Spotting and Preventing Professional Suicide

by Dorothy M. Neddermeyer, PhD

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“This job is killing me!” That statement may seem to be an exaggeration, but in looking closely at the work environment, it has become apparent there is a serious malady affecting the productivity of organizations. This malady has been coined ‘professional suicide,’ by a company which was among the first to become aware of the problem.

Professional suicide, a widespread but rarely studied phenomenon is costing companies not only dollars and cents, but the talents and skills of many bright, creative and committed key employees. The syndrome affects talented hard driving employees with strong accomplishment needs. Those most likely to be affected are good employees who constantly operate in a crisis situation because of management’s lack of planning or leadership. These initially highly motivated employees begin the suicidal process within three to five years after developing a solid record within the organization. The despair of not achieving what they want in what seems by now to be an absolutely hopeless situation has begun to undermine their self-confidence and bruise their egos.

These upwardly mobile employees suddenly reverse course. Their work begins to deteriorate. They lose interest and fail to keep up with new on-the-job developments. They develop physical complaints, many classically psychosomatic (migraine headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure, frequent colds or flu) and seem unable to change this downward spiral. Sometimes they quit on the flimsiest of pretexts and take another job beneath their capabilities. Many times they become disruptive, overstep policy bounds, or do things they surely know they will be fired for doing. In short, in many ways they rapidly and illogically destroy their careers and sometimes themselves.

What causes this apparent self-destruction? It is the result of a battle between specific characteristics of both the individual and the organizational environment. In the individual, problems have arisen in the satisfaction of basic needs common to all human beings. These basic needs described by Maslow as the “Hierarchy of Human Needs” are recognition and a sense of self-esteem, growth and development (self-actualization), a sense of purpose and a structure from which to view the world. When people are unable to meet these needs in the organization they leave or become disruptive because they’re frustrated.

A frequent cause of professional suicide is that the behavior required for survival demands unacceptable violations of a person’s values. Not being able to be totally candid with individuals on projects is one example. On projects, the rule is that team effort is expected, but in the end individuals aren’t rewarded-the team is king. If an individual works only in team efforts they will seldom receive individual recognition. This lack of individual recognition begins to erode their egos and self-esteem.

Sometimes people are asked to falsify records, or to sign off on unfinished projects. (A classic example of falsifying or signing off on records is the Karen Silkwood case at Kerr-McGee. Silkwood believed she discovered numerous violations of health regulations, including exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment and improper storage of samples. She also believed the lack of sufficient shower facilities could increase the risk of employee contamination. She decided to take legal action, but ended up paying with her life.) These professional breaches of ethical standards leave an employee struggling with their ethical values-their responsibility toward colleagues pulls from one side and a sense of personal honesty and integrity pulls from the other.

If the way to survive in an organization requires individuals to lie or be deceptive or surreptitious, they will either avoid doing what it takes to get ahead in that organization and retire in place, or do what it takes and feel guilty when they survive and progress. The degree to which the situation degrades, devalues, or shames the person is highly individual.

The organizational characteristics that create and foster professional suicide are in direct opposition to basic individual needs. These characteristics are manifested by management’s lack of setting specific goals and objectives or the ‘rules of the game’ are confusing, illegal or unethical. Cohesive work groups and teams are not fostered or are non-existent. Evaluation, feedback and individual performance reviews are carelessly managed or ineffective. Reward systems based on organizational results (merit increases) are non-existent or poorly defined. Anxiety, competition, and guilt, rather than a reward system are used as motivators. And ambiguous communication (or none at all) with employees is the norm rather than the exception.

This lack of clear communication provides a powerful scapegoat for managerial incompetence. If subordinates get into trouble when tasks were poorly defined; they take the blame, after all, they were told-albeit the communication was ambiguous.

Dr. Donald W. Cole, author of Professional Suicide, a Survival Kit for You and Your Job (1981, McGraw-Hill) conducted a study of corporate life. The style of corporate leadership he identified as necessary for keeping people healthy and productive offered a clear vision for the future-engage the employee in goal setting and planning; provide performance evaluations on a regular basis along with recognition and rewards. This style of management may seem self-evident as a good one, but it has proven remarkably difficult to convince many companies to implement it.

It has long been known that people need to have a sense of direction. People need to have the security to anticipate what is going to occur as a result of the actions they plan to take or have taken. They need to know if what they are doing is important and valued. And finally, they want to have a sense of belonging to an organization that provides opportunity for growth and development.

When management doesn’t provide adequate information for employees to anticipate probable outcomes, anxiety ensues. Employees need to have feedback to stimulate growth and development. Without feedback people begin assuming the worst and the anxiety that results leads to reactive behavior, which is actually a protective response. This protective behavior occurs so the employee can survive in what s/he perceives as an unfriendly environment.

Thus, the once bright, creative and committed employee retires in place merely treading water until official retirement. The cycle of productive decay is the deterioration of the very skills companies need to stop the spiral of productivity loss. These employees figuratively and literally get into a cycle of personal and professional suicide.

The threat posed by professional suicide to the employee and its equally dangerous threat to the organization is obvious-individuals lose their careers and the organization not only loses its best employees, but also incurs the expense of replacing them, which is estimated to be approximately $60,000 per person. In some organizations this could mean the difference between success and failure.

In order to prevent employees and the organizational structure from the suicidal cycle, hiring practices need to look for managers and leaders with vision and the ability to set goals and define a purpose. Communication, feedback, support and encouragement provide a sense of personal worth and freedom from work overload.

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