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Source Manager's Journal: Victimization and its Consequences

Peter Drucker is widely known as the “father of American management.” Some 40 years ago, Drucker published his masterpiece, "Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices." Some of Drucker’s insights seem dated today, not because they are no longer relevant or accurate, but because our society has changed so much in recent decades.

For example, there is simply much less interest in “management” today. The focus is on “leadership.” Management has been relegated to a lower tier, the grubby stuff, beneath the dignity of the big shots who run things. The organization and its health are small potatoes compared to the big picture.

There are two big Drucker themes that – at great cost to our society – have been unlearned or conveniently forgotten in recent decades. The first is that “thought workers” cannot be motivated by fear. Yet, over the years, fear has become an increasingly important tool in driving down wages and benefits. It has peaked in the current recession during which many workers have absorbed a simple message: Shut up and be thankful you have any job.

A second Drucker theme applies to what can be labeled “relative deprivation,” a sense of unfairness or injustice in the workplace. At one point, Drucker says, “there is no more powerful disincentive, no more powerful bar to motivation, than dissatisfaction with one’s own pay compared to that of one’s peers.” In my experience, there are other versions of relative deprivation. They occur when we are receiving the same pay, but I am expected to do more work than you. Or I am a good worker, and you are a slacker, and there are no consequences.

Because we have such massive unemployment and underemployment, not much attention has been paid to how unhappy most workplaces are today. Many are virtual laboratories for the study of fear, relative deprivation, stress and indifference to the values associated with healthy organizations. Like obesity and sleep deprivation, this destructive change has largely been accepted as the new normal.

Which brings us to a close cousin of relative deprivation: a sense of victimization. Warren Zimmerman was a career diplomat, the last United States ambassador to Yugoslavia as the country descended into civil war, genocide and collapse. He is part of a small, honorable – but rarely honored – group of men and women who resign in protest over a matter of principle. In this case, the failure of the United States to intervene as Serbia launched a genocidal war in Bosnia.

In a discussion group, Zimmerman made a point that was so powerful that I wrote his comment on the cover of the book that he had just written about Yugoslavia. The quote: “Once a group has defined itself as a victim, there are no longer any constraints on their own behavior.”

By that one sentence, Zimmerman turned me into a dedicated student of victimization and its disastrous consequences. A few examples, starting with that of Yugoslavia. Despite their dominant role in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse country, Serbs have historically defined themselves as victims. Rather than celebrating achievements, they focus on defeats, humiliations and injustices. Given the nature of our species, it isn’t hard to find evidence of such injustices in any group’s experience. By defining themselves as victims, Serbs justified a genocidal war, revenge for what “they,” the others, had done to “us” in the past, and what we believe they would do to us in the future.

A similar dynamic played out in the genocide in Rwanda, and, in each instance, modern mass communications, television in Yugoslavia and radio in Rwanda, were used to stoke feelings of victimization.

It is not possible to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of a context of competing victimizations. In a recent book, Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine, the Arab and Israeli authors are seeking to build understanding, but the overwhelming sense of victimization on each side defeats the effort.

In our country, the inspiring and now almost-forgotten partnership of African-Americans and Jewish Americans broke down partly over an ugly competition to prove which group was the bigger victim. Slavery versus the Holocaust. Second place was not acceptable.

In the Virgin Islands, St. Croix’s sense of victimization makes a significant contribution to the island’s social tensions and unpleasantness, its lack of progress and what passes for acceptable political discourse. There is the classic example of the Crucian response to any Territory-wide initiative. If the first step is to be taken on St. Thomas, it is proof positive that St. Croix is always an afterthought. If St. Croix is to come first, the response is “Oh sure, you just want to use us as a guinea pig.” Any outcome reinforces St. Croix’s status as a victim.

As Ambassador Zimmerman said, having defined themselves as victims, there are no real constraints on a group’s behavior. Victimization also inevitably leads to blaming rather than problem solving, and blaming is always backward- rather than forward-looking.

What is very unsettling is that the United States is becoming more like St. Croix. In what might be called negative convergence, large chunks of American society are now defining themselves as victims. The so-called Tea Party is driven by a sense of victimization and a feeling that white people are losing their grip on things. They revel in their status as abused taxpayers and believe that their hard-earned tax dollars are all going to welfare cheats, dope fiends and chiselers. They also believe that white people are the primary victims of racism in the United States, and that our tortured racial history really isn’t that bad. As Brooks Atkinson once said, “People everywhere enjoying believing things that they know are not true. It spares them the ordeal of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for what they know.”

But the Tea Party is hardly alone in claiming the mantle of victim. The message of victimization conveyed by the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s has been so internalized by certain groups of African-Americans that it is now totally disconnected from the genuine victimization that has occurred. As a result, any behaviors can be explained away. Once we have defined ourselves as victims, history – bad history – always trumps our current behavior.

Groups of Jewish Americans label anyone who doesn’t line up behind the policies of the right-wing Israeli government as anti-Semites, with the horrors of the Holocaust always in the background. The Archbishop of New York City, America’s leading Catholic, says that the Obama Administration is “strangling” the Catholic Church because it won’t help enforce the Church’s ban on birth control, a ban ignored by more than 90 percent of Catholics. All employ the language of victimization.

The most extraordinary example is rich people as victims. Steven Schwarzman, one of the world’s richest men, does not like to pay taxes. He claims that he is being victimized by President Obama and has stated, “It’s a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland.” You may think that Schwarzman is unusual. He is not. The richest people, especially those on Wall Street, see themselves as dual victims. The government not only wants to take their money by having them pay more in taxes, but it is being mean to them by criticizing them for having brought the global economy to its knees with their reckless behavior.

For the cable news channels and talk radio, this is all just entertainment. But they are wrong. Dangerously wrong. At every level of American society, those who have a different view are no longer seen as being worth listening to. They are increasingly framed as being evil and not to be trusted. Enemies, who will hurt us if given the chance, rather than political opponents.

And we, whoever “we” are, become convinced that we are the victims of these evil ones. It is worth thinking about consequences. In particular, it is worth pondering Ambassador Zimmerman’s words about the removal of all constraints on our behavior once we have defined ourselves as victims. Of how Yugoslavia, a mostly “normal” country descended into genocide.

Americans have an unfortunate tendency to think that rules don’t apply to us. We are the exceptions, and the experiences of others are not relevant to our country. There is little historic evidence to support this belief. But the beat goes on.

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