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I see that some American states are starting to investigate the use of interns as unpaid labor. All I can say is that it’s long overdue.

So far as I’m concerned, most companies that use interns are like John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” in the mid-1700s. Contrary to a popular misconception, Newton did not become a Christian and write the hymn, then turn against his job in the slave trade; instead, after writing the hymn, he remained both a Christian and a slaver for two decades before coming out against the slave trade.

Too often, companies are like Newton on a smaller scale when they hire interns. They may be environmentally conscious and contribute to charities in their communities, but their labor practices make them hypocrites hiding behind conventional business practices.

Understand, I am not talking about programs like Google’s Summer of Code that give small stipends to students who would otherwise be unpaid volunteers. Still less am I talking about companies who hire co-op students at proper entry level salaries, or about genuine apprentice programs. What I am talking about are companies that hire the young and aspiring for full-time work at far below what they would pay a new employee — if they pay them at all — while pretending that they are giving them something special.

The argument used to justify such internships is that those chosen gain valuable job experience. Moreover, because interns are generally untrained, their employers often argue that they require experienced employees to watch over them and redo their work if necessary.

However, the same arguments could be applied to new employees. In most jurisdictions, the fact that someone is a new employee is not grounds for denying them a living wage, so why should the same argument be considered valid for interns? In entry-level positions, new employees are often no more trained than interns are. New employees may receive a smaller salary while on probation, but even so they generally receive enough to live on.

When I was chief steward for the Teaching Assistant’s union at Simon Fraser University, we had a basic negotiating principle: a fair days’ work for a fair day’s pay. That is not the least socialistic (not that there’s anything wrong with that so far as I’m concerned; I can belt out “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “Solidarity Forever,” and a lot of the rest of Utah Phillip’s repetoire). Rather, it’s an insistence that our semi-capitalistic system live up to its own principles. Employees who are producing acceptable work for you deserve to be paid the going rate for that work; if their work is not acceptable, you fire them. The exchange of labor is as simple as that, and there is no excuse for making an exception for interns.

The real reason for underpaying interns — as if anyone couldn’t guess — becomes obvious when you notice that many companies delay filling full-time positions until after the interns have left at the end of August, or hire more interns than full-time staff. Such cases make clear that interns are simply a cheaper (or free) pair of hands. When you keep this reason in mind, all the the pious claims of helping interns by giving them experience becomes the modern equivalent of claims that 19th Century slaves were housed and fed better than in their homelands, or benefited from exposure to Christianity. All these claims are simply excuses for unethical business practices that conventional morality chooses to ignore because they are convenient.

True, some companies eventually hire the best of their interns. But only a handful of interns are ever so lucky. Besides, companies might as well ask new employees to pay a premium for their position, because, by giving a company cheap labor, that is basically what interns are doing when they are later hired as regular employees. No matter how you look at it, the fact that some interns are hired full-time doesn’t justify internships any more than the fact that diligent slaves were sometimes freed justifies slavery. Interns may be better off than slaves (although, considering what I’ve heard about certain gaming companies, I sometimes wonder), but the scope of the ethical dodginess doesn’t change the basic situation.

Low-paying internships would be objectionable under any circumstance. However, what makes them worse is the pretense that they are anything other than a cost-saver. At least if companies would say, “We hire interns because we save money that way,” an honest discussion could take place. But, instead, they hide what they are doing by claiming that they are the benefactors rather than exploiters.

This claim is an ethical dodge that Newton would have understood. But at least he eventually saw his own contradiction. There are few signs that, left to themselves, companies that exploit interns ever will.

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Most articles about reducing stress in the workplace start with the assumption that you can do something to affect your circumstances. But unless you’re a company officer or director, you probably can’t do very much. You’re subject to the whims and cluelessness of the upper echelons, and the company’s main concern is usually to squeeze the most work out of you for the least amount of renumeration — and that means too much work to do, unpaid overtime, and most of the other immediate sources of stress.

At times, you may be tempted to beat yourself senseless, or even chew a leg off to escape these conditions. However, I have to warn you that the last one especially can ruin your chances of doing that half marathon you’ve always dreamed about. Besides, you will still need money, and a handicap pension isn’t enough for anyone to live on.

Instead, here are seven less drastic if cynical ways to minimize work stress. These are ways that the average career expert won’t tell you, because to do so is to admit that most of us work because we have to, not because we have a passion:

1. Never take a full time job when you can be a contractor instead:

Employers may dangle benefits before you in the hopes of enticing you to become a full-time employee. And, at first, you might be lured into agreeing for the sake of security. But, as I like to say, the main difference between contract and full-time work is that, as a contractor, you know when your job ends. You may even have a kill clause in your contract. By contrast, full-time employment can end without warning or any more compensation than required by local laws. The ugly truth that nobody likes to mention is that full-time employment is not much more secure than consulting. It also dulls your instincts for survival besides, so that layoffs hit you harder. Consultants know they can survive, because they’ve done so before.

Another big advantage of being a contractor is that you’re usually paid by the hour. That means that managers think twice about asking you to stay late, and that, when you do, you’re being paid — unlike everyone around you. You may still have to put in long hours, but at least you’re receiving hardship pay.

2. Avoid managers and company officers as much as possible:

The most productive and fulfilled people at most companies are those who are actually building the products that the company sells — the computer programmers, graphic designers, and other manufacturers. But somewhere about midway up the management hierarchy, employment stops being about productivity and starts being about ego. That means that, the more remote managers and directors are from what the company sells, the more likely than an encounter with them will be about making them feel good, and not about helping you with any problems.

You may be flattered if such people ask you for details about your work — but, believe me, they won’t remember. They’re not asking because they want to learn more and do their jobs better. Most of the time, they’re looking for a way to kill time. Granted, you might get some wicked stories to tell your co-workers about their ignorance, but that’s a poor return for the time you’ve lost.

3. Keep away from meetings:

Meetings are for those who have reached exalted positions where they are no longer productive. If you haven’t reached that stage, the average meeting will simply cut into your already too-short work time. Should anything important actually happen at a meeting, you can always read about it when the minutes are circulated in an email.

True, by missing meetings, you miss free food. But donuts and other typical meeting fodder only give you a sugar rush to leave you all the more attenuated after you come down. That process is a physical stress in itself.

4. Avoid company functions:

Career experts tell you that company events are a way to network. In fact, they’re a way for human resources managers to look busy (see #2). For others, they are an annoying interruption in a busy day. So, even though you’re dying for an excuse to knock off work, remember that what you’ll be doing is playing ring-toss in the hall or dressing up in a clown suit, and that embarassment is a form of stress in itself. If you’re shy, you’ll suffer agonies, and ditto if you have any empathy at all. Rather than attending a function, book off sick or claim an important task is waiting. Schedule a root canal for the time of the function. If all else fails, duck out early.

5. Go for walks at lunch, or eat out

Eating in a cafeteria — or, even worse, at your desk — only means that people can find you more easily and dump work on you, adding to your stress. Even if someone just want to ask you a question, you’re losing time that belongs to you.

Instead of making yourself a target, go out and remind yourself that there’s a world beyond work. Remembering this fact is one of the most reliable ways to put the pressures of work into perspective. But be sure to vary your walking routes or restaurant, or somebody might still be able to find you.

6. Don’t volunteer for extra work

If you’re feeling stressed because of your workload, the last thing you should do is take on extra work, no matter how good you think volunteering will make you look. This advice especially applies to taking work home on evenings or weekends.

Contrary to what the brainwashed and the ambitious believe, such volunteering rarely helps you get ahead. But it is almost guaranteed to age you prematurely. Even worse, it frequently means you are compensating for the fact that there’s too few staff members, and enabling management to dodge the problem.

Anyway, unless there’s a genuine crisis, you won’t have cleared your To Do list — you’ll simply have removed some items so that they can be replaced by new ones. Unless your company is heavily overstaffed, there’s always more work to do, and, for a surprising amount of it, whether you do it today or tomorrow doesn’t matter very much.

7. Don’t expect that working hard will lead to a promotion

The official myth in our society is that hard work is rewarded with promotion. That’s true in a handful of first-rate companies, but, in most work places, the better you are in your position, the harder time people have of imagining you in another one.

I’m not saying that you should slack off — after all, presumably you need the money, and losing your self-respect will only add to your stress. But if you insist on working hard, make sure that it’s for your own reasons and not for any expectation of reward. The chances are overwhelming that you won’t get one.

You’ll notice that none of these steps actually involve your workflow or work habits. That’s because stress at work is rarely about the work itself, so much as the conditions that surround it. In other words, getting organized, disciplining your email reading habits or any of the usual suggestions you get won’t do much for you.

Instead, recognize that you may be in an impossible position, and that the problem is just as likely to be in what’s around you than in you or your habits. And if that sounds cynical, reflect that, in a bad situation, cynicism is not a negative trait, but a successful survival mechanism. In this case, knowing why a situation is stressful can sometimes help you feel less stressed.

And if the situation continues, or gets worse, remember that sometimes the best way of dealing with stress is to move on. Just looking for work can help you endure your present situation a while longer (so long, of course, as you don’t let your managers know that you’re looking for work by slipping up and leaving your resume by the copier or by taking long phone calls with recruiters at work). Rather than enduring stress because you’re afraid of the unknown, have the courage to actively look for alternatives. If you’re like most full-timers, you’ll probably find that finding new employment is easier than you feared.

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At this time of year, newspapers are full of stories about how to act – or not act – at office parties. As I skim them, I reflect with satisfaction that I have a good chance of never attending another office party, whether for Christmas or anything else. Off-hand, I can’t think of a more unnatural and contrived effort at celebration.

Even though most of my adult life I’ve been a consultant, I’ve seen my share of them. And most office parties are grim affairs. At best, they’re full of quiet desperation. When you are used to relating to people at work, trying to relate to them socially can be an abrupt switch – except, of course, for those who are at least friendly enough to go out to lunch with.

The awkwardness is compounded by the efforts of supervisors and staff to interact, and, in high-tech by the lack of social skills possessed by the average developer. Most people spend their time standing around uncertainly, staying only because, no matter how dreary the party may be, it’s marginally more interesting than doing their jobs.

And that’s at the best of office parties. I’ve seen companies where the human resources staff literally hunted people through the hallways, dragging them out of their offices and the washrooms where they’ve gone to ground.

Sometimes, the blame for the average office party lies in the hands of company officers or owners. Full of their own magnanimity at giving the staff a treat, they overlook how little people are enjoying themselves. I remember at one company, the owner ordered pizza every Tuesday night, only to find that much of his order was going to waste. Finally, he thought to ask his staff. I’ll never forget his stricken look when he realized that the employees thought of pizza night as a duty, rather than an enjoyable experience.

However, most of the blame belongs to human resources. Somewhere in the last few decades, the idea has taken hold that human resources staff don’t just hire and fire and take care of benefits. No – they also have to be Club Med entertainment directors.

They run around organizing birthday parties and fun events like bowling in the hallway, ring-tosses, and singalongs, and pressganging people into activities that are meant to break the ice (but really only unite people in their common embarrassment). All the while, they have a bounce in their steps and a perky smile on their face because they like organizing people and are in their element.

“You just know she was in the pep club in high school,” one fellow sufferer muttered to me as we endured one HR director’s efforts to organize teams for Pictionary. I remember looking at the director running around and thinking: What’s the use of growing older if you still have to hop around like a demented robin?

By far the worst of these human resources efforts was at a small software company that had been working non-stop for several months to finish a project. The overtime was so constant that, if everyone had been paid by the hour, the cost of the project would easily have doubled. To make matters worse, the project was done during the best weather of the year.

Dimly sensing that the staff had been pushed to its limits, the company officers announced they were renting a night club for the evening. Considering that the lead programmer on the project was a devout Moslem (which everyone knew, because he prayed several times a day in his cubicle), the idea was tactless – he not only didn’t drink, but wouldn’t enter a night club. Yet, without him, the project would never have been finished. You could almost hear the silence as people looked around in embarrassment at the meeting to announce the party.

Then, a voice from the back (mine) asked, “Can I have his drink tickets?”

But even with free drink tickets, nobody wanted to go. They’d had enough and wanted to go home at the end of the day for once. I wouldn’t have cared much myself, since as a consultant I got paid by the hour, except that I didn’t think I could bill for the party.

Embarrassed, the company officers changed the event to a Friday afternoon. Still, nobody signed up, despite repeated emails. Come the day, the human resources manager rounded us up like an obsessive-compulsive sheep dog, and herded us over to the night club. We made a concerted rush for the bar, downed our three free drinks – and, at quitting time, three-quarters of us left in such unison that you would have thought we had planned our escape beforehand.

Every now and again, people ask if I feel lonely working from home. But I only have to think of these situations to realize that, if I occasionally am, there are compensations, too. I’ve done my time pit-lamped like a stunned deer under the gaze of an HR manager determined that I’ll have a good time and be grateful, and I have no intention of being in that situation again.

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“I wish people would come to work with enthusiasm,” the CEO said to me, looking up from his copy of From Good to Great. “I really wish they showed some passion.” His voice was a mixture of puzzlement, longing, and frustration that could only come from a man wondering why the rest of the world wasn’t more like him.

The statement shouldn’t have caught me as unprepared as it did. As a communications consultant, I didn’t even show on the organizational chart, but I’d noted before that executives often feel free to confide in a consultant in a way they’d never consider with an employee. Besides, we were sharing an office until the company could take over more space on the same floor, and it was a hot Friday afternoon, a time when even the most gung-ho company officer takes off his jacket and feels conversational.

All the same, the statement left me dumbfounded for a minute. What I wanted to say was, “You mean you really don’t know?” But I settled for something non-committal and corporate about teams taking time to build. After all, consultants may have more freedom than employees, but wise ones learn to temper that freedom with discretion.

Besides, the fact he could express the wish — and the puzzlement behind it — made all too clear that he didn’t know how much he was responsible for the lack of enthusiasm.

You see, the CEO in question had been recruited by the board of directors to make the company profitable. And he had done everything he could from a business end to achieve that goal, finding new markets and products, and developing business intelligence about the company’s industry and local business. However, what he had forgot was his responsibility for morale.

Frankly, it couldn’t have been worse.

The CEO had come in six months ago, and quickly proceeded to cut a third of the staff. About a month ago, he had done the same again, and anyone who could read a balance sheet and his worried glance could tell that another staff reduction was due in the future.

All these cuts made sense from a bottom line perspective, but they left employees uncertain. The stress was even greater because he had closed a branch office after promising to keep it open, and fired everyone who wasn’t willing to relocate to headquarters.

Moreover, even at headquarters, he had laid off people with no regard to their roles within the company. As a result, the survivors were not only wondering when the axe would fall on them, but having to cope with a sudden loss of a lot of unwritten knowledge because key people were gone. In other words, not only was morale so low that the photocopy machine was starting to jam from the rush of resumes, but the company had become less functional because of the cuts.

Then, just to make matters worse, having just read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Lou Gerstner’s biography of his days at IBM, the CEO was inspired to hold retreats for those he designated key personnel. These chosen few were given free copies of various best-selling business books, and invited to spend a day or two at a resort discussing the contents.

But what might have worked in a mega-corporation like IBM, where a few absences across the country would barely be noticed, only served in the CEO’s small company to make make three-quarters of the company feel under-privileged and insulted. Several of the elite didn’t feel especially honored, either, since what they really wanted to do was get on with their work.

And, after all this, what did the CEO do at Christmas? Cancel the company party, and, on Christmas Eve, leave at 11AM without telling the staff they could do the same (most left anyway by 1PM).

Looking back, I’m pleased at my restraint when the CEO wished for a dedicated work force. He wasn’t a stupid man, yet he had no idea that he couldn’t have ground morale into the dirt more effectively if he had been deliberately tried to do so. Busy satisfying the board that he was containing costs, he forgot that, if he wanted dedication and respect, he also needed to show some loyalty and support for his employees. And, really, considering all his long hours trying to turn the company around, I couldn’t tell him what was wrong or the aspects of business that he was neglecting without mortally insulting him.

The company still exists, but it’s only a remnant of what it was in my time. Despite a couple of modestly profitable quarters, it continues to show regular losses, and the same CEO still heads it. I’ve never revisited, but I sometimes wonder if he’s ever figured out what puzzled him, or simply bemoans the difficulty in attracting loyal personnel.

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As a communications and marketing consultant, I worked with over forty companies in eight years. They ranged from multi-nationals like IBM and Intel to startups and single-person operations, and from the reputable (if bureaucratic) to the fly-by-night. Three times, I was stiffed – – fortunately, for small amounts. Often, I was frustrated by lack of challenge or mismanagement that I was sure I could put right if I were in charge (and once or twice, I might have been right). But only once have I quit a job after three days of work, and that position remains, indisputably, the worst job I have ever taken.

Even my first job as a busboy, which I quit after the manager accused me of spilling water on a customer when I had been in the kitchen all shift can’t compare. As for the summer between university semesters that I spent drilling holes in wooden rods, I may never have learned what either holes or rods were for, but that was only for three months, and enduring acute boredom isn’t too bad when you earn union wages.

I took my all-time worst job in the weeks after I left Stormix Technologies, where I had my first experience as management (and awful I was, but that’s another story). I had quit in the sudden realization that the company could fold any time (and six months later it did), and repented my rashness at leisure. When a woman I knew from a consulting agency I sometimes worked through told me that she was now doing human resources at a company, I jumped at the opportunity to start at her new company. Never mind that it was a return to technical-writing after playing at management; it was a job.

The company was involved in online gaming, my acquaintance told me, leading me to believe that it was developing a world for role playing. Never mind that gaming seemed frivolous after working with free software; I told myself to be realistic and take the opportunity that was offered.

The first morning, I learned that my acquaintance had misrepresented the company to me. It was not involved role playing, but in developing casino games. In fact, the company had been the recent victim of a police raid for its activities, and had just changed its name. Otherwise, I would have recognized the name, because, in those days, I kept close track on all the high-tech companies in my area. I was dismayed, but I knew enough about the police to know that a raid didn’t necessarily mean any wrongdoing, so I fought down my misgivings.

The second day, I noticed a door that opened into a room larger than any I had seen in the office. It had well over a dozen desks — not workstations. If all those desks were occupied, it represented over a third of the company, yet no one was there.

“That used to be for our lawyers,” the guy at the next workstation told me when I asked about the room. “But they all moved to the Caymans after the raid.”

My dismay deepened. A company with almost as many lawyers as coders could only be a patent shark or one with serious legal difficulties, especially since they were all in the Caymans now. In fact, the company’s head office had relocated to the Caymans, where online gambling is legal in a way that it isn’t in the United States and Canada.

My resolve to be realistic slipped another notch or two.

I went home and spent a fitful night trying to bat my conscience down. Did I want to be part of such a company? I resolved to wait a week before making a decision. But, from the way I dragged myself from the SkyTrain and lingered in the nearest Starbucks on the third day, I knew that I was half-out the door already.

The final blow descended when my manager gave me a tour of the rest of the office.. It was on several levels of an old building in Gastown, and I had only seen one level of it so far.

The tour ended in the kitchen. “If you see the light on next door,” the manager said, pointing to a small red-tinged bulb above the door frame, “Keep quiet. They’re filming.”

“Filming?”

“It’s what used to be our adult movie division. They’re a separate company now, but we still share the kitchen space.”

As he spoke, I noticed some long bathrobes draped over the chairs around the table.

Back at my desk. I tried to focus on my work, but I couldn’t. I was never much for gambling or adult movies (which, more often than not, are actually adolescent), but I’m not a prude, either. I’d always taken a more or less feminist of pornography as exploitation, but did I have a right to judge people who were shooting -rated movies of their own free will? In the past, I had met all sorts of people that wouldn’t exactly fit in to the average suburb, so why was I so depressed by the situation I found myself in?

I thought of a photo that had circulated in the local newspapers when the company had been raided, showing the company’s employees standing around on the sidewalk. I could be one of them, I realized.

Stopping all pretense of work, I decided that part of the problem was that, while I might tolerate the company’s business past and present, I didn’t want to be active in it. But an even larger source of my discomfort was the conviction that I had been duped. If the company misrepresented itself to attract employees, what else might it do in the name of business? I thought I had enough evidence to make a reliable guess.

Anyway, the only thing worse than being manipulated would be an attempt to deny the fact. My situation was too depressing for words.

At 11:30, I marched into the manager’s office and told him that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and had been too optimistic to think that I could work regular hours. He was sympathetic, and even told me to come back if I got better, but there was not much chance of that.

A month later, I received a check for the days I had worked. I referred to the cheque as “my avails of vice,” and briefly considered not cashing it. By then, I had started at my highest-paid and most interesting job to date, and I didn’t need the money. But, in the end, I told myself that I had earned it, and rationalized that I deserved some compensation for what I had been through.

I still don’t know whether that line of thought was a copout. But I was glad to be out of that job before it made a gap in my resume that I would have to explain. And, in the end, I benefited from my decision to quit, because it raised me in the estimation of my in-laws. Yet, brief as the experience was, I’ll never forget the mixture of anger and chagrin with which I descended into the seamy side of high-tech.

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Martin Michlmayr, the former Debian project leader and recent Cambridge graduate, wrote to say that my dismissal of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as “simplistic hypocrisy” in a recent blog entry was an interesting contrast to the “glowing review” he had read on another site.

I answered privately, but Carnegie’s book has been viewed uncritically for so long — almost seven decades — that I think a public debunking is in order. So let me say here and now that Carnegie’s book presents a limited view of complex problems, and trying to follow his advice usually leads to psychologically dangerous behavior — two points that are often lost in his readers’ relief at being given concrete solutions to problems that concern almost everyone at one time or another. His advice is especially unsound in the IT department, whose members mostly interact in situations for which Carnegie’s advice is simply not designed.

You should never forget that Carnegie is a salesman first and last. And, like many people, he sees all situations in terms of the one that’s most familiar and important to him: being face to face with a potential customer, trying to close the deal. However, if you think for even a moment, there are many situations where this view is both inappropriate and misleading. Should you really see closing a deal as having anything to do with working on a group project? To the relationship between teacher and student? To a marriage? While you may find aspects of sales in some of these relationships, none of these examples are defined nor dominated by closing a deal — or, if they are, they are profoundly toxic.

The same is true of people. In the true capitalist tradition, Carnegie assumes that you can appeal to people’s competitive spirit in your effort to persuade. Yet, when you stop to think, even those who are competitive in certain situations hardly want to be so all the time. Often, other values like truth or reciprocity have a higher priority, even in the business world. Encourage computer programmers to compete, and they’re likely to roll their eyes. Ditto for graphic artists or researchers.

And just ask yourself who you’d rather work with on a project: someone who wasn’t outgoing but came up with original insights, or someone whose first priority was to be liked? Yet Carnegie urges that, in your efforts to be liked, you should hide your own passions in favor of echoing other peoples’, thereby cutting off the exchange of ideas that often leads to the greatest creativity.

The truth is that many situations require some give and take, even some temporary disagreement. But a person trying to follow Carnegie’s advice will shy away from conflict, even if it is ultimately useful. In many situations, trying to live by Carnegie’s stripped down sense of the world means that you won’t be able to function effectively. Outside the world of sales, being liked just isn’t the most important concern. Much of the time, assuming that it is becomes a dangerous and unproductive simplification.

Consider, too, the effect that following Carnegie’s advice can have. In his book, Carnegie stresses the importance of having a genuine interest in people, and genuinely listening to people. And, granted, diplomacy is a social grace. Yet if you have a shred of honesty,you have to admit that you will not have a genuine interest in some people. At times, you won’t even have a genuine interest in listening to the most important people in your life, because you are tired or distracted.

In such situations, what are Carnegie’s followers to do? Unless they abandon their credo, they can only lie, both to themselves or to those around them in everything they say and do, pretending an interest when they have none. In other words, they can only transform themselves into hypocrites. They are not just being polite; when you are polite you may not tell a boor that you want run screaming from him, but at least you know that’s what you would like to do. But when you are being a hypocrite, you add a level of manipulation to a relationship that is not only avoidable, but destructive to both you and the relationship.

Carnegie’s advice contains a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, you are supposed to genuinely like people and encourage them to warm to you people, but, on the other hand, you do so only in order to manipulate them. Making a point of remembering their name, leading people along with a chain of questions that leads them to buying, letting people blow off steam so that they are calmer when you start addressing their complaints, offering upbeat praise, introducing them with a compliment that they will feel they have to live up to — all these are ultimately ways to control people, according to Carnegie, not things to do to develop a relationship for its own sake. So, once again, hypocrisy taints the relationship if you follow Carnegie’s advice.

Not that all relationships are between equals, or should be. But when you are constantly concerned with manipulating the other party, how can respect or any other mutual feeling enter the relationship? You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t despise a person you can always manipulate. You may even come to despise yourself for being the manipulator.

For these reasons, dealing with one of Carnegie’s followers can be a deeply frustrating experience. When you want a new perspective, often they won’t give one. If you want honesty or team work, you’ll be lucky to get it. If you’re used to not hearing a compliment unless it’s sincere, a Carnegie follower can momentarily lead you to think that you’re been extraordinarily successful — at least, until you realize that he or she says much the same of everyone, and the compliment is empty. In fact, once you become aware of Carnegie’s relatively limited bag of tricks, they become so obvious that you quickly stop trusting the person who uses them and start wondering what their hidden agenda might be. In the end, conversation, let alone working together, can become almost impossible.

Carnegie’s advice is not always so unhealthy. Some of what he says, such as trying to imagine yourself in the other person’s position, or allowing them to save face when you admonish them are solid people skills. Other pieces of advice, such as readily admitting you are wrong are also good advice — good enough to have come down over the millennia from Aristotle. But the trouble is, these nuggets are embedded in such an unstable strata of simplistic and hypocritical advice that they are hardly worth the effort of separating them out.

Unfortunately for Carnegie, all relationships are not a sales deal — and trying to pretend that they are is not only risky, but mentally unhealthy as well.

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Business experts always have an air of fantasy about them. Many give watered-down accounts of outdated psychology like the Meyers-Brigg personality test. Almost all give the impression that the writer’s experience of the modern office is either scant or years in the past. I mean, what other field would still consider a piece of simplistic hypocrisy like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People a significant work for seventy years? But while their sense of dislocation fascinates me, business experts can be dangerous and offensive — and never more so than when they are promoting the modern cult of the leader.

According to this cult, proving yourself a leader is the way to advance your career. If you are not a natural leader — whatever that means — then you should try to become one by imitating various role models. Some experts go so far to suggest that you should copy the fashion sense and behavior of those higher in the corporate hierarchy. The goal is to become someone that others look up to and admire so that they follow you willingly (that is, are willing to sacrifice their personal time for your business goals). Should you not appreciate this goal, the subtext always seems to be, something is deeply wrong with you (presumably, that you’re a natural follower instead).

Where do I start explaining what is not only misguided but also deeply insulting about this sales pitch? Perhaps the point to make first is that this advice is based no more solidly on research than creationism, cryptozoology, or any other junk science. Are some people natural leaders? Or is that just code for being aggressive and extroverted? Can you really become one by imitation? Or does such imitation simply flatter your models and identify you forever as a follower? What percentage of people who use these techniques succeed, and what percentage fail? The failure rate must be extremely high, since by definition there are far fewer leadership positions than candidates for them. And how does the undisguised opportunism advocated fit with the more laidback, flatter corporate structures of today?

For that matter, who says that people are just looking for a leader to follow? Many jobs in modern business, up to (and maybe especially) most management, executive, and officer positions, can be done adequately by the average eighth grader. Beyond the inevitable division of labor and the coordination that it requires, very few people require a leader — and those that do aren’t people you want to hire anyway, because they are probably untrustworthy.

Similarly, while it’s true that people are often looking for a higher cause to give meaning to their lives, most of them don’t expect to find it at work. They put in hours of over-time because doing so seems a job requirement and they’re afraid of being fired if they object. Just because they put the best face on such demands, that doesn’t mean they enjoy them. Most people know when they’re being exploited, and having a leader won’t inspire most of them to do anything except hide their resentment better. Generally, it’s only very young workers or those very high up in the power structure who have a mental stake in a business. For the rest, it’s a income, a means to an end.

Nor does the average person’s relative indifference to advancing their career indicate inferiority in intelligence and talent compared to those who are dedicated careerists. Some people prefer to stay in a position where they are competent or fulfilled rather than advance. Many prefer to carve out their own small empire at right angles to the main power structure, like the quartermaster or surgeon on a 19th Century sailing ship. Others see those in the main power structure as enemies, and more or less actively oppose them — unionists, for example. An even greater number seek meaning from something other than work.

But the worst thing about those indoctrinated into the cult of leadership is that their beliefs encourage an arrogant oversimplification. Ambition, to cult members, is the only legitimate aspiration. From that position, it is a short step to justifying everything you do and viewing others as stupider and less talented than you are, and yourself as a superior being (or, at least, a demi-god in training).

Such a world view may be comforting to you when you have doubts at night, but, during the day, it’s also likely to make you a damned unpleasant person to be around. I wonder, too, how many cultists have defeated their own ambitions because they made their goals a little too obvious and displayed their contempt for others just a little too openly?

Perhaps the rest of us should thank the business experts for making it easier to detect their cult members. However, I think this service is vastly outweighed by the disservice the experts do by encouraging the cultists in their worst behavior by flattering them with comparisons to samurai warriors and heroic Antarctic explorers, and by pretending their naked ambition is anything except the rather paltry egotism that it so often is.

And should you be someone attracted to the cult of leadership, take a moment to consider how many assumptions that are either unexamined or at best proved by anecdotal evidence are contained in the key message of the cult of leadership. Personally, before I guided my future by such experts’ advice, I would like more proof that it was well-thought out and based on solid evidence. Otherwise, I may be making plans on a very shaky foundation — foundations that could very easily crumble beneath me and leave me unhappy and, because of my arrogance, very much alone.

Of course, the experts would have an explanation ready for such failure. Probably, they’d say I didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t apply their ideas correctly. That’s the beautiful thing about closed systems of belief — for the faithful, they defy debunking.

All I know is that I wouldn’t do a relatively unimportant thing like buy a washing machine from a clerk who sounded like the so-called business experts. So why would I buy a philosophy of life from them?

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