I just came out of a meeting with the SVP of New Product Development. He was crying.

No, he had NOT been fired. The SVP (let’s call him Sal) hadn’t lost someone dear to him. Sal hadn’t stepped on a nail or found out that his wife had been sleeping with his dentist.  Sal said, and I’m quoting verbatim, “I’ve never seen this company go through so much pain. I identify with this company, you know.”

It was somewhere around the ‘pain’ part that he began tearing up and smack in the middle of the word ‘identify’ that there was an unmistakable moment of blubbering.

Yes, he’s a three-decade veteran of this company and has seen more here than I ever wish to but I’m sorry: if there is no crying in baseball, then there is definitely no crying in management.

Allow me to invoke a Tom Hanks moment:

There can’t be any crying in either of those two sports, if you will, because when we cry about something, we’re privileging how we feel over what we must do. When we cry, we cave into and indulge ourselves within emotions that can easily drive us to exuberance or despair—two extremes that again, are not particularly helpful in solving problems or moving us forward.

I’m not suggesting we become Vulcans or Tibetan monks but I am suggesting we focus. The fact is that Sal and I had been working together nearly round-the-clock over the last two days and we had one job to do:  get the CEO a Powerpoint deck so he can talk intelligently about some alliance opportunities with another CEO. That was it.

Taking on the pain of the company’s 50,000 employees?  Not his job. As ego-gratifying as it must be for Sal to believe he bears some responsibility for his colleagues’ pain, it’s not his job.  Sal is not the company and the company is not Sal.

Sal cannot save Darth Vader. (Image from Wikimedia)

Turning the latest fire drill into an act of mythic heroism? Again, as personally satisfying and exciting as that might be for Sal, this is not an epic struggle between good and evil. Sal is not Luke Skywalker and the company is not Darth Vader awaiting moral metamorphosis.

The company doesn’t need to be saved. It’s just fine the way it is. Might it die? Sure but that would be just fine, too. Contrary to the narratives we construct for ourselves, companies and things, in general, do not need to be saved simply because they are in trouble or dying. Sometimes things need to be in trouble and yes, sometimes they need to die.

I don’t blame Sal for crying. But I do blame him for losing perspective and focus. Managers are supposed to have that at the very least.

This brings me to the point of this post: Perspective, focus, and a sharply defined scope of responsibility and emotional accountability are positively key to corporate survival. If we can’t tell where our job, our company, and our colleagues end and where we begin, then we’re done: we’ll never have a life within and beyond the organization—a prerequisite, as I have noted, for survival—if we can’t separate ourselves from it.

We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s just a job.” Well, it is. And there’s no crying in it.

-Mike Raven

I’m not sure Lie to Me is headed in the right direction. In that Fox TV series, the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman, interprets facial and vocal “microexpressions”—facial actions or voice modulations discernible only to the trained or naturally astute observer—to get a good sense of what people are feeling whether they’re lying.

In one scene, for example, Lightman shows a video of a woman talking cheerfully about how she’s ready to see her family, how she’s no longer depressed and is ready to exit institutional care. When he slowed down the video, however, and focused on her face, we can plainly see the smile flanked by momentary facial constrictions, narrowings or strictures that show she is trying to disguise her real feelings literally by turning a frown upside-down, an effect turned right-side-up by slow-mo.

Based on the real-life work of psychologist Paul Ekman, it’s a terrific premise but do Lightman and his team have to descend deep into the criminal underground to uncover dark secrets and lots of people to save?  Fight clubs, masochistic beauty queens, organized crime, kidnapping rings – who needs ‘em when the Lightman Group could be working feverishly (and at a high price-point, I might add) to save a perfectly delightful population of intrapsychically-conflicted, hyper-anxious, and chronically self-obfuscating employees at major corporations?

Try this – Experiment 1:

At your next meeting, look around the room and scan the faces—I mean, REALLY scan the faces.  You may see some smiles but are those really smiles?  Those of you with kids know what a real smile looks like; is that what you’re seeing as you pan across the conference room? Take a look at the ridges above and below the eyes and mouth – what are you seeing?

According to Ekman, expressions of fear are universal. (Image: Maria Yakunchikova "Fear" 1893-95)

If something in those faces doesn’t look quite right but yet seems somehow familiar, try one more thing: try to make those features appear on your own face.  As you begin to recall the last time you’d made that face, you might start to feel something. Even if you don’t, what would you have to be feeling to make a face like that?

Hint: It’s fear.

Well, depending on where you are in your own corporate lifecycle, perhaps it’s fear mixed with contempt. Depending on how you were brought up, maybe it’s fear suppressed with self-loathing. The point is, it’s fear.

Three more experiments:

  1. Listen to the laughter at a meeting. Is that real laughter? Or, does it sound forced? Do you think this is how these people laugh with their friends and family?
  2. Tune into watercooler or drive-by conversations. As I walked from my fourth-floor office to a fifth-floor conference room, I heard two conversations whisper-punctuated with the words, “I’m afraid that…”
  3. What are your colleagues doing as they talk? How are they moving their bodies? During a job interview with a major insurer, a Group VP of Analytics commented, “Oh, when I started here no one called on my group. They didn’t get us. Now, whenever they need to get it right, whenever the CEO needs something, we’re the ONLY ONES they call!” And with that, he threw his right shoulder very slightly forward in two staccato motions. It happened so fast and so subtly that it could have gone unnoticed but like a poker ‘tell,’ it helped me understand something important about the level of fear (and the necessary level of defiance required) in that organization.

So, what are we all so afraid of? Failing. Not living up to the image we have of ourselves. Being canned.  Almost being canned. I could go on and on and probably never come close to the specific things you or I are afraid of every day when we enter the office.

And we could dump a ton of money into psychotherapy and self-examination to figure out why, or get a prescription to manage the tons of symptoms that live off that fear like bacteria on an open wound. Or, we could start living. If we recognize the fear, recognize that that is ALL it is, JUST FEAR, then we can start living.

We lie to ourselves every day when we sit down at a meeting. We laugh when we don’t want to, smile when we feel we have to, and contort outselves into creatures we scarcely recognize.

But we don’t have to. Once I started telling the truth, once I started acting like the person I wanted to be in spite of everything I felt I had to be inside that conference room or manager’s office, I started living.

So, step 1 to surviving corporate America without psychotherapy or drugs:  Recognize that fear dominates much of what we do at work. But, that’s all it is: fear.  Start living.

All the best,

Mike Raven