A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 30th, 2013 by William

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

We’ve all probably heard the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” many times in our careers. The entire performance review process is a working model of this in action. This profound phrase is most often attributed to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), but it’s also been credited to Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987). Who really knows who first spoke these words but what I do know is that these words ring as true in today’s modern workplace as when they were first uttered by Oscar or Claire. The age of this quote proves that this type curse of the working class is nothing new.

I’m also sure many of you have been the victim of this seemingly ridiculous statement and that’s why when it happens you were undoubtedly left scratching your head in disbelief. Here’s an example: You see a problem, report it, and you end up being called the bad guy rather than the person who actually caused the problem.

Why does this happen and for what purpose? How could we do our best work at something or attempt to help the organization by honesty bringing up issues that need attention and then someone will twist it around and we’re blamed for something we ostensibly had no control over? The sad fact is that most often it’s for someone’s personal gain. Remember tearing down another to make oneself look better is a common practice in the workplace. I’ve talked about this many times before.

Others however just like to simply stir the pot−they get a perverse pleasure from causing chaos or watching a rival (or anyone for that matter) get hammered. In the end it’s usually to distract everyone’s attention away from the true culprit and the sad fact is that this behavior is found in almost every workplace.

But how can you protect yourself from someone taking your “good deeds” and turning them into your personal liability?

The article, “To Escape Blame, Don’t be a Hero – Be a Victim,” by Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner, published in the March 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, presents an interesting approach to protecting yourself from your good deeds being turned against you. The article presents findings based on experiments conducted by Gray, a Professor of Psychology at The University of Maryland and Wegner, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

They tell us, “Our research suggests that morality is not like some kind of cosmic bank, where you can deposit good deeds and use them to offset future misdeeds. Instead, people ignore heroic pasts−or even count them against you−when assigning blame.”

The authors suggest that the explanation for this is our tendency to divide the world up into what they call “moral agents”−those who “do” good and evil−and those who “receive” good or evil. Further they tell us, “Psychologically, the perceived distance between a hero and a villain is quite small, whereas there’s a wide gap between a villain and a victim. This means that heroes are easily recast as evil doers, whereas it’s very hard to turn a victim into a villain.”

The authors explain why. “One possibility is that when we hear that a person has done a lot of good, we expect them to know better than to do something bad. As a result, we hold them even more accountable than an average person.”

The authors also believe that people don’t see everyday situations divided between heroes and villains, but between people who “act” and people who are “acted upon.” They tell us, “In that sense, a hero and a villain are both powerful people who affect others, and it’s pretty easy for a hero to be re-categorized as a villain based on a single action. On the other hand, victims may be perceived as relatively powerless, not just against the world but against themselves. Therefore, we may hold them somewhat less responsible for antisocial behavior.”

Here’s the bottom line advice: in the experiments involved in this study, those who highlighted their past suffering were held less responsible for transgressions and given less punishment. The takeaway being that we should never exalt our good deeds but humble ourselves by playing them down.

In my research I came across a very easy and interesting “experiment” we can all do to determine (as if we probably didn’t already know) whether our workplace, particularly our boss, is prone to demonizing the good producers of the organization. The experiment goes like this:

The next time you’re talking to your manager, give glowing praise for one of your colleagues, telling your manager how this other employee did such a great job with such-and-such−or how he/she went the extra mile−whatever it may be.  Then, sit back and watch.  If your manager then attempts to dismiss the praise, or doesn’t openly agree with you, or attempts to badmouth, or smear, that employee, then you’re definitely working in an organization where truly “no good deed goes unpunished.”


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