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How to Deal—Spiritually—with Workplace Paternalism

David Langness | Jun 17, 2017

PART 4 IN SERIES Paternalism Family Dynamics and Your View of the World

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Jun 17, 2017

PART 4 IN SERIES Paternalism Family Dynamics and Your View of the World

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Have you ever had a paternalistic boss? I sure have, and even though I’m a guy, I hated it.

In the past, over the course of my military, academic and professional careers, I’ve worked for a couple of these so-called leaders. Here’s how you can tell: a paternalistic boss has a control-oriented leadership style, and he sometimes uses that control as a weapon—to punish or pay off, to protect or prevail. In return, he expects absolute obedience, loyalty and even obeisance from his minions.

He acts like a dictator, in other words. He doesn’t appreciate democracy, self-determination or creativity very much, because they threaten his sense of control. In business environments, these kinds of leaders are often rewarded and promoted—because the people who promote them say they “run a tight ship.” In organizations, they tend to take over and want more and more authority. In government, they also tend toward the authoritarian end of the spectrum, and can become autocratic, bureaucratic or even tyrannical. When they have power over others, it often turns punitive.

These kinds of autocratic bosses make unilateral decisions, without much input from the group. They dominate meetings, offer little feedback, don’t listen well, enjoy giving orders and only employ downward, one-way communication. Often they pit employees or subordinates against one another, using the resultant conflict for their own gain.

Sound like anyone you know? This portrait of a paternalistic boss isn’t pretty—but unfortunately, it fits too many people who consider themselves good leaders. Workplace paternalism usually means the boss thinks he’s a superior being; and that because of his superiority he believes he has to make choices and decisions for his presumably weak, dependent, less intelligent underlings, who he sees as incapable of good decision-making.

In many workplace settings, this kind of retrograde paternalism gets directed most commonly toward women and minorities—as prejudice, sexism or racism. Of course, the same thing happened when the European nations conquered less-developed countries in various parts of the world. In those places, paternalism became part and parcel of colonialism, with the idea that different races and cultures were inherently inferior beings—which gave the colonists permission to treat others as they would less intelligent, less capable and less worthy children.

Don’t get me wrong—having fatherly, protective, paternal feelings toward others can originate from kind and loving instincts. We all have those feelings for our children—we’re naturally concerned about their well-being and the development of their minds and souls. But expressing or even harboring those kinds of feelings toward colleagues at work or other adults anywhere reveals a paternalistic mindset.

Here’s a simple paternalism test: the next time you’re in a meeting in your workplace, see who speaks first. Does the paternalistic boss always start the meeting by holding forth with his own opinions at length; effectively silencing others who may have a different opinion? Or does the boss usually listen, letting others speak first? Paternalistic bosses generally don’t have good listening skills or enough patience to hear others’ opinions.

So if you work for a paternalistic boss, how can you deal with him (or her—women can be paternalistic, too) in an understanding, spiritual way? The Baha’i teachings offer spiritual principles that may help.

When Abdu’l-Baha first travelled to the West, specifically to Paris in 1911, he offered the Parisians a whole host of spiritual advice and counsel from a Baha’i perspective. He noted the beauty of that great metropolis, but he also noted its lack of spiritual progress:

The city of Paris is very beautiful, a more civilized and well-appointed town in all material development it would be impossible to find in the present world. But the spiritual light has not shone upon her for a long time: her spiritual progress is far behind that of her material civilization. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 26.

Surprisingly, in the “cradle of freedom and democracy,” he gave the French a startling piece of advice:

My hope for you is that you will ever avoid tyranny and oppression; that you will work without ceasing till justice reigns in every land, that you will keep your hearts pure and your hands free from unrighteousness. – Ibid., p. 16.

When Abdu’l-Baha recommended avoiding tyranny and oppression, what do you think he meant? At the time, France had one of the world’s largest colonial empires. Not long before Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, the President of the French Senate infamously said “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.” When Abdu’l-Baha advised the French to “work without ceasing till justice reigns in every land,” perhaps he meant the paternalistic and racist attitudes that drove French colonialism. To rid humanity of those attitudes, Abdu’l-Baha also presented these profound Baha’i principles, which I’ve found enormously helpful in dealing with paternalism:

Especially to those whose thoughts are material and retrograde show the utmost love and patience, thereby winning them into the unity of fellowship by the radiance of your kindness. – Ibid., p. 27.

The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and colour from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw yourself into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. – Ibid., p. 53.

Do not allow difference of opinion, or diversity of thought to separate you from your fellow-men, or to be the cause of dispute, hatred and strife in your hearts. – Ibid.

In my own experience with paternalistic bosses and supervisors, I used to fall into the old trap of rebelling against or opposing them. That approach, I’m here to testify, does no good. It doesn’t change the paternalism or the boss. Instead, it only irritates them and increases the fervency of their paternalism. Instead, I’ve found that establishing a loving, patient approach does much more good. If a paternalistic boss senses a genuine personal warmth from a colleague, it can open his heart to conversation, constructive criticism and change.

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