Daleks in the Workplace

I’ve read several articles lately about the need to control one’s emotions in a job search. “Don’t be desperate” and “don’t be angry” are among the admonitions being given.

Certainly one should not go into a networking meeting or interview all weepy-eyed about the circumstances. Just as there is “no crying in baseball” there should be no sob stories in these situations.  On occasion, though, I will opine that the occasional therapeutic griping session is allowed in a networking meeting of sympathetic-eared job seekers.

Nor should one vent about a former employer’s misdeeds, especially not in an interview. Whether a part of a massive and impersonal layoff, or a one-on-one firing – for whatever reason – these things need to be kept private.  Among family.  Among friends.  And I concede it can be difficult, especially when asked questions along the line of “Why did you leave your last employer?” come up.  (Some of the stories I’ve heard, in private, would blister paint from the venom that gets let loose during the telling.)

But this pushing-aside of emotion is spreading from the job search to every aspect of the workplace.

The Purging of Emotion

In the first Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer is first seen in a monastery pursuing Kolinahr: the purging of all emotion from his system.  His telepathic mind picks up signals from V’Ger, the alien ship heading towards earth, and he is told his quest for emotionless perfection is futile.

It feels – an emotion – like today’s employment climate is engaged in a similar purge. (Interestingly, well after I’d started this essay with this Star Trek reference, I saw a LinkedIn column, The Spockification of Corporate America, discussing this exact drive towards a “cool, calm, machine-like, ever increasingly mechanistic” workplace.  I suspect this is a continuation of the trend in changing the language away from discussing the workforce as people; instead, they are termed “talents”, “assets”, “resources”, “capital”, and in one email, I was told the person’s employer referred to their employees as “inventory”.)

No More Friends

As I observed in my essay decrying the move towards a core of corporate permanent staff supplemented by contractors and consultants on an as-needed basis, I wrote about my experiences with friendships at work:

A friend of mine from when I worked at Ford Motor Company in Sandusky, Ohio and I talk about once a week. He, I, and a few others from the circle of friends I developed there stay in touch.  He was the best man at my wedding; two others from that job were invited but couldn’t come.  Two years later, my wife and I visited… getting together for dinner with many of the people with whom I’d worked.

He and I simultaneously had an epiphany: This is the last place where we developed real friendships at work. Do I stay in touch with a few people from subsequent employers?  Yes, but they are few and far between, and – with one notable exception of a vendor representative – they are nowhere as close as these friendships.

People make friends when they are vested in the social aspect of a situation and believe their tenure there can afford the luxury of time to build real relationships. The lack of real friendships in the workplace today is indicative that people are not vesting in their environment, feeling it to be too unstable for that emotional investment.

Life Imitates Sci-Fi

In the TV series Dr. Who, produced by the BBC, one of the series of episodes dealt with the genesis of one of the Doctor’s, and humanity’s, archenemies, the Daleks.  Early in the series, Davros, the creator of the Daleks, instructs the people doing the hands-on work to further mutate the Daleks to eliminate all pity and compassion.

At the end of the series, Davros is pleading with the latest generation of Daleks, now totally ruthless per his own design, in an attempt to save the lives of his scientific assistants: “Those men are scientists, they can help you, have pity!”

And the head Dalek’s replies, “Pity? I have no understanding of the word.”  The Daleks then kill the scientists, and a few moments later – in what was probably a conscious tip-o’-the-hat to Frankenstein and that monster’s destruction of its creator – kill Davros himself.

I certainly have no fears that workers will turn on their bosses with similar lethality. But I believe the modern-day drive to eliminate emotion, making work nothing more than an economic exchange with people viewed as costs to be minimized, and the callous environment of layoffs-at-a-moment’s-notice and perception of relentless pursuit of every scrap of profit at peoples’ expense, will backfire.  As Liz Ryan noted in her column, What Happened to Employee Loyalty?:

The horrified and angry people who write to me asking “Whatever happened to employee loyalty?” are barking up the wrong tree. The relevant question is “Why would anyone expect employees to be loyal to employers who can (and do) change their work arrangements, cut their hours, cut their pay, and lay them off at a moment’s notice?”

Who Will Win?

A workforce of Daleks, stripped of emotion-driven loyalty and enthusiasm by deliberate action on the part of corporate leadership, cynical of “engagement” and “motivation-by-trinkets-and-gimmicks”, cannot compete against an inspired workforce focused and passionate about the greater good and vision of the organization.

What kind of workforce are you creating?


© 2014, David Hunt, PE

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