I think I believe in ghosts. I don’t think they’re scary things that are out to get us, but it makes sense to me that there would be “people” who are a little lost and stuck in a sort of limbo – no longer in their bodies, but nowhere else, either.
It’s almost Halloween (or Samhain) in the United States, and many of our ancestors believed that during this time of year, the “veil” between the human and spiritual realms was the thinnest. Lines get crossed, things get blurry.
If ghosts are humans who are now lost and lack the substance of being in a real body, then I have some scary news:
Ghosts are haunting your workplace.
In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey tells us about what’s called the “Character Ethic,” which was how people in the U.S. thought of personal success up until the World War I era.
In the Character Ethic model, personal success and prestige was linked to the quality of your character and whether or not you possessed traits like integrity, humility, honesty, etc.
After World War I, something shifted, and what became popular and valued instead was what he calls the “Personality Ethic,” which is about your social image, your attitude, and your ability to influence others.
Susan Cain also details this shift in her book Quiet, and it’s fascinating. Instead of focusing on who people were inside, we began to value the image that those people projected.
We created a cult of personality, where it doesn’t matter as much if you have integrity – what matters is whether or not you can you work a room.
Are you projecting the right image?
Are you doing all the right things?
Do you have a lot of friends?
Are you popular?
This is an over-simplification of these concepts that doesn’t take into account the overtones of classism, racism, and other “isms” that have always been present in our society, but for the sake of this post, that’s how I’ll boil down these two paradigms.
Can you see the Personality Ethic playing out in our society today?
Generations of kids were shown that what mattered most was how they fit in socially, how well they could influence other kids, and how well they fit into the mold that was cast for them.
Sure, lip service was paid to character – we all remember those posters that said stuff like “There’s no I in TEAM” and “Character is what you do when no one’s watching,” but being a good team player wasn’t what we were really rewarded for. The social capital was in being the star, the success story, the popular kid.
Now those kids are grown up, and they’re running our organizations and showing up to work each day. After years and years of being told that their personality mattered more than who they were inside, they float around like ghosts: vapid, stuck, and immaterial.
When we compromise our values over and over again, we lose the substance of who we are.
When we allow ourselves to participate in practices and cultures that erode what’s good inside of us, we get lost.
I almost became a ghost, but luckily, in this metaphor, ghosts can always return to their humanity, so don’t worry too much if you’re feeling a little like Casper these days.
I became ghost-like after buying into the belief that it was better to be charming and likable at work than it was to act in a way that was in alignment with my values. I compromised, I looked away from things I knew were wrong, and I desperately tried to fit into the mold of “rising star.”
Instead of telling managers that I thought they were pitting employees against one another, I smiled and asked them how their weekend was. Instead of telling the toxic employee in my office that their attitude was literally bringing down an entire team, I tip-toed and did what I could to get them on “my side.”
This shit happened day in, and day out. And I was losing myself.
Now, of course, nothing is “black and white,” and personality is an important component of working well with other people. Humans are social beings, and the ability to navigate interpersonal interactions is really helpful and important.
But you can only fake it for so long.
Unless you have a deep, grounded sense of who you are and act in alignment with your values, your charm and image will fade over time into a shadow vaguely resembling who you used to be.
If you see something at work – or in the rest of life – that hits you as “off” or wrong, don’t ignore it. See if you can make small tweaks that get you closer to living a life of integrity and depth.
Ghosts are real, and they haunt our workplaces, but you don’t have to be one of them.
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