In 2005, I began a more focused interviewing project to see whether others experienced tension between their work personas and their core values. How did they reconcile the challenge? Did they find ways to “make a difference without getting killed,” as one person put it? I conducted extensive interviews with 38 businesspeople from a range of industries, organizations, backgrounds, beliefs, and career stages. I spoke to directors; executives (vice presidents and above); frontline managers; and new professionals at large public and private companies, startups, and professional-services firms. I particularly sought out those who had a significant impact on their organization’s policies, products, and programs, but who were not often in the limelight. I invited them all to tell, as candidly as they could, the story of their work lives and the criteria that guided their important choices.
I expected to hear cynicism mixed with arguments for separating work from “what really matters.” Although I did hear some of that, I also heard people express a deep commitment to high ideals and a strong desire to believe in their organizations, even in the face of moral ambiguity. Some of those whom I talked to had confronted gross ethical violations, to be sure; but it was much more common to feel ensnared by subtle inconsistencies and contradictions that gradually raised nagging doubts about the nature of one’s employer. As one woman put it, “You always worry that you might have made a deal with the devil.”
The Wounds of Commitment
Not surprisingly, those who dared to care deeply about their work had the worst stories to tell about being burned. An intensive-care nurse described having daily panic attacks on her way to work, terrified that someone would die on her shift because managed-care policies had tripled her patient load. A commercial banker talked of being told that either he or his peer would be fired — and then of being presented with a portfolio of real estate loans to approve that involved “looking the other way” on zoning violations.
And then there was Greg. He had been a corporate officer for a financial-services firm until the senior officers of his firm (including his boss) were indicted and sent to prison for embezzlement. Greg was no naif; he’d spent years in investment banking. As he put it, “You just rosy up the numbers a little. It’s all part of the dance.” He had come to this last firm specifically because he thought it was an unusually ethical place, where he could escape those pressures. That only made the shock of the alleged wrongdoings more painful. Three years later, when I met him one evening over dinner, he had not gone back to work. He articulated the bewilderment he still felt: “I believed in these people. I respected them; I even loved them in some way. Was I an idiot to be part of this? I can’t reconcile it in my mind.” He felt adrift; distrustful and unsure of his own instincts. “I guess I’m suffering from the wounds of commitment,” he confessed.
More than half the people I spoke with described a state of creeping uneasiness and loss of faith as their roles forced them into untenable situations. As I listened, I was reminded of Chris Argyris’s description (in his famous article “Skilled Incompetence,” Harvard Business Review, September 1, 1986) of a double bind: a mixed message or contradiction that is undiscussable and whose undiscussability is undiscussable. Here’s an example. One day, working with an IT team in a Fortune 50 computer and office equipment company, I happened to sit in as an internal account team was directed to promise higher service levels to their customers. Three months later, I overheard the same group struggling to deal with a reorganization in an internal supplier organization that made delivering on those promises impossible. When I asked their leader why she did not speak up, she said, “What, and look like a whiner?” Bingo: undiscussability. Many of the people I interviewed spoke of similar situations, often leading to painful compromises or disappointments. Over time, they felt increasingly alienated from themselves. Amrita, a senior VP of innovation and strategic marketing for a global chemical company, confronted this experience late in her career. “I had become an extremely competitive person.… I felt I had to be, given the people I worked with. Then one day I looked at myself in the mirror. I saw my tight face, my stiff jaw. It just wasn’t me anymore. I had to ask myself, ‘Who have I become?’”