Forgive Yourself a Prayer, But Never Surrender to Bad Culture

“You can surrender
Without a prayer
But never really pray
Pray without surrender

You can fight
Fight without ever winning
But never ever win
Win without a fight…” –Neil Peart, “Resist”

The final shame of not asking nearly overshadowed my extreme physical pain, but not quite. No, the visceral memory of my hands buried deep between my tense thighs pulled close to my crotch while I’ll leaned in as close to the crafts table as possible, has never been purged from memory.

It was 1972 and I was seven years old.

The first day of Bible school. Church friends recommended that my sister and I attend, that it would be fun, that we’d make cool crafts, learn about Jesus and other New and Old Testament folk, make new friends, and get out of the house for a spell.

Day one started simply enough: we got picked up in the morning, were driven to the boonies some 30 minutes outside of town, and then dropped off at Bible school with the church friends’ kids. I wasn’t very social being an introverted child, and my younger sister was just scared and stuck close to me.

The camp culture itself seemed cordial and warm at first, but then turned a little hardcore fire and brimstone, the counselors and teachers reminding us over and over again that, although Jesus loved us just the way we were, we shouldn’t question God’s plan for us, or any authority, and how sin of any size could send us straight to hell.

Happy days, however my bigger problem occurred late in the day. We were cutting and gluing felt pieces to construction paper to tell our favorite Bible story, mine at the time being about Adam and Eve, fascinated by the fact they were naked, and God, at least initially, was okay with that, which made me happy.

Unfortunately I had to pee.

Really, really bad. But our crafts instructor, a large women with big hair, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a yellow dress that reminded me of cat vomit, was in the middle of telling another story while we worked. The urge to pee didn’t come on suddenly, but I did let the pressure build up until it went well beyond the “holding back” threshold.

Yes, I had to pee badly, but I wouldn’t ask to go. The fear of interrupting and questioning the instructor, of being ridiculed publicly because I needed to do something for me that would disrupt the rest of the class, kept me fused to the hard bench under my butt. My sister saw my discomfort, poked at me and whispered, “Kevin, go.”

I just sat there, defeated, no one else to turn to other than my sister urging me to take action, ultimately consumed by my throbbing bladder, praying to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost to end Bible school right then and there so I could go to the bathroom.

And go I did.

All over the bench and down my legs, my pants drenched with a growing dark wet spot emanating out from my crotch that couldn’t be missed, and wasn’t, the shame horrifying beyond that evening and decades later.

In fact, over 40 years later I’ve taken that lesson to heart repeatedly as a greater metaphor of life and work experience; that company culture and cultural fit has a huge impact on our day-to-day happiness, or lack thereof, and how we respond to that culture doubles down on that happiness, or – hell, you get the picture.

Being able to identify when a culture is turning bad, and what we can do about it, are obviously critical skills for managing our career happiness. If we don’t react and respond accordingly, we can and do bust a gut (and burst a bladder).

How many times do we push ourselves beyond the “holding back” threshold until the pain is excruciating? For some of us, too many to count until we affect change.

Culture originates with leadership values and the core business mission, and then emanates outward with what people inside an organization do with all of that, and eventually with what meaning is attached to all those continuously evolving behaviors.

When the accepted collective behaviors lead to conflict and strife, we’ve got a bad culture on our hands. Lots of things can create a bad culture, and a good one, but all of them can be summed up (and oversimplified) by four questions that are repeatedly asked in these happiness surveys I started taking via (heard about on a recent NPR TED Radio Hour podcast):

Are you doing something you want to do?

Are you doing something you have to do?

Are you interacting with others right now?

If so, how positive are you feeling? Not so, or extremely?

Well? And if not, why? Especially when at work, wherever and whatever that may be.

This is why mentors are so important.

I’m fortunate to have had and have many in my life, as well as reciprocating. Whether from formal mentoring programs fresh from college graduation or throughout your lifetime in professional organizations and certified associations, or continuous informal mentoring from family and friends, peers and colleagues, and managers and executive leadership, all of which can, and hopefully do, extend beyond whatever current incarnation we’re in.

When we discussed this on the TalentCulture #TChat Show – learning how to identify a bad company culture, understanding factors relevant to your decision to stay or leave, and knowing what to take out of the situation before you leave, including keeping those mentors close to you regardless – were all gladly embraced by the #TChat community, as vital as the air we breathe (and the periodic need to relieve).

Because what my personal mentors of late have reminded me of includes:

  1. When you have to pee, pee. Not pray. I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s religion or spirituality, but you can’t just hope and pray things will get better without doing anything about it. You may feel hopeless in a crappy workplace culture, maybe like a frightened child in the presence of heavy-handed leadership, but you certainly have some things under your control – and that includes getting up and going to the bathroom when you “need a break.” Holding it in beyond the threshold when you feel you’re trapped (and scared) only damages you and those around you, and if when you wet yourself at work, trust me, that shit stays with you a long, long time.
  2. And when you have to fight, fight. Not surrender. You really do; fight for what you want to do instead of only putting up with what you have to do. Passive acceptance of “where you’re at” is not the path to happiness, kids. Fighting for what you want, either as a leader or individual contributor, as long as you develop and deliver, is the critical key to self-fulfillment and ultimate success, although not always equated by compensation (but hey, who’s counting, right?). Make a little mojo magic, always, and for God’s sake, don’t put up with a crappy culture long-term. Opportunities may ebb and flow, but hear your mentors’ voices when they tell you they’re here, or over there.

These are the keys to surviving the bad culture, and staying happy, whether that’s in a 100K-person global enterprise, or your own little company of one (hey, it happens to even the most successful solopreneurs and consultants). And sometimes you just have to leave.

It’s easy to state the obvious at this point, but mercy me, forgive yourself a prayer every now and again, but never, ever surrender without a fight.


photo credit: thejuniorpartner via photopin cc