Feeling rejected, let down, betrayed or cheated on, is not necessarily a phenomenon limited to our personal lives. These disappointments exist wherever there are relationships, irrespective of their nature. Some may say ‘learn to live with it’; but why should anybody compromise? Can we not learn to do things little differently?
Take favouritism, discrimination or prejudice in the workplace that has transformed our lives into an unpleasant and complex network of human interactions. More often than not, we don’t even know where we stand. Forced into a maze of possible pathways, thinking ‘what’, ‘why’ or ‘how’ is harder when it is deep-rooted in the organization’s culture and is cascaded from the very top. And then we talk about our company core values; funny isn’t it?
We use modern concepts such as ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘triple bottom line’, ‘fair-trade’, ‘sustainability’, ‘social enterprise’, ‘micro-finance’, and ‘wellbeing’ or ‘work-life balance’. Talking from a macro perspective, organizations seem to be heading in the right direction. However, a closer look at the individual may reveal a contradictory personal picture. Let us face it, western or eastern, individualistic or collectivist, we are all harried at some stage of our career by these internal politics.
I once worked as a deli assistant in a supermarket in Melbourne. Our department was always praised for hard work. Little did they know, that it was mere compliance and not commitment. A pure dictatorial with a typical type-A personality, my manager had 3 pets and I was one of them, solely because I was a full-time student studying and working far away from home. If one of her favourites reported late to work, she would help us to blame it on the transport system, but if any other person came late, she would reprimand and charge them for being down-right irresponsible.
Believe me, it cost us the cooperation of our work colleagues as they started grouping and gossiping against us. Moreover, we could not ignore the downward spiral in their self-esteem, job-satisfaction and the quality of work. We were all under stress, under this manager who was unapproachable. Some of us were favoured, some of us were discriminated against and my boss was notoriously labeled as a very unsuitable candidate for a promotion as a store manager.
We talk about it and document in our policies explicitly or implicitly; it’s called ethical leadership. When we get new recruits to sign a contract, with or without our knowledge, they also sign a ‘psychological contract’ in their heads. They come to work for us, expecting fairness and justice in all the work functions. The question is, ‘how competent are we as organizations to deliver it?’
Favouritism is just one component of ethical leadership but the lack of it is obvious in the workplace. Favouritism may be traced back to our families due to factors such as your intellect, creativity, birth order, general behaviour, gender or physical appearance. Then in school, this may have been extended to the classroom, playground, cultural clubs and other available opportunities. And now, we are here working at a ‘competency-driven’ company that employs ‘adults’.
Has anything changed at all? After all, it is not so difficult to understand why. Why are we attracted to this drama of favouring, forming cliques and politicking? Some say that it goes back to our morals, values and principles, whilst others say we lack the conscience. Whatever it is, one main reason could be that we are unaware of it; be it the ones who favour or who are being favoured. Another could be that we are aware, but cannot be bothered changing our behaviour.
The more similar people are in terms of their background, social status or sometimes even appearance, the more they cluster together, chitchat and defend each other. Some of us seem to be too attractive or too competent not to be given the first preference always. Furthermore, some of us love to be worshipped and wanted by at least a few, whilst some of us like to be protected. Some of us like to create the path for themselves, whilst some of us like to walk the path created for them. Ethical leadership defines you more as a person than a boss or a direct-report; so the challenge is to work in our organizations in a way that would define us for who we are, and not the other way around.
Winning at any cost seems very contemporary. But then again, it may be born first within families, when children are not taught that it is okay to lose to their peers. We all have different personalities; some of us are motivated to maintain relationships, whereas some others are motivated by power and achievement. The aim would be to strike a healthy balance.
Some blatantly say that the easiest and fastest game to play to reach the top is politicking, that being ethical means falling behind the crowd and that equality cannot be adhered to as the opposite is too ingrained in the system. Some also say that the persistent pressure by the organizations to perform is causing them to compromise their standards of behaviour. But ethics do not allow excuses; it does not have any grey areas.
It does not have to be the survival of the favourites; it still can be the survival of the fittest.
(The writer is a Business Psychologist and currently CEO of Forte, a consultancy for Business Psychology. She has worked with diverse groups of people from different levels in organizations in Sri Lanka, the UK, Australia and Dubai.
She has lectured at the Institute of Personnel Management in Sri Lanka and Post Graduate Institute of Management (International) in Dubai on Human Development, Counseling and Social Psychology.
Ms Cooray will be writing a regular column on Business Psychology issues in the workplace. Any comments on the article could be sent to email@example.com).