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The Peculiar Sanity of Work

Aggression and self interest are cast as virtues when it comes to our careers

What is it about work that can turn people practically psychotic, acting like cold-blooded killers without a shred of personal insight or remorse when called to action? Perhaps it isn’t that workers are necessarily crazy, but the workplace itself is by its very nature, crazy making.

In a brilliant little book about World War I called The Peculiar Sanity of War, Celia Malone Kingsbury shows how wartime warps behavioral norms, leading people to behave in ways they never would otherwise. Paranoia, rumors, gossip and aggression become accepted norms in the context of warfare, yet what is most surprising is that Kingsbury shows how these very behaviors extend beyond the boundaries of warfare to infect the home front, as well. The madness of war, she argues, is as far reaching and infectious as it is destructive. With these thoughts in mind, what might we glean from an examination of the peculiar sanity of work?

Like warfare, the work we engage in is characterized by unique forms of social organization and hierarchies, with workers competing for strategic resources, territory and rank. While shared values and common goals unite the workforce to some extent, this unity is more theoretical than actual. As anyone who has worked with and for others can attest, divided interests and loyalties, competing values and power inequalities can create tensions and fault lines that undermine the broader objectives of the organizational culture.

Where the peculiar sanity comes in is the manner in which our careers and personal ambitions provide a social veneer for engaging in some spectacularly bad behavior at times, and perceiving such behaviors as normal and necessary. In other words, when it comes to our careers, we not only behave monstrously at times, but when we do so, we cognitively realign our world view to perceive our bad behaviors as not just acceptable, but as exemplary, if not wise.

By withholding information, damaging the reputations and status of others through gossip and rumors, differentially allocating professional and strategic resources based on alliances and allegiances, and avoiding certain people, we engage in daily and patterned forms of aggression that we often fail to recognize as aggressive. These actions are most damaging and most common during times of workplace conflict, particularly when resources are limited; organizational change is underway; or leadership has marked a worker for elimination. When any one or all of these “threats” are perceived by the workforce, each and every worker is likely to become more aggressive, and more righteous in their aggression, toward each other. It is for this reason that the bully paradigm, so popular of late in discussions of workplace abuse, is insufficient for addressing the most pervasive and destructive forms of aggression in the workplace.

Just as warfare is made possible by what author Barbara Ehrenreich has described as collective bloodlust in her book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, a plethora of career advice is couched in a celebratory language of aggression, suggesting that success is predicated upon mastering and valuing the artistry of aggression. With titles from such popular and bestselling books as Work Like a Spy; What Would Machievelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness; Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers; Career Warfare; 21 Dirty Tricks at the Office; Eat or Be Eaten: Jungle Warfare for the Master Corporate Politician; and The Way of the Rat: A Survival Guide of Office Politics, the ambitious worker is persuaded that the path to success requires embracing a set of workplace values that paint aggression as a virtue and value the individual over the group. Conversely, those who do not succeed at work are, in this view, seen as weak, naïve, or having failed to arm themselves adequately for the brutalities of the workplace.

While not everyone consciously embraces such values, because the organizational culture of the workplace tends to reward self-interest and competition, and successful careers depend upon nurturing just such qualities, we can easily lose sight of how qualities such as cooperation, humility, and compassion—particularly in the face of workplace conflict—have the potential to transform both the workplace and our careers in far more interesting and effective ways.

There is good reason to be protective of our careers. They provide us with economic stability, social identities, and purpose. And because others we work with are pursuing their own self interests, altruism rarely pays off. The altruistic worker is far more likely to be trampled by their colleague than applauded (just ask any whistleblower). But in times of workplace conflict, the worker who resists workplace norms of aggression might do more to ultimately diffuse conflict than the worker who conforms to the norms.

To do so, the next time someone points the finger at a “difficult worker,” resist the impulse to chime in. Gossip and branding do little to contribute to peace in the workplace. The next time a worker is marked for elimination by management, do not talk about the worker, but instead talk to the worker. Gossip and shunning are the first stages of workplace mobbing, a severe form of collective bullying that always escalates if leadership fails to intervene. And the next time a worker treats you rudely, try reversing the aggression by being exceptionally thoughtful toward that worker. Focus on your own work, and your own shortcomings, before focusing on the shortcomings and work behavior of your coworkers. By extending tolerance and compassion toward those around you, you may just find you enjoy the workplace that much more.

Clearly, there are cases when hostility and rudeness do not merit kindness in return (such as sexual harassment), but that does not mean they should be viewed in black and white either. Every case requires thoughtful action or peaceful non-action, not reaction. There are no simple paths to peacebuilding in the workplace, but by beginning with ourselves, and not pointing the finger at others, we may just find a sanity in our work that makes it worth it.

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