Imagine working for a company where more than 80% of your customers held you in disregard. Congress has achieved that milestone of late, with an 82% disapproval rating. I want us to internalize that carefully, as the vast majority of us continue to share a sense of patriotism and love of our country, the very freedom and opportunity and dignity we believe to be our core shared values as Americans. We are patriots and we love our nation, but 82% of us hold our employees in Congress in disregard. Is it possible that we have found a way to separate the institution from its inhabitants, that we can continue to have pride in the ideal of democracy separate and distinct from its practice?
Seems like a reach to me. I am struggling with it as our nation reflects the wounds of the war of words being waged on our behalf in Washington, where our representatives are charged with an absolute mandate to serve the public good above all else. I am having a hard time believing an election cycle or two with the peaceful reassignment of power is likely to bring broad healing,
I have been writing a good deal of late about process, looking for corollaries of acceptable norms between business and government, digging into the core of behavior where bad form results in bad outcome. The entire tone of the debt ceiling debate felt wrong to me, and I wondered again if what we were hearing publicly was the same as what was being said privately. To that end, I wondered about the very nature of the language spoken in chambers and to the public, the rules of order imposed historically to remind us that with each gavel banging resolution we remain on the same team with a common purpose.
The imposed civility of government dialogue (“the gentleman from Nevada,” “my distinguished colleague from the great state of Virginia”) clearly was intended as a matter of protocol to smooth out the edges of vehement disagreement. I suppose that makes sense. Yet when one or the other party was asked as the hours ticked away about the claim that”we were getting close to a deal,” inevitably the retort would be: “I don’t know what they are talking about.” Some may call that negotiation style, readying for backroom agreements. To me it all seemed laden with secondary agendas that in the acceptance of dysfunction became unofficially primary—disingenuous at best, destructive at worst.
The problem for me with disingenuous discourse—posturing, grandstanding, two-faced commentary—is that it a symptom of a fundamentally unhealthy organization. Saying one thing to someone’s face and another behind his or her back may provide a temporarily effective tool in maintaining order, but it is fraught with peril in the critical endeavor of building consensus.
If we all lost the battle together, perhaps we can take from it a lesson for the business minded in moral application and at least get our heads screwed on straight as it applies to office behavior. We’ve all had occasion to dance The Disingenuous Bop. Let’s put a spotlight on the dance floor and see what reflects in the disco mirror ball. In the business world we sometimes call this gossip, and we know it is rotten to the core. It can go something like this, two employees in an ordinary private exchange, talking about their boss…
Jane: What do you think about Barry?
John: I really like Barry. I just don’t think he is very good as a leader.
Jane: Yeah, I like Barry, too. He was great when he hired me. But now he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.
John: Did you read what they wrote about Barry in the Wall Street Journal?
Jane: Yes, I wrote him an email and told him I thought they were unfairly harsh. He needed the boost.
John: Yeah, me too. I hope that helped him feel better. But you have to agree, he had it coming. He championed that stupid project and we lost a ton of money on it.
Jane: Yeah, I know, I thought it was going to be high-profile so I asked Barry to put me on it and he did. Then the project tanked. I tried to get off it, but I was stuck on it. Luckily I’m not taking the heat, he is.
John: Yeah, you dodged a major bullet on that. Lucky you. I was in the final milestone review last month and I knew it was a dog. It needed at least another month of polish.
Jane: Did you tell the group more time might save it?
John: No, it would have pissed them off. They were so happy with it, feeling self-satisfied and even though Barry asked if anyone thought we were in trouble on it, I knew that wasn’t what he wanted to hear, so I just went along with the program.
Jane: You probably would have taken some heat for being disruptive, so you kept your head low, that makes sense. I just wish the project would have been a winner, because I was going to ride it all the way up and ask Barry for a raise and a promotion.
John: And you would have earned it, too, if the project had been a winner. Barry would have been a happy camper, so you probably would have gotten it. Too bad.
Jane: Yeah, what a lost opportunity. Hey, are you going to the party at Barry’s house this weekend?
John: Absolutely, wouldn’t miss it. Career limiting move not to go to his party.
Jane: Yep, I’ll be there too, same reason. Good thing we both made the guest list. I guess he still likes us.
John: Yeah, I like him too. I don’t really like his parties though.
Jane: Agree 100%. Boring and not fun. See you there.
Harmless water cooler chat? A bonding experience with a fellow employee meant in good humor? Of course you would never engage in anything like this. It is rooted in the disingenuous, ugly in every respect. A person of honor would either reset the give and take or walk away.
There is nothing about being disingenuous that is ultimately productive. We see the embers all around us. Dance carefully, your name could be substituted for that of Barry at any time. If someone plays the game with you, they’ll play the game against you. Honor by definition is consistent. Smug is not a long-term strategy. Not caring about not caring is not sustainable. We are meant to live in one world, not maintain parallel existences for convenience and expedience. Style is content. Integrity only has one face.