To those breaking into the world of business with a Candide-esque optimism, consultant Brian Ray would like to explain some truths. Not least of which is: “Business is a sociopathic beast.”
Over the past two or three decades, he believes, corporations have increasingly pursued record financial performance at the expense of employees and widened the gap between their role as profit machines and as purveyors of human well-being.
But he believes corporations can change.
The Michigan native has worked as a business and management consultant for more than 20 years — part of that in the automotive industry for General Motors Co., and the past decade or so for information technology giant Hewlett-Packard Co.
Over the past two or three decades, he posited, big business has become an “unsustainable monster” as corporations have sought record financial performance year over year, which has translated primarily to hefty bonuses for executives at the expense of lower-level employees.
“Leadership starts requiring more and more, and that trickles down to our work level, where the person is required to put in more time and do more work with less,” he said. “That’s where it becomes oppressive. A person breaks down and has nothing left.”
In a recent interview, the author of “Revelations Incorporated: The Disturbing Truth of the Business World and Workplace Culture” explained his own brand of optimism — a simple, zen-like approach to bring things back into balance.
“You have to develop an attitude of gratitude — and I don’t mean to sound like Dr. Seuss when I say that,” he said. He rattled off a few examples, including “a simple thank-you goes a long way.”
There is no shortage of books and studies on the origins of workplace happiness and its significance. Many of them, though shying from likening corporations to crushers of human spirit, tend to agree with Ray’s advice.
Shawn Achor, founder and CEO of GoodThink Inc., a happiness research firm, distinguishes between irrational and rational optimism, the latter accounting for “a realistic assessment of the present, both the bad and the good.”
“Rose-colored glasses will not help, but an optimistic brain will help your team overcome the biggest challenges,” Achor said in a 2012 interview with the business leadership journal Leader to Leader.
“In an era of do-more-with-less, we need to stop lamenting how little social support we feel from managers, co-workers and friends, and start focusing our brain’s resources upon how we can increase the amount of social support we provide to the people in our lives. The greatest predictor of success and happiness at work is social support.”
Ray would go a step further. If employees feel frustrated by the priorities of their employer, they should confront that at the source. He claims “virtually everyone” knows of the universal unhappiness of being a cog in the machine, and opening up about it with peers and managers is a good way to alleviate that.
“You can see that once you get past some of the defensive barriers people put up, they begin to want you to help them,” he said, adding, “It’s been very fulfilling.”
He insisted his views are not contrarian, and that — if his past experience is any indication — having constructive conversations with everyone from executives on down to project managers is better than keeping it all inside.
“Some managers have adored me, some have hated me,” Ray said. “But they’ve all respected me.”