Make Your Boss Feel Good — Or Free Your Mind Instead?

I interview a prospective coach to help me integrate my creative and business interests. I ask who her clients are, specifically whether she does corporate workshops.

“I have some clients who do corporate work,” she says, “but I don’t. I tried it a few times, but I’m too free.”

A less artistic type, a manager at the health club where I worked, expressed a similar sentiment, though she had a very different type of personality. She was studying sports management, and planned to work in the field of professional athletics because, she said, “I tried the corporate thing and there’s just no negotiating with that environment.”

Then there’s the executive turned turnaround artist turned organizational development consultant whose writings I was assigned in a workshop about finding purpose in work. The most recent update on his Web site reads, “I no longer work with organizations. I will work with individual executives on a one-to-one basis.” His focus? Revealing harsh truths about how authenticity is punished in dysfunctional organizations; how being openly yourself is as important as everybody says, but it’ll cost you.

All of these people ooze the same aversion, disgust, even contempt for something that takes place in conventional workplaces. I feel it, but have had a difficult time describing it.

My last engagement serves as illustration. Working for a large company through a staffing agency, I was told, “Your supervisor wants to feel like she’s an executive. So our job as consultants is to make her feel like she’s an executive.”

What followed was a script for gussying up ordinary exchanges between a consultant and a project leader with little enough status that she rated no head count, to look like the kinds of serious, formal presentations underlings present to people with “chief” prefixing their title.

What was asked of me, I do not have the stomach for. It’s not just a rule I believe doesn’t apply to me; it seems an illegitimate request, a sickness in organizational norms of our time.

My first, aborted career was as a psychotherapist. I have since coached a number of people on life and business skills. In other words, I have the raw aptitudes, training, and experience it would take to help a person explore whether she really desires to climb to the executive ranks, to undertake the development required to pursue such a position, or to reconcile feelings of disappointment for not achieving the desired career heights.

I opted out of having that kind of career in favor of one that uses my technical and artistic skills. I had hoped to dive into a world not quite so heavy, one where camaraderie and play are the backdrop for intellectual challenge, service, and business victories.

To be sure, I know that some people find personal and professional satisfaction in corporate environments. Some callings could be realized nowhere else. This aspect of corporate culture needs some repair, though.

Rilke wrote, “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” It is a recipe for alienation to make people be the guardians of others’ defense mechanisms.