On Professional Distance and Courage

Something that I’ve thought a lot about over the years, but never quite formed an opinion about, was work cultures and the relationships forged through them: what makes for a good work culture? How can you identify (and remediate) bad ones? How do we as individuals, and independent of the environments we happen to be in, create positive and productive cultures around us?

I finished a book recently that really helped me crystallize and put into words my ideas about this: The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. It’s a terrific, and quick, book. While it doesn’t address work culture specifically, its ideas are directly applicable, and they run directly counter to many popular myths about good “company cultures” in a way that finally made sense to me. Specifically:

  • Healthy work culture isn’t about everyone making friends or meeting others’ personal expectations
  • Instilling and fostering courage on the part of your employees is necessary for them to collaborate
  • The basis of a strong company is community, whose empowered members want to contribute to it

I want to talk a little bit about what this means in practice.

“Company Culture”

For a long time, I must admit that I was very skeptical about the modern obsession with “culture” at work.

In part, this is because so much of the commentary about “company culture” was, and still is, insufferable bloviating. The tech world, in particular, has elevated the “company culture” discussion to often unattainably lofty heights that sound basically utopian rather than how real businesses run. Lots of talk about “company culture” often sounds much more like a marketing, recruiting and investor pitch than a real description of how work gets done.

On the other hand, I also spent years at IBM, a company of nearly 400,000 people, where the the very idea of “a company culture” becomes difficult to generalize about. At IBM, executive leadership priorities lead to broad similarities in how its vast network businesses are managed, which does tend to produce a certain kind of corporate culture; but this, I think, is quite meaningfully different than an intentionally built work culture. I remain skeptical about whether “intentional” company cultures can even exist at such a scale (but am open to the idea!).

That all said, I’ve mostly come around on this topic. Intentional, healthy work cultures can be a major strategic advantage, particularly in knowledge industries like technology. Simply put, where human intellectual capital is the critical resource, work culture is what allows that resource to thrive. Setting smart people into toxic, or even simply unoptimized, work cultures is like pouring jet fuel into a Ford Pinto’s V-4 engine. Whatever you get out will be limited by the constraints of the system, not the resource that’s running it.

Healthy cultures are built on realistic expectations

Lots of toxic work cultures are based on unrealistic or unhealthy expectations by employees and managers of the relationship between company and the individual.

In their book, Kishimi and Koga point out, and I agree, that it’s useful to think about the relationships in your life in terms of how easily they can be severed. This tends to be a good gauge of how much value they carry.

At one extreme, consider a parent/child relationship. This is a relationship that can arguably never be truly severed. You will never not be someone’s son or daughter. No matter how estranged you might become with your parents, they will never not be your parents, nor you, not their child. The parent/child relationship is arguably the most powerful one in the human experience, in part because it’s nearly impossible to truly extricate from it.

Sliding along the scale, you might consider a marriage, a 30-year friendship, a close-knit community or your casual friends. Each of these entails a different set of costs – legal, financial, social and psychological – to sever, from the onerous to simple. Relationships that are “costless” to leave just aren’t that meaningful. The ones that are excruciating to leave are, at least, deeply meaningful, whether positively or otherwise.

By contrast, your relationship with an employer – a business, which is a corporate entity that has no feelings for you or anyone else – is comparatively as thin as parchment. Your at-will employer can separate from you today, for no reason at all. One does not really have a “relationship” with your employer at all, at least not in the sense as one does with another human being. We lack the vocabulary to properly distinguish a human relationship from a contractual one with a corporate entity, though the term “relationship” has vastly different meanings in either case.

It is fashionable for some companies, particularly startups, to refer to themselves as a “family.” If you encounter this, be cautious. While it’s usually well-intentioned, it can lead employees to build unrealistic expectations of their obligations to the employer – and, conversely, the obligations they can call upon from their employer in return. An employee-employer relationship is not a family relationship, in the sense that it can be severed very easily. Indeed, ensuring a minimum of corporate obligations towards the employee, and enumerating those obligations in a specific, tangible dollar amount, is a big reason Human Resources departments exist.

People who build unreasonably strong senses of obligation towards their company can develop deeply unhealthy habits: workaholism, feelings of guilt, and overlooking otherwise unacceptable behavior out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to their “family” at work. That kind of environment is just not conducive to fostering the best performance of healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Building courage

In many workplaces today, it seems to me that we have a surplus of confidence, but not enough courage. These are superficially similar concepts, but meaningfully different.

“Courage” has gotten a bad rap in the tech world ever since Apple used it, apparently in earnest, to describe the product decision to remove headphone jacks from their phones. Courage is not that. Kishimi and Koga, channeling the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, use it as a term to describe basic moral centeredness that gives one self-assurance and the ability to interact with other adults as equals, not as a subordinate of unequal worth.

For example, I might lack some information that Susan has, and thus I am not confident of my ability to speak to it; yet because I have courage, I’m secure in knowing that lacking that information doesn’t make me somehow inferior morally. I’m not embarrassed to ask her to explain it to me, and if I don’t understand immediately, I can ask her to clarify. None of this makes me a bad or stupid person.

Courage works the other way, too. Susan, as a courageous person, is equally secure in her own moral worth. That’s why she doesn’t feel any need to belittle me for not understanding the information quickly, as she does.

Confidence is great. But confidence is often characterized as an outward-projecting emotion, while courage is more inward. People who lack courage can still be very confident, and can put down or act abusively towards others as ways of making themselves feel powerful. Courageous people have no need of that.

Once you understand this dynamic, it’s clear how this can apply to the workplace.

You want to foster courage in your workplace, because this is what creates a community of equals; professional, smart, accomplished men and women who, because they are each secure in their self-worth, can collaborate, and even disagree and handle conflict, without it becoming a statement of “good” and “bad.”

This also applies to the desire for affirmation or praise – to be liked. Wanting to be liked is pretty much universal in human nature. But when put into practice in a workplace, it leads to all manner of dysfunctional behavior. Wanting your manager to like you is politically useful, but is not the same as producing good work. Wanting one’s direct reports to like you (or personally liking them) can get in the way of honest feedback. It’s very easy for a desire to be liked to come into conflict with getting one’s work done, being taken seriously, or setting clear boundaries about what behavior is acceptable or not. Many women, in particular, know this from hard experience.

When one has personal courage, it’s easier to look past getting everyone to like you. Surely, I’d prefer that everyone did, but in any sufficiently large group of people, there will be people who dislike you, and probably many more who simply hold no opinion either way. That’s okay. If we all have courage, we should all be able to work together anyway.

The company as community

As we’ve seen, courageous employees do not fear or disrespect each other. Instead, they work together to build something great. With good leadership, hard work and a bit of luck, they can become very successful in doing so.

When people do good work among a group of peers, where they are respected and accepted, and those contributions are recognized, this creates community. A company cannot be a “family,” but it can be a kind of “community.” Communities are different from families in many ways, but especially in the sense that one can self-select into the former, but not the latter. Communities don’t just take – they also give. Thriving, healthy communities encourage (in several senses of that word) and inspire people to do their best.

Psychologists have known for decades that intrinsic motivation is volumes more powerful than the extrinsic variety. You can pay people for their labor, but you cannot buy their hearts. Only inspiration can do that.

So what?

Is all of this just utopian nonsense?

The reality is that most companies – the vast majority, in fact – just do not run this way, and never will. Most companies have no real sense of intentional culture-building at all; or where they do, it’s mealy-mouthed motivational speaking bought from some consultant. That’s reality.

You can’t make a company’s leadership embrace the culture you wish it had. But what we can do, as individuals, is live this way ourselves. Embracing healthy expectations of our employers, locating and strengthening our own personal courage, and building communities of like-minded people in our workplaces are things we can do that will make your work healthier, more pleasant, and probably more productive.

And hey, read the book. You might like it. I would recommend Matthew Crawford’s last book, “The World Beyond Your Head – On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction,” too. I referenced both of them, with reactions, on my Reading page.

Related posts:


I send out a semi-regular update with the most interesting stuff I've read recently, as well as a digest of my own blogging. Learn more about it and read old issues, or just sign up below. I won't spam you - promise.