Thursday, August 7, 2008

Does "Evil in the Workplace" Exist?

Part of what motivates my sabbatical is a belief that there are unseen, spiritual realities behind every organization. I am seeking to name and engage these spiritual realities.

I was recently listening to an unedited version of an interview from my favorite radio show, Speaking of Faith. In this show, the host, Krista Tippet was interviewing Jonathan Greenblatt about "The Business of Doing Good." Something that Krista said during this conversation quickly and strongly tapped into the motivation behind my sabbatical. Here are some excerpts of what Krista said:

"I've observed that some organizations that do the best work in the world can be most dysfunctional... I've actually thought that there would be a show to do called 'The Problem of Evil in the Workplace'....I mean, it's just that any institution becomes a place that we interact with each other, and we bring the dark side of the human condition to work as well as the great side."

Thanks for bringing this up, Krista! I've been afraid to. I prefer a worldview that doesn't believe in evil. However, in recent years, I have had some experiences that I can best understand as an active spiritual force that seeks to harm. These spiritual forces that I've perceived have appeared to be attached to institutions.

I hesitate to use the word evil, because I think it can lead to the demonization of people and groups. Use of the word can also foster the illusion that the source of harm is entirely separate from us--an "other." I also hesitate to use the word because I believe that what we choose to pay attention to tends to grow. I don't want to grow evil.

Yet, the words "evil in the workplace" point to a spiritual reality that I'm drawn to understand and engage. I think that much of the dysfunction and pain in workplaces can be attributed to bad organizational structures, policies, and personal ethics. Yet, I sometimes find it useful to talk about a larger spirit that can be behind the details of these dysfunctions, or behind the happy coincidences that lead to success.

There have been many times I felt swept away by both negative and positive spirits moving through institutional systems. In some periods, patterns of subtle racial bias and sexual harrasment seem to build off of each other--and mix together with disempowering, confusing power structures in workplaces. I've contributed towards these negative mixes, both actively and passively. At some times, it has felt to me like there is a dark cloud following a workplace. This cloud seems to spread like an interconnected web, even though none of us individually want to act in that spirit. I want to be clear that I don't mean this as a critique of any organization that I've worked with. I've been fortunate to be in workplaces with many ethical and skilled co-workers--and it still felt as if we were sometimes resisting a pull towards a destructive spirit.

And many times I've felt a spirit of creative, redemptive goodwill spread quickly through an organization. I've seen people take risks to honestly and vulnerably confront a problem and change the tone throughout the workplace. Sometimes humor and playfulness can also ripple throughout the organization, removing a heavy layer of anxiety.

I think that many kinds of spirits can snowball. I want to understand more about how this happens. Many of these dynamics can be explained in terms of organizational culture--yet I am also drawn to the religious and spiritual language, such as "evil," that point to the way these forces can be much bigger than my intellectual understanding.

What about you? Do you think it is useful to talk about "evil" or other spiritual forces that operate in workplaces? Have you experienced them?

And if there are negative spiritual forces active in our workplaces, how do we contain and transform them? Stay tuned for future posts!


Monty said...

I believe that Institutions become greater than the sum of their parts and begin to perpetuate agendas beyond the individuals who created them. Even in a short-lived Institution like a Mob, there can be outcomes for good or evil that would not have happened through individual actions. So Institutions such as governments are very powerful and these structures mold our society and our behavior. We should never think, however, that these institutions cannot be influenced by our individual actions. Indeed, it was individual actions that created them in the first place. The seeds we sew, whether they are ones of violence or nonviolence, will take root and grow. We need to nurture the seeds of nonviolence and compassionate communication in order to transform our Institutions into ones that will serve life and peaceful resolution of our human conflicts. Yes, good and evil does exist in Institutions, just like it does in us, and each day God gives us the power to choose which seeds we will plant.

Michael Bischoff said...

After seeing this blog, a friend asked if I'd read poetry by David Whyte. I hadn't, but I found some of the poems on his web site to be very related to what I'm pursuing. Here's one:

Working Together

We shape our self
to fit this world

and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible
More at

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I love your work on this and that you are seeing this next year as a sabbatical to work on it.

I was part of a religious organization that struck me as one the most disfunctional of which I had ever been a part. I perceived it to be an organization steeped in a sense of entitlement. The organization was over 100 years old.

When I came into the organization as part of a new leadership team, we literally replaced the entire leadership team with new people.

The old culture proved to be stronger than all of us combined. In fact, I perceive that our team was coopted by the culture. The new president that I came in with ended up being terminated for taking fringe benefits for which he was not authorized. In other words, he and others of us (including me in more subtle ways) became the culture we were trying to change.

I think it is like battered women who attract men who want to batter them. It is very much like domestic violence.

There is that part of us that is caught in the shadow we are attempting to address.

Tom Allen

Anonymous said...

Mm. Yeah. I've felt the sort of thing you're writing about too.

For several years I worked with an organization that professed a mission of nurture and education. The organization spoke openly of hiring and providing space for those who were hurt and struggling; yet we daily experienced fear, control, and squelching of nurture and learning. Working there echoed, as friend Tom said, some of the dynamics in a relationship of domestic abuse.

As you know, Walter Wink says offers helpful insights in his work. The the metaphor of evil, and the Christian idea of healing the brokenness in ourselves and our world sheds light on the problem for me.

My problem: I don't know how to keep at it - the healing, that is. Often I opt for a narrow focus of action. I'm not sure if that's a cynical approach, a habit born of weariness, or my version of pragmatism.

Anonymous said...

I have never blogged before so now I will repeat my self and stick Thomas Merton's words here as well as another spot on your webssite
What is the relation of (contemplation) to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which men are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been. The result of this is evident. We are living through the greatest crisis in the history of man; and this crisis is centered precisely in the country that has made a fetish out of action and has lost (or perhaps never had) the sense of contemplation. Far from being irrelevant, prayer, meditation and contemplation are of the utmost importance in America today.

Thomas Merton
Contemplation in a World of Action
Doubleday Garden City New York
p 164
What this truth teller, Merton, said to America over 30years ago provides an even more urgent message today.


Anonymous said...

The comments this blog really spoke to me.

I cannot relate to the domestic abuse part of the abusive workplace/abusive relationship analogy. However, I can relate to making excuses and explanations which end up sounding exactly the way a battered partner would excuse the actions of his/her abuser.

I just left an organization that was much too "top-down" in its management (for my youthful desires at this time). The organization's teachings encourage personal empowerment, accountability, rejection of hierarchical thinking, etc. But the actions and culture of the organization and its management fly in the face of these ideals to the point that high turnover is creating a revolving door of staff. There are all sorts of excuses I could come up with to explain away the issues that create a negative culture at the organization, but that is where I get into the "sometimes he drinks too much and gets angry" excuse-making.

Michael and company: thank you for helping this young'n come to a deeper understanding of the strange, strange culture of organizations and institutions.

Anonymous said...

On the question of institutional evil: If evil exists, it is manifest in our behaviors. Institutions create their own cultural--and, thus, behavioral--norms. As they do so, they reshape individuals' value systems.

I was greatly changed by my work environment when I was teaching in St. Louis, where I encountered what I thought at times was institutional evil. The leadership was corrupt, and few, if any, of us, conducted ourselves according to suburban propriety/status quo. There was a lot of hostility and aggression. Now, there was a lot of good, too, but it wasn't untainted.

Maybe some of what we perceive as evil is really the result of a twisted version of our animal fight-or-flight instinct.

Viagra Online said...

I think that's true because I when I'm at my job I've seen some weird things for that reason I think the evil is present in my job.