Management / The American View: It’s Our Problem

The American View: It’s Our Problem

American etiquette dictates that you never bring up religion or politics at the dinner table or in the workplace unless you’re deliberately trying to start a fight.  Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger suggests that there is one exception to that rule, and it applies to a different kind of faith.

If you’re keen to start an argument that’s highly likely to ruin a friendship, question someone’s faith. For best results, start by addressing an unsolvable paradox that the other person’s belief system can’t adequately resolve. It’s the quickest way I know to alienate even the closest and most loyal mate. I’m not advocating that anyone actually do this. Rather, I’m bringing it up because shaken faith doesn’t just apply to arguments regading religion. It applies to deeply-held befliefs about the workplace, too.

Let’s ease into this idea. Back in 2008, American Professor Bart Ehrman [1] published a controversial bestseller called ‘God’s Problem’ The book is about the ‘suffering paradox’ in Christian doctrine. That is, the ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ question [2] and its inventible follow-on question: ‘Why does an omniscient and omnipotent deity allow His creations to suffer when He could prevent it?’

These are not trivial questions. Some of my closest mates are religious scholars and clergy-folk who got graduate degrees on this topic, studying the works of scholars and religious figures who have grappled with the exact same problem over the centuries. This isn’t casual coursework; this is ‘start a brawl in the lecture hall’ territory. That’s why I don’t talk about it with people outside the divinity school community. Just raising the issue sets way too many people off to be considered a ‘safe’ topic. [3]

Young Hispanic Family Arguing While Eating Meal At HomeNot that we have many ’safe’ topics left to discuss after the last year in international politics.  

Setting aside the religious implications, those divisive often apply equally well to secular environments. Long-time readers might have noticed that these ideas come up frequently in my columns on military culture. That’s because the military is, from an anthropological perspective, a kind of ‘church’ in that it’s an organisation with rigid orthodoxies, centuries of unique traditions, costumes and hierarchies, and aspirational beliefs regarding suffering and self-sacrifice. The military is made up of (and often run by) fallible people that intentionally subvert the service’s requirements for selfless service for personal gain or out of sheer cussed pettiness.

Looking at a notional large corporation through that same anthropological lens, it’s evident that many companies are rather church-like, each it its own way. Companies have cultures that differ from general society. Companies have codes of conduct that lay out severe punishments for unacceptable transgressions and doctrinal heresies. Companies have hierarchies of authority complete with paths to ascension from the loyal penitent newcomer to the top of the metaphorical pyramid. Companies have legacies, points of pride, scandals … just like most other large organisations.

So, what’s the point? How’d we go from starting an argument to discussing a book on religion to comparing armies and widget manufacturers to churches? It’s like this:

People are inherently social. People join organizations to fulfil un-met needs. This can involve meeting spiritual needs (religion), economic needs (military, business), or identity needs (all three). People invest their faith in their chosen organisation expecting that faith to be reciprocated fairly. The most common way that people lose faith in their organisation is through a perceived betrayal of their demonstrated faith by someone holding power over them … and by the organisation allowing that abuse to stand.

Imagine if the kid get getting pelted with flour in this stock photo was blamed for making the mess and was forced to clean it up when mom got home even though the kitchen video surveillance footage clearly exonerated the accused.

In Prof. Eheman’s book, he described how his different churchs’ inability reconcile the ‘suffering paradox’ led him to lose his faith in the Christian religion overall. I’ve interviewed many people who have suffered as Ehrman did, trying to grapple with the same discoveries, arguments, and unsatisfying conclusions that Ehrman described. Some of these people found ways to salvage their relationship with their church and/or with their religion. Others couldn’t and some of those people abandoned their faith.

I’ve had the same sorts of interviews with squaddies. I counselled many soldiers and airmen whose inability to reconcile a nearly identical ‘suffering paradox’ caused them to lose their faith in the integrity and righteousness of the military as a whole and in the virtue of their leaders. Some of these troopers found a way to balance their broken faith and continued to serve. For a few, the experience of seeing good squaddies get treated unjustly by an all-powerful and (supposedly) all-knowing institution was simply too much. Most of those people told me that they loved the service and everything it stood for, but they couldn’t continue to be a part of a system that had been thoroughly corrupted by faithless, dishonourable opportunists. Most chose to muster out or retire.

In both situations, the most common source of irreconcilable discontent that people confided to me came about from watching an unacceptable failure of the institution to enforce its own espoused values. How is an ordained priest allowed to abuse children and not be cast out of the clergy? How is an abusive and incompetent commander promoted to a positon of even greater power over vulnerable squaddies? How does a crime once discovered ever lead to empowering the criminal to repeat his crimes?

Corruption and abuse of power occur in every corner of the working world. Last autumn, the New York Times revealed what everyone in Hollywood seemed to know about ‘film mogul’ Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and assault of women subject to his authority. As the winter Olympics closed in Korea last week, the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal dominated the news here in Dallas. Dr Larry Nassar was sexually abusing nearly two hundred young gymnasts. The sheer scale of these villains’ crimes defies logic and reason. Each criminal proves that the other wasn’t an isolated anomaly.

The inescapable law of unchecked power is that such power will inevitably be abused. It doesn’t matter what the business is or who the victims might be. Without restraining controls, some monsters will harm whoever happens to be available. Even innocent children. 

That said, the erosion of faith in one’s employer doesn’t require a headline-grabbing felony. Most of the time, it just takes a preventable injustice to corrode a worker’s faith beyond the point of salvage. Faith in an organisation is damaged through perceptions of deliberate injustice, and that faith is shattered by the organisation’s refusal to correct a transgression when it’s entirely within the organisation’s ability to do so.

Such a ‘betrayal can take many forms, from promoting a clearly-unqualified candidate over one or more obviously-superior competitors, to tanking a loyal employee’s annual performance review in order to avoid paying her an earned raise. It’s a boss promising her team a reward for meeting a goal and then keeping the spoils for herself. It’s a manager hiring a relative or friend while bypassing HR requirements.

This is why those of us who teach leadership devote so much time and effort to hammering home the need to create and maintain a just office culture. People will gladly sacrifice for organisations that they have faith in. When people believe that the bosses and the systems that make the company ‘go’ will treat them fairly, they’ll put their heart into their work. That’s the sort of culture that everyone wants to be a part of.

The thing is … most people aren’t fools; mature adults don’t expect perfection from their bosses and co-workers. People recognize that everyone makes mistakes – themselves included. Failures are intolerable, accidents happen, and sometimes a bad employee engages in unacceptable behaviour. Those things alone won’t undermine people’s faith in their institution. Put another way: a ‘betrayal’ of institutional values isn’t about a single person using their power to do wrong. The betrayal comes from the institution’s failure to detect and to then decisively correct that wrong. A person’s commitment to the organisation dies when the organisation fails to take corrective action.

An organisation worth serving doesn’t shy away from its duty to bring its transgressors to justice. 

So … what? What does all this philosophizing have to do with the column’s opening paragraph about losing friends by starting uncomfortable arguments? And what’s a business-focused website doing talking about faith?

Well … think about it: what happens when a worker loses faith in his or her company’s ability and willingness to protect them? To do the right thing? To treat workers fairly? To create and maintain a just and fair environment? They become disillusioned, that’s what. They lose motivation. The quality of their work suffers. Sometimes they quit, and the organisation loses an expensive resource. Worst case: the disillusioned and faithless worker sticks around and exposes others to their attitude. A crisis of confidence in an organisation’s integrity is as corrosive as rust is to the bottom of a battleship’s hull.

So, what does faith have to do with business? Everything. It’s the cornerstone of morale, good order, and discipline. If your people don’t have faith in their organization and its leaders, then it won’t be a viable business for long. That’s why it’s crucial that every leader in an organisation has to have the moral courage to talk with their people about their faith in the system. Leaders need to be keenly aware of what their people are thinking. If workers are dissatisfied, disgruntled, or disillusioned, it’s the leader’s responsibility to find out why. If people’s discontent arose from a preventable failure to act in accordance with in accordance with the organisation’s values and standards, then leaders have to take swift, decisive, and visible corrective action to put things right.

I study theology out of personal interest, but I’m not a priest, pastor, or preacher; it ain’t my job to mitigate other people’s crises of faith. I’m not about to either start or get dragged into an argument about the ‘suffering paradox’ in religious doctrine.

You’re getting paid for this, amigo, not me. Good luck.

I am, however, a business leader. I hold a position of (minor) authority and I have people (well, person) that I’m responsible for. I recognize and accept that I have a moral and organisational duty to not only sustain a fair and just work environment, but to monitor my people to see if anyone, anywhere in the system has done something to damage my people’s faith in it and, if so, to correct what’s wrong. It’s literally my job to have those uncomfortable and difficult conversations, both for the good of my people and for the good of my company as a whole. It’s a duty that I cannot shirk if I want to keep my workers productive, loyal, and faithful over the long run. I owe them that.

If you hold a leadership position, that means it’s your problem, too. Like it or not. As we say in Texas: it ain’t gonna be easy, but it’s gotta get done. Cowboy up and get to it.

[1] His Goodreads bio starts: ‘Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.’ I interpret this to mean that he’s academically qualified to speak on the subject.

[2] Along with its corollary, ‘why do good things happen to bad people?’

[3] For the record, I’m not taking a side on this theological argument. Noooope!

Title Allusions: Dr. Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer (2008 book)

POC is Keil Hubert,

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

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Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.