like this,’ the person insisted. ‘Perceiving the world in such an awful light would be utterly demoralizing.’

‘Right. I agree.’ I shouted back. ‘Finish that thought! If you don’t see the world like that but someone that you work with does, then what does that motivate you to do?!?’

‘But I don’t want to think that way …’

Internal monologue: ‘AAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGG!’

One of the most vexing aspects of being a writer is that you can’t tell if your message is getting across until it’s too late to change your approach. 

The conversation – such as it was – went completely off the rails after that. There may have been a very loud, incoherent shriek of frustration. Or several.

I’m not out to ding anyone for having missed my point. My opening was stark, depressing, and (one might even argue) cruel. That was deliberate, like saturating the enemy lines with artillery fire before sending the doughboys into no-man’s-land. I wanted to convey that a great many people in the average cubicle farm are coming to work burdened with a crippling weight of hopelessness.

I was not trying to ‘recruit’ the reader into joining the ranks of the depressed; why would anyone want that? No, I wanted to drive home the point some people around you are suffering.  I thought that the logical conclusion to that setup would be obvious: you who are not afflicted should reach out to those who are and help alleviate their suffering because you’re a leader and that’s what leaders do.

It seems like I missed the mark with Retsuko. In retrospect, it was too much too early. Some readers were numbed from the gloom by the time I finally got to arguing my point. For that, I apologize. Let me try this again with a lighter tone.

I believe strongly that the mental and emotional health of one’s teammates is important. People can’t do their best work if their accumulated stress makes it difficult (or nigh impossible) to concentrate. When people are suffering, they’re barely there mentally.

You’re not ‘motivating.’ You’re not ‘inspiring.’ You’re just making things worse. 

Moreover, the additional stress that you place on these teammates tends to have disproportionate impact. The ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ syndrome. If someone’s at the end of their rope, one more shove from above might be enough to make a person lose their metaphorical grip.

In an ideal world, every team member at every level should be watching out for everyone else. Lots of companies allude to this principle in their values. Real-world adherence to the ideal is … inconsistent at best. That’s why (I argue) leaders have a positive duty to make a deliberate effort to find out how the people around them are doing. Not just ‘their’ people, but all people. Why? So that the leader can try to help.

I’m not proposing that a line-level manager is supposed to perform the duties of a licensed and degreed psychotherapist. I am proposing that managers at all levels can pay attention to the people around them. Demonstrate sincere concern for others’ situations. Take time out to listen. Offer empathy. Ask if there’s anything they can do. Be a decent *#&$ human being. I wholly reject the argument that this is ‘too much to ask’ of a salaried supervisor.

I’m not suggesting that supervisors have to become mind readers, either. You can’t know what another human being is thinking or feeling unless they tell you. You can, however, pay attention to how others act and react to conditions and communications. Paying attention to others isn’t terribly difficult; it does, however, require a person to suspend their own enthralling inner drama long enough to take the aforementioned sincere interest in people who aren’t them.

 It’s human nature to consider yourself the protagonist of your own epic adventure.  

Finally, I’m not suggesting that leaders are inherently bad people. [2] Quite the contrary. Most people –most leaders – are fundamentally decent. Yes, power tends to corrupt and yes, people tend to become desensitised to (and therefore distanced from) others as they get older. That said, very few people actually want to see others suffer. [3] Most leaders want their people to be generally happy and reasonably productive.

My argument – Stygian as it came across – was that we tend to ignore the troubled inner lives of the people around us because it takes effort to know how others are feeling. We fail to notice when others nearby might be suffering. We then fail to act.

Once we accept this shared shortcoming, we should then make a deliberate effort to pay more attention to the folks near us. Ask what they’re going through. Offer to help. Be a positive factor in their lives, not another brick in their metaphorical life raft. That’s all.

Right. Sorry for ranting. I’ll get back to snarky white-collar workplace anecdotes in my next column. I promise.

[1] From paragraph 1 of Dead Inside: ‘… were you like the majority of your co-workers: bone-weary, utterly demoralised, simmering with impotent rage, and crushed under the recognition that today’s labour will amount to nothing more than a smudged photocopy of every other day’s efforts, contributing nothing, ablating your meagre reserves of sanity, and dragging you infinitesimally closer to a meaningless death?’

[2] Except for Mongo from Office Cowboys. Mongo was a thoroughly and unrepentantly awful person.

[3] We call those people ‘Bobs.’ I talk about them quite frequently.

Title Allusions: Corey Allen, Avalanche (1978 disaster drama); mocked viciously by Netflix’s Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Return (Season 1, Episode 4)

POC is Keil Hubert,

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.


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