Wednesday, January 26, 2005

MH - Maybe There's No "I" in Team, But...

And finally, some of you are going to ask what it is about me and Corporate America. Why do I have to let loose with another attack every few days. It’s as if I find big business under the bed of every societal issue there is. Do I have some kind of hang-up? Maybe a CEO-edipal complex? (Sorry about that. No, not really.)

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I work in Corporate America, and have friends in the same position I’m in, therefore we tend to exaggerate the impact it has on our lives and culture. Or perhaps this series of posts will wind up collected into a book that covers the subject in more detail.

Be that as it may, this one seems to tie in to our general theme on the family. It comes from a friend of mine who was complaining about the corporate “team building” trip he was being forced to go on. “For three days,” he said. “Up at some resort. They treat it like it’s supposed to be some kind of reward – snowshoeing, snowmobiling, that kind of thing.”

“Aren’t you going to do any work up there?” I asked.

He snorted. “Yeah, maybe a half day of ‘team’ meetings to figure out our strategy for the next year.”

“But you could do that in a conference room,” I said. “Why drive two hundred miles just for that?”

“Exactly,” he said. “They complain about how we have to increase our return to the shareholders. They keep cutting and outsourcing, trying to find every penny they can pinch. They freeze our salaries, put a freeze on hiring. And then they come up with something like this. During Lent, no less. They didn’t ask me if I wanted to spend three days away from my family.”

“Maybe they just assumed you were unhappy at home, like everyone else.”

He just shook his head. “If they want to reward me, they know how to do it.”

“Show me the money?” I offered, knowing his penchant for movie quotes.

“Well, that’d be a good start,” he said.

You might wonder why I seem to be relating this charming, if somewhat irrelevant, conversation. Well, it all has to do with this link I ran across a while ago, something that I’d found interesting and saved for a later date. It has to do with emotional infidelity, and how the modern workplace contributes to it. The author, therapist M. Gary Neuman, says “We can't fool ourselves into believing that we can have intimaterelationships at work and still have a great relationship at home.”

In his book, Neuman points to the workplace as Ground Zero for the problem of emotional infidelity. Research shows it's where the majority of extramarital affairs get started - perhaps as high as 73 percent, according to one study.

He sees opportunities for inappropriate behavior behind every lunch, every trip for drinks after work, and every business trip where men and women are thrust into prolonged social contact without their spouses.

Modern "team building" retreats where male and female co-workers climb walls or rappel down cliffs? Neuman would like to see them come to an immediate end.

"We have hard and fast decisions to make," he says. "What's the most meaningful thing in your life? We can't fool ourselves into thinking we can have these intimate relationships at work and still have a great relationship at home."
As is often the case with ideas, I think Neuman takes this one a little too far. Men and women can have successful, platonic friendships (I have several – just ask my wife) without seeing them devolve into sexual relationships. Of course, one of the keys to this is to establish a spiritual relationship within your friendship, one grounded in the love of Christ that we pass along to one another.

Parenthetically, Neuman’s theory that emotional intimacy is a kind of adultery begs the question as to whether same-sex friendships (think of the stereotypical friendship between women who confide their deepest secrets, ones they could never tell their husbands) are a form of homoerotic emotional intimacy. A few years ago this might have been an absurd question, but in light of same-sex marriage, you’d be a fool not to bring it up. Interesting in passing, but not the point of this post.

By taking it to extremes, Neuman runs the risk of discrediting his more pointed (and dead-on) comments on the role of the workplace in emotional and sexual infidelity. I’m not trying to say that Corporate America promotes adultery. What they’re concerned with is their bottom line, nothing more, nothing less. They want to create an environment that, in their opinion, becomes more conducive to productivity.

Somewhere along the line (probably in the mind of an unemployed middle manager who became a consultant) we got this idea of team building, that a group of employees working in a common department had to become a “team,” and that would somehow be good for business. Of course, someone should have pointed to the Oakland Athletics the New York Yankees of the 70s as examples of dysfunctional teams who were nonetheless extremely successful (five World Series titles in that decade, if my memory serves). Fact is, you don’t have to turn the office into a love-in to succeed.

What team building really is is just another new-age mantra that Human Resources executives have latched onto, perhaps as a way to justify their existence as more than Personnel departments. It’s all part of the larger picture, one that I’ve touched on before (See “The Indignity of Work” as an example) of how Corporate America distains the family. They aren’t trying to break the family up, per se, but Heaven forbid it should become an obstacle to the profit margin. We provide conveniences for the employees not to make their lives easier, but to keep them more productive by eliminating reasons to leave the office. We make workforces smaller and require more hours from those who are left, taking away their time with their families. We give them all laptops, making it easier for them to bring their work home. And we introduce these absurd “off-site” team building events that take them away from their home in the middle of the week for no good reason except that we can.

Is it a tall leap from this to the rest of what ails Corporate America? I don’t think so, although perhaps I haven’t had the time (or the skill) to make the point more clearly. But I intend to do so in the future, looking at everything from the nihilism of “Who Moved My Cheese” to the overriding desire for profit, whether it means promoting embryonic stem-cell research because of its effect on the economy and the investment potentials it provides, or working on evil products like the morning-after pill because there’s a market for them, and a market means profits down the line. It’s the old chicken-and-egg question – do they simply answer the demand, or do they help create it? Any marketing expert would tell you that part of a company’s job is to help generate that buzz, the message to the consumer that this product is something they just have to have. If commercials didn’t work, we wouldn’t be inundated with so many of them.

I don’t know how many times I’ll have to say this, but I am not against capitalism (although perhaps I’m leaning a little toward distributionism now and then). What has to be emphasized, again and again, is that capitalism has to have a moral foundation in order to succeed. That means the people who run the company – the officers, the managers, the employees, the stockholders. As Bishop Sheen once said of corruption, it’s like beer – the bubbles rise from the bottom. Until moral values – real moral values – take hold and rise, like bubbles, to the top of the corporate ladder, we’re going to continue to be confronted with issues like this. And I’m going to continue to write about it, again and again.

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