Between a rock and a hard place

Between a rock and a hard place

“Forced into a corner…” What quality of choices do you give your employees?

In December 2014 Senator Ricky Muir voted to support the passage of new asylum seeker legislation. He made a speech explaining his vote which can be seen in the youtube clip below.

Regardless as to where you stand on the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and therefore regardless as to whether or not you agree with the way Senator Muir voted, what is evident in this speech is how anguished he was at having to make this decision.

During the speech he describes himself as having to make a choice between a bad and a worse decision and so opting for the bad decision; this description stands out in a speech in which words and, visibly from the 4 minute mark, a delivery marked by emotion tell us that this man has been in the grip of a moral dilemma. Senator Muir makes it quite plain that even though he has voted to support the government, his vote should not be taken as an endorsement of their policies in this area. This is an interesting example of someone who is forced by circumstances to act, but who is trying to reveal his reluctance at having to be compelled to act in the way that he was.

“You always have a choice…”

Have you ever been forced into a position where you have felt that you had to choose between a bad and a worse decision? We have all heard the hoary old chestnut that we always have a choice, even if that choice is simply how we respond to external circumstances or the attitude we choose to take to things out of our control. This is undoubtedly true. But what happens if the range of choices we are given, or the conditions we are compelled to respond to, are truly crap?

Image sourced from
Image sourced from

What of the workplace bullying victim who has a choice between quitting their job or staying under the authority of a boss who actively intends damage? They might get lucky and get another job (and job hunting is not something that is easy to undertake when you’re recovering from psychoscocial injury) but they also risk ending up on the dole.

What of that bullying victim’s colleagues who bear witness to the bullying day after day, and are faced with the choice of sticking up for the victim by taking on the bully, reporting it to management, or even offering social support to the victim. These are all good things to do, but many people are scared to do them for fear of attracting the bully’s wrath and being marked down as potential victims themselves. This is especially the case in organisations where the bully is a key member of management and / or has been allowed to carry on with impunity by the organisation at large.

What of a manager who has to face down a board who is guilty of poor governance and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour? Legally, that manager’s duty is pretty clear but in carrying out that duty they are forced to live dangerously, inviting perhaps the sack or harassment. A case I was involved with saw the manager in question verbally abused during board meetings and then undermined by rumours and falsehood so that they were discredited in the eyes of their colleagues and staff. Day to day work was also disrupted and obstructed placing this person in an untenable position.

What of the employee who has to choose between quitting a job and therefore abandoning a project in which they believed and letting down members of their team, or staying in place to see progress in that same project (along with their reputation and / or emotional health) stifled or undermined by poor governance, poor leadership, turf wars or policy directives that they consider to be morally dubious? Again, I have actually witnessed this happen.

“But there are laws against that sort of thing…”

Yes, officially and ostensibly there are always avenues of complaint. Organisations have internal regulations, policies and procedures; societies have regulations and laws in place. But these don’t always work. Bullies can be very clever at covering their tracks and / or leveraging support from management. Even if they are not themselves the problem, board members and managers don’t always have the will, guts, nous or moral backbone to enforce their policies or work on their workplace culture or constraining groupthink. Australia currently has a huge problem with workplace bullying; suggesting that there are many workplaces where this is the case.

I agree that managing an organisation can be hard. From personal experience I can say that I found some aspects of managing people onerous or even tedious. But one of the joyful aspects of managing others is the positive effect you can have on the workplace experience of your employees. As a manager you have enormous power. Applying yourself to initiatives that will provide security, foster clear communication or team spirit can provide support, inspiration and even contentment to employees. Seeing people under your care become happier and more engaged is hugely rewarding. Nurturing talent and initiative can be exciting for both manager and team.

How are you using your power?

Under your management, how are strategy, policy, process and conditions aligning themselves? How much autonomy and personal power does your staff have? Do they have access to avenues of communication, support or resources if they have ideas to share or try? Do they have the chance to contribute to building their team, shaping policy or improving conditions? Do they have the means of redress if something goes wrong?

Or have they been abandoned to a situation where organisational vision and mission statements do not align with the day to day reality in their workplace? Are they caught between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between a bad and worse decision, when dealing with problems? Have they been made to feel like one individual against an uncaring workplace culture? Like Senator Muir, do they feel that they have been backed into a space by circumstance where their personal sense of morality counts for nothing, that their range of personal choices is limited to actions from which they feel a sense of disconnect, be that moral, creative or logical.

“Don’t live your life like you’re trying to survive to the end” is a lovely inspiring thought from Katie Hamilton.

And, I would argue, don’t make others live that way. Use what power you have to empower others.

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