Management / The American View: Dead Inside Like Retsuko

The American View: Dead Inside Like Retsuko

People all around you are suffering thanks to a lack of hope for their professional future. Business Reporter's resident U.S. blogger exhorts you to leverage your position as a leader to bring those people genuine hope.

How did you start your workday this morning? Were you half-asleep, dreading the mocking screech of the alarm clock? Were you wracked with pain and stiffness as you forced yourself out of bed? Were you teary-eyed from squinting at the rising sun in endless stop-and-go traffic? Or crushed by a throng of strangers on the unventilated train? What did you feel as you finally sat down in your cubicle or found an empty chair in the ‘open plan’ mosh pit? Were you exhilarated by the unlimited possibilities for career advancement? Or were you like the majority of your co-workers: bone-weary, utterly demoralised, simmering with impotent rage, and crushed under the recognition that today’s labour will amount to nothing more than a smudged photocopy of every other day’s efforts, contributing nothing, ablating your meagre reserves of sanity, and dragging you infinitesimally closer to a meaningless death? [1]

If that bleak sentiment didn’t resonate with you, congratulations! Trust me when I say this column is entirely aimed at you because of that. That is, the people who recognize their own lives in that opening paragraph are not the people who desperately need the advice that’s coming in this column. Rather, what they need is for you to listen carefully and to change the way that you act in the office. This is aimed at motivating you to help shoulder your colleagues’ burdens … so that, in doing so, you’ll help to make your workplace slightly less oppressive as a by-product of actively supporting your people.

Still with me? Bueno. I’m going to set some context with a couple of pop-culture artefacts (as usual), but first I want to make it clear that many of the people around you right now are suffering. They may be pretending that everything’s fine. That they love their work. Inside, though, they’re tormented by a type of malaise that frequently affects modern workers. This is an emotionally consumptive state brought on by the realization that most modern work is essentially meaningless, that there’s no correlation between effort and reward, and that every day invested in one’s current role incrementally erodes one’s chances of ever attaining a better life.

For most middle-class workers, a ‘career’ is like a never-ending jog in the desert. Sure, you’re thirty and weary NOW, but keep plugging away at it for another few decades and then you’ll die

As our first example, consider the sleeper hit Aggretsuko from Japan’s mascot company Sanrio. If you haven’t caught the buzz on this show yet, it’s a subversive ‘office life’ tale centring around the eponymous main character Retsuko … an anthropomorphic panda who slaves away in the accounting department of a Japanese company. Unlike typical ‘cute animal’ stories, the characters in Aggretsuko are fully-developed, complicated, and disturbingly realistic (despite being initially presented as 2D caricatures). There are no easy villains or happy endings. Retsuko is thoroughly demoralised after investing five years at one company, never advancing or growing, powerless to deal with her abusive boss and execrable co-workers, and unable to find support from her romantic partner. Her only means of escape comes from singing death metal songs at karaoke after hours.

For a longer take on this, I strongly urge you to take twelve minutes out and watch the video The Existential Horror of Aggretsuko published by John Walsh (the fellow behind the popular YouTube channel SuperEyepatchWolf). At about the seven-minute mark, Mr Walsh narrates this essential insight regarding the show’s characters:

‘… they’re all trapped in this brutal existence and have all developed their own strategies for coping with it. And that’s an existence I’m guessing that most people can relate to. Despite the fact that Aggretsuko is a cute-looking Sanrio show, it depicts the realities of day-to-day adult life.’

The reason why this show has resonated so strongly with audiences is because it recognizes the struggles that a great many twenty-, thirty- and forty-something mid-tier workers encounter in office life. Retsuko exemplifies what many (some might argue most) people inevitably come to feel: the erosion of hope that one’s future will improve. They might have been excited and ambitious when they first set out on their own and started working. There inevitably comes a day when they realize that some of their best adult years have been squandered in a blur of irrelevance. That their ‘career’ is less of a stepping stone to wealth, glory and power, and more like Conan the Barbarian’s wasted youth years spent pushing the Wheel of Pain. [2]

I couldn’t license a still from the 1982 movie, so watch this guy endlessly flipping a tractor tyre in a car park while playing Basil Poledouris’s epic soundtrack.

Aggretsuko isn’t the only TV show to plumb these depths. Bryan Fuller’s dark comedy series Dead Like Me ran on Showtime from 2003 to 2004. In the pilot episode, the show’s emotionally-disengaged lead character George is randomly killed by a toilet seat falling to earth from the disintegrating Mir space station. George’s soul isn’t allowed to pass into the afterlife; she’s instead forced to remain among (but estranged from) the living as a grim reaper. The show explores the idea of ‘afterlife bureaucrats,’ carrying out orders they don’t understand and bringing misery to strangers that they have no conflict with. The reapers’ function is supposedly necessary but is also emotionally exhausting. Making matters worse, every reaper is assigned a secret individual quota of souls to reap before they’re allowed to die … Some ‘succeed’ in a few years, others have worked diligently for centuries and seem to be trapped in a hellish nightmare of futile nonexistence.

When you strip away the metaphysics and theology, Fuller’s story is really an allegory of adult workplace life. The reapers didn’t choose their occupation; they’re stuck in jobs that they don’t like and can’t leave. They don’t know how long they’ll be forced to keep delivering work they don’t believe in or understand. Their work keeps them isolated from other people who might otherwise have supported them (friends, family, etc.).

Both stories use farce, exaggeration, and interpersonal drama to explore the same essential theme: how do you cope when you find yourself trapped in a dead-end job? When you run out of (or lose access) to support? When you realize that your chances of improving your live are inexorably slipping away and there’s nothing you can do about it? What keeps you from giving in to despair?

In both shows, the suggested answer is a combination of (1) personal enlightenment and (2) other people. That’s important for our purposes. Hang on to that idea. I promise that we’re coming right back to it.

Stay with me, buddy. We’re almost there. 

The workplace hopelessness problem is hugely corrosive to employee morale, discipline, productivity, and office culture. That’s why we all have to address it. If you’re lucky enough that it doesn’t afflict you, personally, groovy! Understand that it still affects you even if you’re not experiencing it yourself. People who are distracted by the hopelessness of their personal and/or professional situations are not paying close attention to the ‘bigger picture.’ They’re not putting in the effort required to follow nonsensical workplace rules. Their despair is consuming so many mental cycles that they don’t have any to spare for non-essential things … like worrying about standards.

That’s why leaders are compelled to act; to counter this insidious menace. If basic human compassion doesn’t motivate you, then do it for pragmatism’s sake. Protect your company from preventable human error. Think of investing in your team’s morale as a pre-emptive strike against the erosion of performance standards if that helps.

What’s important is that you do whatever is in your power to do. Reach out to the people around you and help them. Specifically, help your people regain a sense of hope for and control over their lives. Given them a viable career path. Bring them mentoring and encouragement. Secure them some job security and stability. Use your power and influence to chip away at the factors that undermine your people’s confidence and trust. Help bolster their belief that their loyalty, effort, and good faith will all pay dividends.

I’ve endured jobs where our team legitimately lost all hope for the future. Once our boss abandoned the lie that things would get better, our team’s morale sank like a torpedoed cruise ship. People dreaded coming to work. They all sat listlessly in silence rather than work. No one had energy left to care about spotting and reporting phishing e-mails. ‘Work’ was like a prison sentence; evenings and weekends were like sitting on career-death row. Nobody cared about the work anymore. Why should they?

Those people were legitimately consumed with worry about how they were going to keep paying the bills once the farce finally imploded.  

As leaders, we must actively watch out for signs of this hopelessness whenever and wherever it manifests and then do everything that we can to fight it. That’s what leaders are for: we liberate hope. Even if we all we can offer is small scraps of genuine hope, that scrap is still far more nourishing to a hope-starved colleague than a ‘motivational’ poster, a wacky dress-up day, or a rote ‘team-building’ exercise. Most people aren’t idiots; they know when they’re being led on. Treat people with the respect they’re due and offer then authentic solutions. They deserve no less.

One final note: if you can’t make the workplace somewhere worth serving, then do what’s morally right and help our people escape to somewhere better. Ideally that would be a better job. Sometimes, all we can do is take them out to karaoke and encourage them to belt out some blistering death metal. Whatever helps them cope.

I’m dead serious when I say that the single most important thing that every leader can do is do something. When you detect hints of it, take action. Reach out. Help. No one deserves to rot inside day after day, consumed with hopelessness and dreading the future.


[1] I know this opener is dark. Thank you. Yes. Just hang on. Trust me, it does get brighter. Which, come to think of it, is the entire point of this column.

[2] Without any of the positive effects of a bodybuilding regimen.

 

Title Allusions: Rareko (writer/director), Aggretsuko (2016 TV series and 2018 Netflix video series). Bryan Fuller (creator) Dead Like Me (2003 TV series)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featured

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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