Suffer, survive or thrive in organizational culture?

In spite of all the terrible news headlines, humanity at large develops itself slowly but silently in the background of the world stage. Many people are trying to be good, do good and live a good life. With rising wealth more people are freed from earlier material constraints and some limiting beliefs in this wake. For many, their degrees of freedom are increasing.
When people climb out of the pit of poverty, scarcity, stifling tradition, and deadlock they can afford to believe that life may offer some perspective… Hope and optimism further fuel their development. Because you cannot give what you haven’t got it becomes easier to be kind once you start freeing yourself from suffering.

Suffer-survive-thrive stages MaslowIt’s a simplified story, but you get the picture: there are stages in the development of civilizations, of human life, of workplaces, and so on. They go by various names, but you can simplify them into three stages:
When everything is normal, you survive. This is the default line.
When possibilities and basic needs are lacking, you suffer.
When opportunities and need fulfillment is abundant, you thrive.

Historic energy levels of workplaces

I can see this development in my (European) family history and you might, too. Our 19th-century great-great-grandparents suffered in agriculture or industrial-age factories. They suffered terrible conditions trying to make a living. They had no personal space. They obeyed their bosses and were bullied. They knew what hunger felt like. Their mindset: life is harsh! People endure it because they can’t win this battle.

laborersOur 20th-century (grand-)parents climbed out of this pit and arrived at survival mode: they became middle-class thanks to education and increasing wealth. They settled into organizational hierarchies and worked hard in the faith that their bosses would take care of them until they became one of the bosses, too. Their mindset: There’s no free lunch. Do your best, respect your boss, and fight your way up looking forward to retirement.

Nowadays, many lucky 21st-century professionals like me are in thrive mode. At least, those highly educated professional who experience autonomy on the job or are self-employed. When you don’t like it anymore, you change. The mindset: life is great – live it to the max!
Western mindset: live to the max and thrive at work Click To Tweet

Do you recognize any of these rough stages? Workplace cultures and individuals still differ in their development. Today, I can see people suffer, survive, and thrive at work. I’ll paint the picture with large contrast so you’ll see it clearly (and I’m aware that I’m sacrificing some nuance):

The Suffer Culture

Suffer cultures have very low energy. People may sit dully in their offices, and submit to the daily routines without a spark in their eyes. You can observe this; it’s palpable.

The mindset is: Life is harsh – you can’t win this – everyone loses.
People are scared. They are beaten. They may experience threats, insecurity, office politics, bullies, and being publicly shamed. They see everything as a problem. “Life, the workplace, and everyone else is handing me problems. Everyone is losing in their own way. Life is a constant rat race, even for the boss. What is the point anyway? I can’t change that.” This is a victim attitude.

People are hired for their output: the WHAT they produce. They don’t want to work until the boss makes them. Work is meaningless, but they have to do it to make money – it’s basic self-preservation.

Managers are ruling in a top-down way, using punishments, coercion, and micro-management. Workers have no information, no space to vary work in their own way, no choices. This is what they expect – this is normal – they are apathetic.

Suffer #culture: you can’t win at work Click To Tweet

The basic emotion is fear or even grief.
The main driver is their NEED: everything they need and what is lacking.
“There are no possibilities. Life is a bunch of problems.”

Do you recognize this mindset and behaviors? Have you seen it in teams or workplaces?

Thrive in organizations

The Survive Culture

Survival cultures show more energy. You’ll see people argue and debate in meetings, work long hours to get even more done and rush through the corridors. Again, you can see, hear, and feel this.

The mindset is: Life is hard, so you’d better play it smart. Not everyone loses. I want to win, and you may lose. I want to change!
People are ambitious, angry, dedicated. They see challenges instead of problems. They work hard to climb the corporate ladder and strive for temporary safety: when they reach higher ground they can be safe for a while overseeing their enemies approaching from below and fending them off. This is the fighter attitude.
“There’s no free lunch, and you have to work hard and defend yourself. No mercy for the victims – I am doing my best! I can’t be bothered with kindness: it’s every man for himself. Maybe life and the organization will reward me.”

People are hired for HOW they do things; for their expertise. They contribute skilled labor, specialization, knowledge. They work on self-mastery: they climb, want to improve themselves and make a career. Work is about earning respect and status as much as about making money.

Survive #culture: I’ll win and you lose at work Click To Tweet

Managers are managing with a mix of top-down and bottom-up styles, punishments and rewards alike. Colleagues will sometimes collaborate, sometimes compete.
People have more information about what’s going on, especially if they’re part of the prestigious meetings. They have some space to vary their work within the box of their job description in the hierarchy.

The basic emotion is anger: I want to make things better for myself.
The main driver is: What I HAVE and what I HAVE TO do.
“We have to. Life is hard. Play it smart!”

Again, does this resonate with you? What percentage of organizations would be at this stage?

The Thrive Culture

Thriving cultures radiate with energy and uplift people! You’ll see people brainstorming, laughing, speaking with enthusiasm, crossing corridors with a spring in their step. It looks and feels dynamic.

The mindset is: Life is great. You can choose anything! From an abundance of possibilities and opportunities, live life to the max! Abundance is real. There’s enough for everyone.
People are enthusiastic, creative, confident, and open to learning and share. They see things as an opportunity to grow, instead of a problem or a challenge. They are safe, they are okay: hence the openness and the lack of fighting tendencies. There are no winners and losers. “We can all win depending on our criteria; nobody needs to lose. We can create anything together.” This is the creator attitude.

People are hired for WHO they are. What matters is their personality, purpose, motivation. Do they fit the team? Skills can be learned, knowledge acquired, but character and authenticity are crucial.
Work should facilitate self-transcendence and is centered around a higher purpose.

Thrive culture: everyone wins when we collaborate and grow together Click To Tweet
Workplaces are not managed through that old top-down and bottom-up mechanisms. People co-create, and go beyond boxes on the organizational chart, official meetings and maybe even officially appointed managers. They prefer flowing information, flowing energy, lots of space to come up with new ideas and do work in your own special way, no job descriptions, self-management and shared leadership, trust, openness, authenticity, transparency.
The purpose is more central than the money. They want to make a difference instead of just making a living.

The basic emotion is love, and excitement, enthusiasm.
The main driver is: BE. Be who you are because you have a unique gift to give to the world. Be you to make your difference count and amplify your positive impact together with the others.
“Life is an exciting abundance of opportunities, and I’m here to contribute!”

What do you think? Do you recognize some of your thoughts and behaviors? Some of your current or former workplaces and coworkers? Your grandparents or your children’s attitude?

If you want a better look and feel of these energies you can watch my video Suffer Survive Thrive at Work where I enact them. You’ll recognize these energies immediately when you see them. (Members: log in to watch the video here. Or: join me here to become a member.)

Need to know: How to upgrade to a thriving workplace?

Thrive in-change-circles These three stages of culture may be insightful and Nice to know – but what is a real Need to know is how to arrive at thriving! How to do this? Many ways lead to Rome. What I’ve found to be working well are Change Circles (that I explained briefly in my post on Organizational Culture and Change).
Even in a stifling hierarchy, 10 trusted coworkers can get together to create their shared (team) culture. The circle is a vehicle for change and development. There’s always something you can do and this way you create a shared circle of influence – that can spread and inspire more and more others….

People can energize, engage, and empower themselves and their circle. Energize with the mindset: we are creators, and we prefer an inner locus of control: what can we improve that’s within our control and next, widen that? Engage around a shared, inspiring purpose and practice what they preach while supporting each other. Empower themselves and others: there’s always something within your control. Don’t sit it out like your great-great grandparents or maybe even your parents did…

My video “Suffer Survive Thrive at Work” shows these three stages, describes what over 12,000 working Americans currently see as their desired culture (based on culture research in the USA) and suggests how Change Circles can help to develop toward thriving at work.

When you are a member, simply log in to access this video.

Learning to “see” culture, group dynamics, beliefs, and behaviors is helpful for anyone wishing to make a difference. When you become aware, you can contribute to the necessary positive change. I hope you’ll join in.

Of course, I look forward to reading your experiences with suffering, surviving and thriving in the comments!

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and OCAI online.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Saira Khan

    I reckon work environments where “purpose is more central than the money” and people “want to make a difference instead of just making a living”, are few and far between. However, I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel as the innumerable benefits of thrive cultures are being discovered due to the diligent work of forward thinking change leaders such as yourself Marcella.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Yes – there is light at the end of the organizational tunnel Though there is still a lot of work to be done, the thought of “thriving at work” is not so alien anymore. It all begins with stretching those beliefs… No pain no gain – so you are meant to suffer to make money?! Well, what if that was simply not true? 🙂

  2. Saira Khan

    As an employee, I like the idea that propagated here Marcella…….what if, “the no pain no gain– so you are meant to suffer to make money” concept simply did not hold true? The possibilities are quite heartening to say the least! 🙂

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Well, that may actually be true, Saira 🙂 The possibilities are positive but you first have to start seeing them. Reading this article, I hope that many people change their glasses!

  3. Mohammed Rial Ahsan

    While the concept is quite prudent and logical, Life always may not follow the defined cycles. Sometimes, one discovers the intended targets and purposes in life early on and prepares for the desired path. In most cases there are shortcomings and failures on the way but the power to stand up and get back at it with more power and convictions make them a success. Organizational life is not very different from personal lives. It is the individual power and the ability to create influence zones creates the competitive advantage that propels one ahead of the others. In an organizational setup it is the self igniting power and the ability to create influence zones that make a difference at the end…

  4. Rich

    I was astonished to see how detrimental a toxic leader could be in an institution of higher learning that was so strongly rooted in tradition. In an organization where people don’t enter without more altruistic motivations, there was not the need for the heavy-handed “leader” but that is what happened. That changed the culture from a Thrive culture to a survive and now even a suffer culture.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      I am sorry to hear that, Rich. Leaders carry an enormous responsibility because they influence people’s work and lives. But all hope is not lost. People can take responsibility to improve the culture by bringing their best self to work, regardless of the overall environment and what others do. Especially if they join hands with coworkers they can make a difference by addressing these issues in authentic conversations and by changing their behaviors – they way they respond to “toxic” incidents – and changing things within their control for the better. There’s always something within your control – and by empowering yourself, you may enlarge that space. If this proactive approach doesn’t bring sufficient change, the options are to endure this culture or to leave it…

  5. Lesley Taylor

    Hi, I love your hopeful message. I am a big fan of building community in the workplace and of Ghandi’s quote “be the change you wish to see in the world”. The work you describe can easily be done in teams if supported by the team’s leader. Cheers!