Working Wounded: Stockholm Syndrome at Work

Stockholm syndrome is back in the news. And that got me thinking -- might it also be creaping back into our workplaces?

Stockholm syndrome the phenomena that sometimes occurs when prisoners begin to see the world through the eyes of their captors, and it's back in the public consciousness because of the Missouri boy who was held for four years in captivity. Obviously all of our hearts go out to the boy and his family. It's hard to imagine their pain and now their happiness at the journey they've been forced to go through.

Maybe it's because I'm sitting on an airplane as I write this, but I've been thinking about the Stockholm syndrome a lot recently. There is nothing like a flight that is delayed by an hour, followed by sitting on the tarmac for another hour to get your mind thinking about being in prison. And since the flight attendants let me have water and to go to the bathroom during the delays, my captors also became my friends.

That also got me thinking about the Stockholm syndrome at work. It seems that too many companies perform terribly, lay workers off and then give huge rewards to top executives -- and still manage to have employees who believe in the company. Are we that desperate to believe in something?

At the same time we seem to have another syndrome at work -- I'll call it the "Bart" syndrome -- where many workers act like Bart Simpson and are cynical about everything. These are the workers who have that cartoon, "You want it when?" with a drawing of a worker with his head thrown back in laughter, hanging over their desk.

Sure, there are people out there who have more balanced views of their companies. They can see the good, the questionable and the ugly that happens within all large organizations. But they seem to be in the minority.

Rather than clustering in the middle, when it comes to believing in the company, most of us tend to race for the extremes -- extreme belief or extreme cynicism.

I can actually understand both extremes. For many of us, work is the new opiate of the masses -- we derive our self worth, our friendships and most of our meaning from work. But this is where things take an interesting turn.

Some of us go down the path of belief. We want our corporations to live up to our hopes and wishes. And at the same time others see that companies can never do this. So we lapse into cynicism.

This also aligns with something a political science professor taught me many years ago. He said that it's wrong to view politics in our country as a straight line, with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. He said our political spectrum is much more like a broken circle, because those on the far right and far left have a lot more in common with each other than they do with moderates.

If I had a magic wand, I'd like to see the Stockholm syndromers take a more cynical stance and the Bart syndromers take a less cynical stance. We need more people who can see their organizations objectively and less who are likely to accept, or dismiss, our organizations out of hand. What do you think?

Quote of the Week

"It's not what you are that holds you back, it's what you think you are not." -- Denis Waitley

Book Excerpt of the Week

From: "Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance" by Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom (FT.com, 2000)

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