10/23/2012 08:57 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Why Your Work Will Continue to Drive You Crazy

"Still Crazy After All These Years"

The title of that old Paul Simon song could easily describe what many people feel about life in their careers and organizations today. Studies and surveys regularly show that the workplace is damaging to many people, physically and mentally. But these reports focus on the effect rather than the cause; the surface symptoms rather than the roots of the problems men and women grapple with in their careers. The latter are found in a negative, undermining management culture and narrow, careerist values.

To explain, a few decades ago I wrote in Modern Madness about the findings of my project on how careers impact people, emotionally -- especially successful careers among younger men and women rising in their companies (the yuppies of the time -- remember them?). I described a troika of experiences: compromises between their personal values and the behavior required for upward movement and greater success; debilitating trade-offs between their beliefs or attitudes and the behavior necessary for continued career advancement; and -- not surprisingly -- anger, often severe and usually suppressed, but sometimes exploding in rage.

Back then, in the late 1980s, I found that the major source of such personal conflicts was a negative, stifling management culture. It included the personality -- and sometimes the outright pathology -- of bosses who created conditions that generated anxiety, depression, suspicion and other dysfunctional behavior; as well as physical illness. And this was among otherwise not-very-troubled people. I called them the "Working Wounded."

Their conflicts were also intensified by a view of success and achievement in our culture that young career professionals eagerly ingested during that era: money, position, and power. Those strivings often clashed with longings for greater non-material meaning -- the residue of positive ideals and the legacy of the 60s that they retained. Today, those yuppies -- now aging baby boomers -- are in very senior leadership positions. They continue to deal with career and relationship crises and dilemmas, as the faded ideals whisper ever louder in their ears.

"The More Things Change..."

Looking at this today reminds me of the French proverb, "Plus ça change..." "The more things change, the more they remain the same." That is, the recent, unpredictable economic and political conditions, the globalized marketplace, rapidly evolving technology, needs for sustainability, and the rise of the post-baby boomer generations have been transforming the workplace. This 21st Century world impacts the viability of organizations and institutions. On the other hand, management practices are often encased in a world that no longer exists, and give rise to continued conflicts and dysfunction.

That is, the generations following the baby boomers grew their careers through different eras -- both of prosperity and economic decline: The Clinton years, the post-9-11 years, and the post-Lehman era from '08 through today. Recent decades have been a time of rapid transformation in technology, and towards globalized connections and networking. This "FTY era" - of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - has coincided with the rise of the Gen-X, Gen-Y and the Millennium generations in the workplace.

And yet, the management and leadership culture of organizations often remain stuck in the kind of 20th Century mentality that gave rise to the kinds of problems I reported in Modern Madness: Too much top-down, "command and control," position-based authority; lack of communication and insufficient openness; inadequate support for learning, collaboration and teamwork. And, individuals whose management and leadership practices exacerbate the above through abuse, hostility, arrogance and malignant narcissism.

The consequences are visible in recurring reports of human damage among organizations of all sizes, both in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, most of these surveys and studies describe the problem in terms of the external manifestations of a negative or unhealthy management culture. For example:

The Damaging Impact of Stress:

Work-Life Balance Conflicts:

But there's an open secret contained in these studies: These symptoms are generated by psychologically unhealthy, unsupportive and destructive leadership practices. They don't provide the flexibility, learning and development opportunities, skill-based recognition and transparency that companies need for sustaining success and innovation. Moreover, our culture as a whole continues to operate and promote, from early childhood throughout the lifespan, a narrow view of "success" and "achievement" limited to self-interest and materialism.

Examples of the damage created by a negative leadership culture include a survey of 2000 workers that found almost 50 percent of those surveyed said that their managers made them feel threatened, rather than rewarded, and 24 percent thought their bosses were over-stressed, poor communicators and lacked empathy - a combination found to counterproductive and destructive for performance.

On the other hand:

  • A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported in Slate, finds that productivity rises in the presence of good bosses who support learning and growth.
  • Happy workers have nearly 40 percent higher productivity and creativity than less-happy workers, according to new research.

Companies and leaders who recognize the need to transform their culture and leadership practices will be those who survive and thrive. They embrace the differences in values and career orientation of younger generations of workers - the so-called "generation flux," those who enjoy dealing with rapid change and unpredictability. These are both highly competitive and collaborative people, comfortable with rapid change and unpredictability. They're impatient with old-style, position-based authority vs. authority from actual contribution and creative output. They embrace the mentality that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described as "the start-up of you," seeing themselves as pro-active vehicles of innovation self-development. Positive management wants to practice transparency; will reward and value competencies independent of age or title. This shift reflects what I've called the rising "4.0" orientation to work and career.

Whatever promotes creativity, well-being and growth of employees also promotes organizational success. In a recent talk, David Peterson, director of leadership and coaching at Google, highlighted this kind of leadership culture needed for today's organizations:

In stable environments, leaders will be most successful by optimizing performance around current needs. (But) to ensure success in dynamic environments -- such as an ever-changing future -- the best bet for leaders is to sub-optimize current performance and invest in robust strategies that enhance flexibility and adaptability. Therefore, courageous leadership and rapid learning become increasingly important the faster things change and the more unpredictable the future is.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at To learn more about him, click here.