Healing the wounded workforce

When we're mired deeply into working in hierarchical ways, we don't realize we're card-carrying members of the wounded workforce. We assume we're no worse off than coworkers, managers and direct reports. We accept our condition as human nature or the cost of doing business. We're not looking for answers, solutions or changes. We have not raised a question, defined a problem or considered a change. We're content to continue working in hierarchical ways.

It's only when a crisis occurs that questions get raised. The reliable bureaucracy lays off senior staff. The steady employment becomes sporadic. The manageable workload becomes overbearing. Then it become possible to consider one's own blind spots, assumptions and errors of omission. That's when it becomes possible consider healing the wounded workforce that previously did not seem wounded or in need of healing. Here's how I approach some of that healing work:

When working adults endure the condition labelled "unmet dependency needs", they will get over it by getting those needs met. It's never to late to experience a positive parental figure. The person who is meeting the ongoing need to depend on someone more mature -- must be aware of what's occurring. Therapists get trained to watch for the dynamics of positive transference where they get over-used as surrogate parental figures. Counselors are wary of becoming too dependable and never cultivating healthy boundaries, distance and detachment in the relationship. I've found mentoring works better for both the helper and the one getting helped than therapy or counseling models. There's a project, goal or problem getting worked on. The dependency needs are not the main focus. The helpful role combines some parenting with coaching, advising and delegating. There are things to get accomplished while getting those dependency needs met. Those getting helped express a lot of appreciation in my experience. Most have a long history of repeat encounters with negative parent figures which makes my appearance seem very out-of-the-ordinary.

When working adults appear to be living in the past, they're avoiding the future and the present moment. Getting them to set goals and make plans for the future rarely works. It amounts to first order change that goes from one extreme to the other. Focusing together on the present moment is usually more effective. On their own, these adults have never realized how much has changed and how they've become a different person. The present does not include any of the past they've been dreading, avoiding and carrying around with themselves. In the now moment, they discover they are free to be a new person facing new opportunities with fresh perspectives. they acquire some solid ground for letting go of their past regrets, guilt trips, anxieties and stuck stories.

When working adults are pretending to be satisfied with accomplishments and acquisitions labelled by others as "symbolic gratification", they are in no shape to shape up. They will defy others trying to fix them or straighten them out. They do not want any unsolicited advice and they are not seeking any either. They have idealized some perfect version of who they can become -- while creating a dark side with lots of unacceptable traits, inclinations and desires. This self-image calls for lots of convincing evidence to prop up it's false pretenses. Any contradiction to these idealized ambitions feels devastating, shattering and profoundly disorienting. A better entry into their world can be found by creating the space for them to let down their guard, admit their fatigue and complain about a lack of genuine satisfaction. They are usually so caught up in meeting others' expectations, they do not what they really want or really feel. They need to feel accepted for who they are when they are not performing and trying to impress others. They need a mirror that sees their dark side as worthy of acceptance, understanding and eventual integration.

When working adults are over-thinking their inner conflicts, they are getting nowhere quickly. They are torn between the irreconcilable poles of a personal dilemma. There appears to be no middle ground, winning combination or way to keep both extremes in balance. They need another person to formulate the paradox by seeing the good and bad in both sides. Their inner conflict does not call for compromise. Rather, there's a resolution possible when considered more abstractly as compatible interests, useful functions or aligned purposes. Their inner conflict makes most too tense to see their own way to this outcome. It takes the serenity, detachment and compassion of another to sort out the conflict into a beneficial paradox.


  1. Usually these attributes are amplified by the "keep it secret" mentality seen in most corporations. How can you have a good mentor relationship if you are afraid to be forthcoming and honest? How can you do anything but live in the past when the present and future are off limits for discussion? Co-workers don't want to here of your inner conflict and if they do, won't you be giving yourself away which someone can use against you in the future? Don't tell, keep it internal (which then makes it more than if you just bounced it off someone who could give you perspective). Finally, if your goals or what gratifies you as a worker differ from the organizations, won't that mean that you don't belong? Better to smile and accept the symbolic gratification than to be forthright and lay out what you want in your work life. It's safer.

  2. You're raising a critical point that I omitted in this post. Trust is a critical component of a healing encounter. As you're wisely observing, members of the wounded workforce cannot be trusted. I would add that they do not trust themselves and have no basis for trusting others or acting trustworthy. Their chronic need to be superior, powerful or in control of others overrides any possibility of being a good mentor. It's usually realistic, not paranoid, to anticipate getting betrayed by sharing confidences and then discovering they have been used against you. Webs of deceit and manipulation fuel the turf battles, rumor mills and other breeds of office politics in hierarchies.

    Another facet of woundedness I did not mention gets diagnosed as "toxic shame". That's a match to the "keep it a secret" mentality you describe. Rather than owning up to making mistakes, toxic shame maintains a belief in being a mistake, always mistaken and never right. Getting exposed is a betrayal of confidences. Getting compared to others who are doing the right thing, having the right effect or making the right decisions causes those toxically shamed to recoil in horror. Carol Dweck identifies these patterns as a "fixed mindset" in her research into symptomatic college students.

    I believe, from my own academic experiences, that the majority of faculty in higher ed are proud of what they teach but ashamed of how they teach. They cannot learn from exemplary instructors or student feedback because the evidence of a "right approach" pushes their hot buttons and exposes them as inexcusably wrong. As I'll explore in my next post, there's no space for healing to occur. The atmosphere is oppressive and confining.

    Thanks for the wonderful comment, Virginia!