In the late 20th century, employers exposed their teams to hazardous materials including asbestos, lead, and mercury. The betrayal was committed knowingly––the individuals in charge chose to allow the contact, and as a result, many of their people suffered. Years later, those employers also paid dearly for their decisions.
Something similar but even more destructive is occurring in the workplace today. Employers are willfully subjecting their employees to an agent that not only causes needless suffering, but is highly detrimental to the company’s performance.
The current threat is a bit of a sleeping agent: it’s everywhere, but very few people recognize the depth of its toxicity. Many people think of it as benign or even helpful.
A company’s senior executive once asked me at the end of a performance coaching engagement if there were any last tidbits of wisdom I could offer before saying goodbye. I mentioned the issue.
“What are you talking about?” the executive asked. “What agent?”
“Network news,” I said. “It’s everywhere. It’s in your company lobbies, breakroms, lunch rooms, conference rooms, offices, sleeping quarters––even some of your restrooms.”
“Network news!” He looked flustered. “What the heck does network news have to do with performance?”
“I just walked into the break areas down the hall and learned that some sick person killed a bunch of police officers in Dallas last week,” I said.
“Last week. Have you been living under a rock?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve been living my life free of network news.”
He looked at me, clearly puzzled but attentive. I continued, “In our work together, you’ve learned about the role an employee’s emotions play in performance. What effect do you think the Dallas story and other ‘news’ is having on your people?”
Addicted to feeling bad
In the late 1990s, I attended a talk by the Dalai Lama. He and an associate named Howard C. Cutler had just published a book called The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama began the talk by asking the audience if any of them or a family member had been the victim of a violent crime. No one out of the hundreds attending raised a hand.
Then the Dalai Lama asked another question. “How many of you allow your children to walk or ride their bikes to school?” Again, no hands were seen.
“The world is a very safe, just, and loving place,” the Dalai Lama said after looking around at all of us in our seats, hands in our laps. “You, by exposing yourself to the media, are doing untold damage to yourself and your psyche. The cumulative effect is that you fear the world––you have been convinced the world is a dangerous place to be feared and shielded from. And what’s even more regretful is you are teaching your children to do the same.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard the media described as something harmful to which we expose ourselves.
The Dalai Lama continued. “Stop watching the news. Stop watching TV news, stop reading newspapers, stop reading periodicals. Instead, go out into the world and your town with your neighbors. If you do, I promise you that you will be a much happier person and a much more productive human being.”
Next, he asked for the audience to respond to his assertion and advice. I wasn’t surprised when many in the crowd disagreed with him.
“I don’t watch the news to have my brain poisoned as you suggest,” one man said. “I watch the news to be informed.”
The Dalai Lama responded by asking the man for the names of his neighbors, their children, his government representatives, or his children’s teachers. The man couldn’t answer.
“It seems you are informed about everything but that which matters in your life,” the Dalai Lama said to him.
“But I feel responsible for those people I see on the news,” a woman stood up and said. “I feel bad for them.”
“How does it help the world for you to feel bad?” the Dalai Lama asked. “Isn’t there enough suffering in the world? Why do you feel obligated to add to it by watching something as destructive as the news?”
The fidgeting and murmurs of disbelief had been replaced by silence.
“The news is not the news, and it has not been for a long time,” the Dalai Lama said calmly. “The news is entertainment––bad entertainment––and it’s very bad for you.” He explained that the reason why the flashy, nonstop headlines are so destructive is that “the human psyche is not equipped to deal with everything that went wrong in the world today. We were never intended to be informed of all the suffering going on on the planet.”
The Dalai Lama then took it a step further. He explained that through the media, bad news is amplified and overdramatized.
Think about it: after you feel bad, you can be rescued by the products in the commercials that follow. Have you noticed that McDonald’s no longer touts juicy hamburgers and delicious fries? Instead, they deliver a feel-good message that you then associate with their food. That emotional high is then augmented by the overdramatized bad news that immediately preceded it.
How does it help you or your employees and children to be frustrated, angered, saddened, and disillusioned on a regular basis––all due to an oversimplified shouting match ultimately designed to sell you something?
Do not mindlessly embrace societal norms. Want to help those who are suffering? Turn off the TV. Roll up your sleeves in your town. Learn your neighbor’s name. Encourage your people to do the same. You’ll be rewarded with personal and professional victories that once felt impossible.
Let’s go All-In.