"Hell is other people," wrote the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He was right, but only half right. The other half is, "Heaven is other people, too." To work in an organization necessarily means working with other people -- coworkers, bosses, customers, vendors, the public. Our relationships with other people are what give us most of our headaches -- but these relationships can also give us much joy.
Bankers have been heard to mutter, "This would be a great place to work, if it weren't for the customers." University staff people sometimes comment, "This would be a great place to work, if it weren't for the students." Book publishers occasionally gripe, "This would be a great place to work, if it weren't for the authors." Wherever you work, I am sure that you, too, can identify groups of people that make your life difficult. Bosses complain about their workers, workers complain about their bosses.
Isn't it funny how everyone seems to think that someone else is the problem? And yet, many people who work from home complain that the thing they miss the most is other people!
What are we to do? We can't seem to live with one another, but we can't live without one another. Woody Allen summarized our predicament nicely at the end of his movie "Annie Hall," when he turned to the camera to comment on an old joke:
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken." And the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" And the guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs." Well, I guess that's pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd and... but I guess we keep going through it... because... most of us need the eggs.
The Buddha understood this dilemma, and much of his teaching addresses how to live in community with other people. How we can work together in organizations, getting the "eggs" we all need and not hurting each other in the process. How do we avoid having to walk on eggshells around other people at work?
The Buddha teaches that we only truly exist in our relationships. This is why their power is so great. This is why they can be heaven or hell for us. Relationships are eternal; we are not. Whether picking leaders, or building teams, or training employees, or ending conflicts, we are creating relationships, we are working through relationships. The Buddha's teaching can make those relationships the path of awakening itself.
For instance, what do you think Buddha would say about the much-admired Golden Rule? A story about famed Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki provides a hint:
Philip asked Suzuki why the Japanese make their teacups so thin and delicate that they break easily. "It's not that they're too delicate, but that you don't know how to handle them. You must adjust yourself to the environment, and not vice versa." (David Chadwick, "To Shine one Corner of the World")
The intention behind the Golden Rule is good: treating others the way we want to be treated generally makes for good relationships. But there's a significant flaw in this thinking -- it assumes everyone is like you. Look even at your family and you see this is not the case. Human beings are surely as different as snowflakes. They may appear to be the same at first glance, but when we look closer, we discover striking differences.
Buddha might suggest exchanging the Golden Rule for the Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they want to be treated." Rather than criticize the teacup for being "too fragile," consider changing the way you hold the teacup. Instead of judging other people to be difficult, consider finding out more about them so that your relationship is truly mutual. In a pluralistic workforce, flexibility and adaptability are not optional -- they are fundamental practices.
BJ Gallagher's new book (with Franz Metcalf) is "Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money, and Success" (Berrett-Koehler) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b58Hw6iEEvY
Follow BJ Gallagher on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BJ_Gallagher