#173 – “Leading Faithfully” Basics – The Toxicity of “Work as Usual”

ESSENCE: Organizational cultures that are broken through the toxic assumptions and motivations of business as usual lead to “work” in those cultures becoming something far from God’s good and life-giving design in Genesis. There are four key aspects of toxic work as usual that flow from the attributes of business as usual: Idol and Identity; Money and Power; A Burden; and Unhealthy Relationships.  The toxicity of work as usual and its impact on people and families is exacerbated by a culture of achievement and the marketing message of “more and bigger”, which can produce pressure to work harder and longer.  In God’s design, work is an essential part of life to be balanced with other aspects of our life, and the Bible gives us a priority structure. Reconciling the demands of work as usual and the fallen nature of our world with Biblical priorities requires a combination of prayer, conversation and fellowship, mixed with integrity, trust and humility.

“Leading Faithfully” Basics is about going back and re-examining the basics of leading faithfully through business a better way–business in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.

In Leading Faithfully Basics post #169  (The “Way” of the World), we discussed the characteristics of what we call business as usual–organizational dynamics in the “way” of the kingdom of the world.  We also asserted that business as usual is at the root of the brokenness detailed in post #164 (The Brokenness of Business as Usual).  As further explained in post #171 (How the World’s “Way” Wrecks “Work”), those attributes lead to that brokenness by wrecking “work” as God designed it.

The toxic result of that wreckage and brokenness is what we call work as usual.

Work as God Intended vs Work as Usual 

It seems some otherwise Biblically-literate people mistakenly believe work is a curse that was imposed on humans because of the Fall (in our experience, they think of the Fall and God telling Adam that the ground would be cursed).  Certainly, many people who have never read the Bible believe that their work is a curse to be limited by “Work-Life Balance” and finally eliminated through retirement.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

God created work before the Fall.  In Genesis 2:15, we learn “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”  Just as God creatively and productively worked to create all things, as God’s image-bearers it is in our very nature to be creative and productive workers.  Through the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1:28 (i.e., the command to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth), God commands us to work to steward and cultivate His creation.   In the words of Tim Keller in his book Every Good Endeavor:

[Work] was part of God’s perfect design for human life, because we were made in God’s image, and part of his glory and happiness is that he works, as does the Son of God.

We believe people are more “fully human” when engaged in meaningful work that unleashes their God-given productivity and creativity in a culture of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community and human dignity.

Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world in which most people work in an environment of business as usual and marketing is designed to convince us we need and deserve more material things, which can produce pressure to work harder and longer to provide more and better.

If an organization is just an association of human beings working together, is it any surprise that the brokenness of business as usual and the “way” of the world would lead to work as usual being broken in related ways?

Organizational cultures that are broken through the toxic assumptions and motivations of business as usual lead to “work” in those cultures becoming something far from God’s good and life-giving design in Genesis.  

Work as usual is broken and toxic in the factory and in the professional services firm.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” description of the problems of work as usual, but when you dig down below the surface, there are surprising similarities between the tall shiny skyscraper on “Wall Street” and the factory on “Main Street”.  Before we can start following the example of Nehemiah and begin rebuilding business a better way and work a better way, we need to explore the “rubble”.

Exploring the “rubble” requires lifting the veil of “as usual”, which the world has used to convince us that “as usual” is the only way. But “as usual” was not God’s design for His creation–for humanity.  In the words of Morpheus in The Matrix:

The Matrix is everywhere . . . It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

We believe there are four key aspects of toxic work as usual that flow from the attributes of business as usual:

• Idol and Identity

• Money and Power

• A Burden

• Unhealthy Relationships

Work as Usual: An Idol and Identity

This is the idea that work as usual means our work has come to define “who” we are, rather than being a place to express “who” we are.

Work as an Idol and Identity is a product of both American culture as well as a business as usual culture.

American culture, in particular, glorifies our work as our primary identity.  What is the first question asked at a cocktail party upon meeting someone new?  “What do you DO?”  Almost reflexively, Americans label themselves by their work:  “I AM a lawyer.”  “I AM a policeman.”  “I AM a nurse.” I AM a mechanic.”  Is it any wonder that people feel a profound loss of identity when they are in-between jobs–they have ceased to BE anything.

Business as Usual also contributes to our unhealthy focus on work as identity:

Long hours leave little room for other identities.

Management often demands loyalty over other interests.

Even a person’s primary extra-curricular activities can be work-related when sports teams and community service projects are employer-sponsored.

A person’s self-worth and value is wrapped-up in whatever they see as their primary identity. There are numerous problems that can flow from work being a person’s primary identity and source of worth and value:

An injury or illness can take it away.

An employer or investor has the power to take away “who I am“, if even for a short period of time.

• If those to whom a person answers (e.g., managers, investors) are driven by profit and power, that person is vulnerable to extreme manipulation in their pursuit of worth and value through their job. 

A person can only have one primary identity, and they will sacrifice their secondary identities to ensure success in their primary identity. With work as Identity and Idol, identities grounded in things like faith, family and fitness will be compromised or even sacrificed to ensure success at work.  In her book Overwhelmed: How To Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, author Brigid Schulte described the “ideal worker”: “So tied to his job is the ideal worker that he works endless hours, even if it costs him his health and his family.”

Work as Usual: Money and Power

This is the idea that work as usual prioritizes the pursuit of money and power rather than the development of relationships.

With business as usual focused on Profit as Purpose and work as usual being an Idol and Identity, it is no surprise that work as usual has become all about “making money”, whether for survival or for power.

When the culture of a business embodies Profit as Purpose together with Scarcity and Self-Interest assumptions, people will come to understand, at some level, that they are ultimately tools for maximizing profit and that they will be rewarded or punished based upon their perceived contribution to that goal.  Work as usual will flow from business as usual, and they will begin to see co-workers as either competitors in a zero-sum game or primarily as tools for their success or survival in that culture.

Because people are not the focus of business as usual, they do not become the focus of work as usual.  Just as people can be no more than tools of production when profit maximization is the goal to which the business is managed, other people become tools for doing our work as usual.

Other people become managers we must please.

Other people become co-workers we compete with or need to succeed (or survive).

Other people become subordinate resources we need to do our job.

The corrosive assumptions of the business as usual culture, such as Scarcity and Self-Interest, become the assumptions out of which people work and treat others.  For example:

Those assumptions infect how people do their work and how they treat others.

Knowledge, information and influence are guarded as sources of power (or survival) and aids in making money.

People can feel insecure in their position, which can lead to unhealthy responses such as micro-managing, controlling or disengaging.

Work as Usual: A Burden

This is the idea that work as usual has become a burden that we can’t wait to “retire” from rather than a blessing and a reflection of God’s character that is essential for humans to experience the fullness of their humanity.

The perception of work as a Burden can occur among both those people who view work as a “job” and those people who view work as a “career”.

For those who view work as a “career”, work can become a Burden as the means to acquire idols and identities.  The culture of achievement and the marketing message of “more and bigger” can put tremendous pressure on people to work longer and harder to “climb the ladder”, “fit in” or “keep up with the Jones’s”–the new car, the boat, the bigger house, the vacation house, the private schools, the country club, the season tickets, the dream vacations or the programs for children.  Social media amplifies the need to “keep up” by expanding our universe of “Jones’s” from our neighbors to everyone we ever knew from high school, college and beyond.  For those chasing idols, “retirement” can become just one more achievement.

For those who view work as a “job”, work can be little more than a necessity–“necessary” to pay the mortgage, “necessary” to put food on the table, “necessary” to avoid getting fired.  In manufacturing or distribution, work for many people can be monotonous–factory or warehouse shift-work (and even piece-work) that is just a way to pay the bills (barely).  The cultural “more and bigger” pressure can magnify the Burden by demanding over-time or a second or third “job”.  “Retirement” can become an “escape”.

We believe employee “engagement” is a helpful proxy for assessing whether work is perceived as a Burden or a blessing, and studies suggest only 10% of workers are effectively mobilized–experiencing an essential part of their humanity.  The remaining 90% are experiencing varying levels of dehumanization–work as a Burden rather than a life-giving blessing.

Is it any surprise that work as usual would become a Burden (and a substantial majority of workers would not be engaged) when business as usual is characterized by Scarcity-based and Self-Interest-based behavior in a hierarchical pyramid of people who have all been reduced to tools of production being motivated/manipulated by those above them, and feeling the need to compete with/motivate/manipulate those around and below them, in order to ensure their personal success/survival in a culture designed around Profit as Purpose?  When work is a burden for a manager, it is more likely to become a burden for those they manage.

Our cultural obsession with finding “Work-life Balance” is perhaps the best indicator that work has ceased to be the blessing God intended and has become a Burden.  We no longer view work as part of our life–part of the rhythm of life.  Because it has become all-consuming and spiritually unfulfilling, we see it as something that keeps us from life–an oppositional force.  Is it any wonder that people long to “retire” and spend their remaining years as far from God’s life-giving gift of work as possible?

Work as Usual: Unhealthy Relationships

This is the idea that work as usual is characterized by unhealthy human relationships rather than life-giving community and connection.

When business as usual is characterized by (1) Scarcity-based and Self-Interest-based behavior (2) in a hierarchical pyramid of (3) people who have all been reduced to tools of production (4) being motivated/manipulated by those above them and competing with/motivating/manipulating those around them (5) in order to ensure their personal success/survival (6) in a culture designed around Profit as Purpose (that’s a mouthful!), is it any wonder that work as usual breeds Unhealthy Relationships?  People are not really a “team” working together–they are individuals pursuing Self-Interest in a culture that creates internal competition for Scarce resources and rewards winning.

You may say “Oh come on–this sounds extreme–very few organizations would actually allow this to happen.”  Consider the following:

In his book Why Business Matters to God, Jeff Van Duzer observes: “Office politics, malicious gossip, behind-the-back criticisms, cliques, truth “spinning,” destructive personal ambitions, free-riding, domineering behavior, sexism, racism, jealousy, self-promotion—these are all common features of today’s corporate environments.

In his book Connection Culture, Mike Stallard identifies two type of toxic work cultures–cultures of control and cultures of indifference:  

In cultures of control, “Employees may feel left out, micromanaged, unsafe, hyper-criticized, or helpless.

In cultures of indifference, which Stallard says are “predominant today”, “People are so busy chasing money, power, and status that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop healthy, supportive relationships. As a result, leaders don’t see value in the relational nature of work, and many people struggle with loneliness. Employees may feel like a cog in a machine, unimportant, uncertain, or invisible.”

Gallup has concluded that:

Managers account for 70% of the variance in worker engagement.

Businesses pick the wrong managers 82% of the time.

Untalented managers compensate with manipulation and politics.

CEO’s actually tend to have the lowest EQ in an organization.

Human relationships do not flourish when:

People recognize that the most important “WHY” driving the organization is ultimately profit.

People feel like they are just a means to that end–a replaceable cog in the machine.

Those relationships are hierarchical, adversarial and competitive, with management structures creating “WE/THEM” relationships and management techniques pitting people against each other.

It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. (Morpheus)

How Work as Usual Can Disorder Life

In God’s design, work is an essential part of life to be balanced with other aspects of our life such as faith, family and fitness. We believe the Bible gives us a priority structure to help us see what is important and to get a sense of the relative priorities of the aspects of our life.  We believe that work comes in at #4 in that priority structure:  God, Spouse, Children, Work.

A similar prioritization of work is described by John Beckett in his book Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul.  Beckett writes:

Our priorities should be ordered like this: First, our relationship with God; then commitment to family; and only then commitment to our work and vocations.

When we hear these priorities, we just know they seem right.  In Mark 12:30-31, it is clear that loving God comes first and then loving others.  Ephesians 5 raises love for a spouse to a special level, and Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 address the special attention needed in raising children.  But just because something “seems right” doesn’t mean it is easy, and work as usual makes it much more difficult.  For example:

• Because a person will sacrifice their secondary identities to ensure success in their primary identity, identities grounded in things like faith, family and fitness will be compromised or even sacrificed to ensure success at work when work as usual makes work an Idol and Identity.

• Because work as usual makes work about Money and Power and the “way” of the world emphasizes work as a means to acquire idols and identities, the idols and identities frequently come at the expense of faith and family–more demanding jobs, overtime, multiple jobs, moving for jobs.  Ironically, the family being hurt may be a one source of the pressure to earn enough to acquire the idols and identities.  Even more tragically, the worker can rationalize it all as being a good provider “for the family”.

• Because work as usual can make work an oppressive Burden, work can leave little time for faith and family.  Life priorities are necessarily a balancing act because work is important–not only as a means of becoming more fully human but also as a vehicle through which God fulfills His promise to provide for our needs and a vehicle through which we glorify God. Although there will be times when the faithful act of fulfilling a work commitment burdens higher priorities, those priorities become disordered when work’s demands and the burden they impose on higher priorities is not for a season but becomes the “norm” at the sustained expense of faith, family or physical health.

Maintaining Priorities in a Work as Usual World

A purely linear or hierarchical approach to life priorities misses the reality of our work as usual world and the complexity of God’s commands.  Commitments made to an employer should be honored, which means faith can’t be used as an excuse to do less than what was committed.  The Bible calls us to work with excellence as though working for God, which means that doing a shoddy job in order to get home earlier is not a “faithful” option.  Commitments to a family are covenantal and must be honored.  How can the demands of work as usual and the fallen nature of our world be reconciled with priorities of faith and family?

We believe it requires a combination of prayer, conversation and fellowship, mixed with integrity, trust and humility.

Prayer:  Seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.  We believe God wants us to succeed at faith, family and work.  God wants to help us find a third-way through seeming dilemmas.  The same Holy Spirit that shows us Faith/Family/Work is right also wants to guide us to honor those priorities.

Conversation: Be open with family members about the demands of work and with work about the priority of family.  Talk about the cost of “more and bigger” to faith and family.  Try to find the third-way through apparent dilemmas with God’s guidance.

Fellowship: Remain in close fellowship with a few friends who understand Biblical priorities but also understand your work demands.  Ask them to tell you if the burden of work as usual has ceased being seasonal and become normal.  Ask them to tell you if they see your work hurting your family.  Ask them to pray for you to balance “faithfully” and find the third-way through apparent dilemmas.

Integrity:  Recognize your covenant and commitment to family and work and do not use faith or family as excuses for dishonoring either of them.

Trust:  Trust God’s promise of provision.  Be willing to leave a job that is incompatible with the boundaries of your faith or with loving and caring for your family, believing that God will honor that choice through another avenue.  It is about doing the right thing, regardless of the personal cost.

Humility:  Be honest about whether work has been wrongly elevated above family or faith because you are building your kingdom, or because you have been captured by the cultural message for “more” that requires you to become a slave to work, or because you want to be recognized or be important or have influence or power, or because you are being affirmed for worldly accomplishments/awards/titles and it feels good, or because you are trying so hard to appear “Godly” that you have rationalized your work as God, or because you have confused “Godly” work for God in your priorities (a particular risk for those engaged in faith-based non-profit work).

If leaders elevate work above faith or family, they are likely to demand the same of those they lead.  The danger of disordered life priorities is even greater for business owners and leaders because their positions more naturally lend themselves to becoming idols and identities and the “Jones’s” in their lives can get even more difficult to chase.  For faithful leaders to “lead faithfully”, they must set an example by “living faithfully”, which requires “working faithfully” with Biblical priorities of faith, family and work–in that order.  They must also intentionally Re-Align the culture of the organization with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.  Business a better way will usher in work a better way.

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM): In giving talks about work, I frequently begin with a presentation of these three quotes about work, asking the audience if any resonate:

Work  . . . should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing. (Dorothy Sayers)

JOBS ARE WHAT people do for a living. . . . They work mainly for the purpose of making money enough to enjoy their moments of not working. (Frederick Buechner)

And at a certain age, most men I know want out. . . . Slowly, ever so slowly, the grind is eating into their souls. They are becoming men without purpose, waiting for it to be over. (Skip Moen)

Do they?

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Photo Credit: Original photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash (photo cropped)