The road to dysfunctional workplace culture is cobbled with blue pill illusions, candy-coated with good intentions to cover their noxious taste.
My company, 7Factor Software, is not the totality of anyone’s reality. We are not a family. We’re not a movement or a religion. We’re not saving the world, and we’re not the all-consuming meaning or purpose of anyone’s life, not even mine.
The work we do is important—to our clients and to those they serve—and we do our work well. We make a difference. For that, we are smart people providing a valuable service, not godlike figures dropping golden code from on high.
I like all the people who work with me at 7Factor. I think most of them like each other and most of them like me, probably some a little more and some a little less. That’s fine, and as it should be.
But I’m not the best-friend-father-figure-guru-god-dear-leader of their total and transcendent reality, and I never want to be. No business leader ever should be.
And employees should be skeptical of any employer promising to satisfy all the needs and desires of their yearning souls. Uncritical belief in such tantalizing dreamworlds leaves you vulnerable to exploitation and control.
Blue Pills Manifest A Mass Delusion
Blue pills invoke a communal delusion among compliant cells in the corporate matrix. The company promises to fill all the voids in workers’ lives: to give them an identity, a sense of purpose and belonging that depends on their continued conformity with the illusion. In exchange, all they need to pledge is their loyalty, productivity and unquestioning obedience to the company. After all, it is only through the company that they can feel whole.
You see this repeatedly in world history, even in current events. It’s how nationalist autocrats and strongmen rise and hold onto power. It’s a perilous game, immoral and, in the end, always unleashes self-destructive chaos that even the cult’s creators can’t control.
It’s a terrible way to lead, exploiting people’s insecurities, promising them something you can’t actually give, the illusion of which you may one day decide to take away. It’s power driven by fear, the fear that people may leave your company, may prioritize their balanced lives over your company’s hustle and grind or might ask you for the full value of what their work is worth.
Not every business leader who leads this way does so with conscious intention. Maybe not even most do. There’s a glimmer of ill-conceived compassion at the heart of treating your employees “like family.” There’s a misguided stirring in the soul that glorifies your work with spiritual transformation. But even when the blue pills are dispensed with care and kindness, the impact is just the same: codependence, exploitation and, almost inevitably, betrayal, with all that the loss of one’s sole source of purpose, identity and belonging may bring.
To anyone considering working for such a company, tossing their head back to swallow the blue pill down: I advise a healthy skepticism. Your job can and should give you satisfaction, but it’s a dangerous pit of sand on which to build your whole life’s happiness and worth.
We’re all broken in some way. We all have empty places within us that yearn for something more. We’re all frail in our own ways, and that’s OK.
But blue pills only numb the pain, dimming our perception of our problems while making everything worse.
What happens when the company patriarch or matriarch kicks you out of the family? What happens when the sacred purpose fails and the company folds? These things happen all the time in business, in careers. Then everyone is left holding an empty pill cup, going through withdrawal from something that’s no longer theirs, that never was.
Healthy Culture Grows From A Thousand Red Pill Roots
Healthy workplace culture emerges organically from all the people it encompasses. It’s rooted in red pill realism and reciprocal respect. It’s a provisional reality we create and grow together—a reality with modest scope and porous borders, one that honors the sovereignty of our lives outside of work.
Key constitutional principles may be upheld by a central authority. If you commit a cardinal sin such as sexual harassment at my company, I’m going to fire you, no discussion, no accommodation for differences of opinion on what our culture’s stance on this should be.
But within the essential boundaries marking where we cannot go, culture is what we create together in the dynamic tension between trust and accountability. It’s transparency and telling truth to power. It’s the questions we all ask and the challenges we make from a place of constructive skepticism. Is this really who we are and want to be? Why do we do things this way? Where are we not living our values? How can we do better?
Identity, purpose and belonging are still part of the conversation in a healthy workplace culture, but they are not satisfactions that the company or its leaders provide from outside the self, creating an unhealthy dependency and dynamic of control. Rather, they strive to give each person the opportunities, tools and support to find that within themselves. That inner strength, that sense of self and worth, should be something each employee can pack up and take with them when they leave for another opportunity.
Work isn’t group therapy, and good leaders aren’t counselors or preachers. Companies can’t heal anyone’s hurts or make them whole. But we can create an environment that supports people as they forge their own identities, find their own senses of purpose and nurture their own networks of friends and family—actual family, I mean, not the false family of a brand or a business.
This all requires a lot of humility and restraint. Only by respecting the limited role of work in employees’ lives—by choosing not to offer the blue pills—can leaders grow a healthy culture that supports each person’s full, healthy and happy life.