Temporary Life 4: Attitude Is Servitude
The drawbacks of a positive attitude are clear enough: first, you can assume one in regard to almost anything from the beneficial to the depraved, thus it is arbitrary; second, having encountered a number of very positive fanatics, liars, lunatics and sociopaths in my time, it’s obvious that a positive attitude is not necessarily a correlate of moral excellence and mental health; and third, a positive attitude in the work place matters less than the ability and willingness to do the work. That’s why a certain poster on the wall of the elevator lobby at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company office, where I temped for a time, struck me as absurd the first time I saw it.
The poster depicted a rocket blasting through the stratosphere, above which were the words, “Attitude Is Altitude.” Of course, no amount of positive thinking could have propelled anyone to the top of that company, which hired its executives laterally out of business schools and multinationals. And most people regarded it as an absurdity that actual impediments or qualifications should be attributed to (Webster’s Collegiate definition 3a) “a mental condition with regard to a fact or state,” however positive.
On entering the white-collar workplace, my fear was that valuing a positive attitude over competence would result in a bunch of unproductive “can-do” schmoozers enjoying unwarranted favor for their preposterous and annoying positivity. And, yes, there were a few pathologically positive ghouls in circulation, annoying those who had things to do. But most folks in the downtown offices were in it for a paycheck. To them, a job was a job, not a showcase for mental and emotive ascendancy. Most were, therefore, impervious to the motivational propaganda issuing from the offices of the managers and corporate consultants. And I’d sometimes see quotes pinned to cubicle walls like “Workin’ hard for the money,” that seemed to reject this motivational spin with a show of sweat-of-thy-brow common sense.
So, what was all the motivational propaganda about? Not only was it preposterous that attitudinal correctness should supersede competence but it put managers in the role of attitude shapers, extending their influence across the labor-brain barrier, where it had no business. Granted, this was the early 1990s, an era marked by an unprecedented flatulence of perception-shaping euphemisms and acronyms from the gluteal lobes of organizational blow hards. Meanwhile, the actual social and historical conditions were such as you’d find in any recession: job insecurity and scarcity, crime, scams, idleness, crumbling infrastructures… But the perception shapers were blowing HR PR so hard that it amounted to a campaign of positive denial: companies were downsizing and restructuring (firing and obsolescing) while promulgating boundless positivity in a best of all possible worlds.
A typical example of the sort of language that issued from this false-positive culture was the catch phrase “can do.” The phrase is an affirmation of being both capable (“can”) and active (“do”), that is, it describes a state of readiness and willingness. Life, on the other hand, is conditional, excluding us more than it includes us, showing us more of what we lack than have, paining us more for what we can’t do than can, even limiting us to doing and thinking only one thing at a time—to being only one being at a time. The phrase “can do” pays no heed to the conditions of life because it is designed to deny them. It is fundamentally an attitude, and, specifically, one that expresses loyalty, compliance and servitude. Like so much white-collar motivational ballyhoo, it serves the affirmation-seeking sentimentality of those in charge more than the actual well-being of the peon.
In the offices of Blue Shield, after a particularly nasty round of layoffs, large buttons were distributed that read, “I Value Blue Shield’s New Culture—Ask Me How.” Needless to say, nobody wore them but a few frightened middle-managers, and nobody bothered to ask them how they valued Blue Shield’s “new culture,” lest it be taken for sarcasm. In Blue Shield’s Healthtrac newsletter (volume IX, number 3, page 1), an anonymous writer published the following: “Eleven Proven Ways to Get along Better with Everyone.” Riddled with solecisms and misspellings, the eleven platitudes ranged from keeping promises, considering the effects of what you say, giving compliments, suppressing anger, abstaining from gossip, to being funny. As sensible as it is to be considerate, trustworthy, generous, temperate and a barrel of laughs in an atmosphere of mistrust, resentment and cynicism, the “eleven ways” were immediately ignored or mocked.
While all this motivational pap, team talk and positive attitudination seemed mawkish and cultish, it was familiarly so. It reminded me of those New Age motivational therapy cults, such as LifeSpring, that had gulled my parents back in the 1970s. What I encountered in office culture was the usual Puritan work-destiny paradigm—making a religion out of work—decked out in the latest pop-psycho drag. This motivational propaganda relied on the same Panglossian premise as that of the self-renovators of the ’70s—namely, that the only thing between people and paradise was how they processed experience, which is to say that, like Intel, it was “all inside.”
This concern with the internal state of people was not always associated with earning a living. Its induction into the professional context started in the 1950s, with organizational psychology and the rise of the big corporation. As the social sciences established themselves, large business organizations came to be regarded as social systems, and “organizational behavior” programs found their way into business management schools. The social revolution of 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of individualized learning and self-development, with corporations instituting such programs as “sensitivity training” or, in an organization where I recently worked, “cultural competence.” Throughout the 1980s, as the U.S. shifted from an industrial to an information economy, the necessity of lean manufacturing, downsizing and corporate restructuring fueled a consulting boom, much of which focused on disarming the disgruntled. By the 1990s, when I entered the white-collar world, job security and same-company mobility were all but dead, and corporate-culture consulting was all the rage.
Many of these corporate consultancies evolved out of pop-psychology group-training seminars. The most famous example of these was est (Erhard Seminar Training, or “to be” in Latin), founded by Werner Hans Erhard (Paul Rosenberg by birth), who in the early 1960s sold correspondence courses in the Midwest. Erhard became a training manager for Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Great Books” program, then took a job with the Parent’s Magazine Cultural Institute as territorial manager, which brought him to San Francisco. While driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, Erhard had an epiphany that everything was “perfect as it is,” which suggested that humans might be ‘trained’ to stop making a prejudicial, prepossessing and presumptuous hash of their lives. EST convinced a generation weary of the damning negativity of the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal to refer it all, not to society, but to the self.
The success of est spawned LifeSpring, the next most popular New Age experiential training seminar, founded by John Hanley, one of Erhard’s est colleagues. LifeSpring, like est, basically dismantled the biases, preconceptions and habitual thought patterns by which people psychologically managed the intensity and variety of experience. Its trainings deconstructed the safe and familiar ways in which people processed experience, discouraging rational remove and encouraging immediate expression and personal exposure. Its trainers deployed dialectical rhetoric to expose inhibitive and dismissive habits of thought, thus allowing participants to discard these for more spontaneous and honest expressions. Indeed, some of the students of est and LifeSpring shed their prejudices, fears and inhibitions and realized the possibility of expressing themselves forthrightly. Others filed law suits.
Erhard disbanded est in 1984 and established Landmark Education in 1987, the branches of which (The Vanto Group and Teknico, both business consultancies, and the est-derived personal training, The Landmark Forum) offered corporate and organizational training seminars throughout the 1980s and ’90s. In fact, Landmark still pushes its goods to significant effect, training over 200,000 participants and banking about $76 million yearly. All this goes to show that the attitudinal gurus and mind managers are still at it, and to as little effect on the actual economy.
© Copyright 2009, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved