A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
August 17th, 2014 by William

Waiting for Santa Claus

It all starts when we’re in our twenties. We’re just starting out in our careers and our motivation in life revolves around the next raise or promotion milestone on our envisioned meteoric rise to the top. Last week’s post talked about just this–our need to rise to the next ledge, or step, in the corporate pyramid. We tell ourselves that once that raise or promotion comes we can really begin to enjoy ourselves–we’ll be happy. Of course that doesn’t last long and we then begin to think we don’t make enough money (certainly not what we think we’re worth), or we don’t have the prestige that we’re due, so we fall into a mindset that won’t allow us to enjoy the position we’re in. So we strive for the next raise or promotion that we think will make us happy–just one more will do the trick. And so on, and so on. The fact of the matter is that regardless of the number of raises or promotions we get we will always be focus on the wait for the next one.

Once we’re married and have kids the need for promotion at work is further compounded by more stress because our happiness and satisfaction is deferred until the car is paid off or we buy that larger house. Until then we’ll just plod along never really happy or fulfilled. Of course, once these things take place new goals emerge, e.g., the kids need to go to college, and other new reasons to deflect the pleasures of the moment into some suspended state of waiting for the next “big event” to present itself.

When we get older our goals become the elimination of the mortgage, perhaps, or the move out of the house of the last of the children, or the stress of not having enough saved for retirement. The common denominator throughout our lives is that unfulfilled striving in our career to move steadily up the corporate ladder. That’s because moving up the corporate ladder and subsequently making more money is the key to achieving all those other goals. Thus we put added pressure on our work-life, which is probably stressful enough.

I think you can see the pattern here–we’re always waiting for the next big event in our career that will make all the difference and be our key to happiness and success. That feeling we have through most of our adult life is akin to how we felt as a kid waiting the weeks leading up to Christmas in eager anticipation of the toys we’ll receive that will make us happy. We spend those weeks “Waiting for Santa Claus.” And just like kids we spend our adult life “Waiting for Santa Claus” too.

The analogy is that Santa Claus is some future event that will make us happy and thus solve our nagging problems. Waiting for Santa Claus creates the ability to cope with our unfulfilling everyday life and it unfortunately takes the place of the happiness we seek. Of course just as there isn’t a Santa Claus, we don’t always achieve the level of satisfaction we were expecting by the attainment of the particular goal. We then become resigned and maybe even experience a sense of futility. We tell ourselves that there’s a reason for our unhappiness–Santa Claus hasn’t delivered the situation that will allow us to succeed. So we just will wait until he comes again.

Eric Berne (1910 – 1970), was a Canadian-born psychiatrist best known as the creator of Transactional Analysis (TA) and the author of the book Games People Play. Games People Play was a groundbreaking book in which he introduces transactional analysis as the basis for what he describes in his book as the games people play out every waking minute of their lives. According to Dr. Berne, games are ritualistic behavior patterns between individuals that can mask hidden feelings or emotions but are all played to gain advantage over others. In my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I use Berne’s TA model and many of his “games” to describe the behavior prevalent in the modern workplace.

In his research Berne found there were many repetitive behavior patterns that people share in common. These then are the standard ego states (parent, adult or child) that he describes in his book. These ego states are the triggers for the “games people play.” “Waiting for Santa Claus,” as described above, is one of them. Note: Berne later changed the name of this game to “Waiting for Rigor Mortis” after hearing a comment from one of his patients that made him realize that for a lot of people, the real goal of life is death and an end to the frantic race they are running with themselves.

The game “Waiting for Santa Claus” that Berne described in his book can be seen being played out every day in every workplace across the nation. Think about it–we all have worked in organizations where the employees go about their daily works in a state of suspended animation, waiting for some change or other in their life–or waiting for the next performance review for that next raise or promotion.

The problem is that once these events happen they rarely satisfy us for long. In their 2012 treatise “Extra Status and Extra Stress: Are Promotions Good for Us?” David Johnston and Wang-Sheng Lee present data from a study that found “no evidence that promotions impact general health or life satisfaction.” In fact it’s just the opposite. Researchers noted that “two or more years after a promotion worker mental health is significantly lower, driven predominantly by increased anxiety.”

The question they set out answer was: Are promotions good for us? To answer this question, Johnston and Lee first examined changes in workers’ perceptions of their job in the lead-up to receiving their promotion and in the several years afterwards. They found that in the first year or two after a promotion, workers feel their jobs are more secure, and enjoy some level of satisfaction. They feel they have more control (decision-making freedom), that they’re trusted and respected more, and that they are fairly paid. However, they feel more stressed and will work longer hours because they feel they have to so as to meet the demands and expectations of the new position. The stress negates the satisfying effects of the raise or promotion.

After the positive, short-run promotion effects, the attributes of perceived job security, pay fairness and job satisfaction trend downwards towards their pre-promotion baseline levels. For each of these attributes the estimated promotion effects after two years are pretty much insignificant, and over the three year post-promotion period, job security effects decrease 66% and job satisfaction effects decrease to the point of being non-existent. When it comes to pay fairness our satisfaction increases over the first two years after the promotion but then decreases thereafter and is not statistically different from zero after that. By the three-year mark the positive feelings are largely absent. Workers no longer feel more secure or well paid (despite having higher incomes and greater job control), and their overall job satisfaction has returned to pre-promotion levels, while in contrast, stress and work hours remain high.

In 2012 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.6. This seems to justify the above study results regarding job satisfaction. If your current employer can’t provide satisfaction you will seek out one that will–or more accurately that you hope will. The fact that it’s higher than the 2-3 years noted in the study is largely due to the 2008 recession which put the fear of God into anyone who managed to remain employed while everyone else was losing theirs.

It used to be that changing jobs that often would label one as untrustworthy, unfaithful and uncommitted, etc., but not any longer. In fact, back when I used to review resumes of job candidates and I came across someone who had been in their current position for longer than 4-5 years, I would always wonder why. Were they not motivated to better themselves? Were they not risk takers? Were they caught in the waiting for Santa Claus syndrome? The sad fact is that most often the only way to receive a significant raise, or get a promotion, is to change jobs.

Here’s another argument for changing jobs frequently. If you stay with a company the average raise you can expect in 2014 is 3%. Even the most underperforming employee can expect a 1-2% raise. The best performers can hope for a 4-5% raise. But, the inflation rate is currently 2.1% calculated based on the Consumer Price Index published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that your raise is actually less than 1%.

On the other hand if you change jobs you’ll likely see an increase in salary much higher than 4-5%…10% is not unheard of. Plus many times you can move into a higher position thus getting that promotion you’ve waited for that never materialized at your current company.

There’s a reason that staying at one company too long will never get you what you want. It’s the old axiom “familiarity breeds contempt.” The longer you stay at the company the more you’re looked upon as just a tool for the higher-ups to achieve their own goals. We’ve all heard the old truism: management will ignore what the employees tell them yet hire consultants to tell them all the same things.

Of course I must note at this point that even changing jobs and receiving a larger raise or a promotion won’t save you from suffering from the Waiting for Santa Claus Syndrome–you’ll still be back to being unhappy in a couple years.

The bottom line is that to get ahead (higher pay or promotion) you must have a career plan. And not just a plan that means sticking it out at your current employer waiting for Santa Claus but, one that includes strategic changes of jobs to achieve what you want in your path to the top. In other words you need to “own your career.” Remember what Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Don’t wait until you’ve been with a company 10 years waiting for that promotion and then you get punched in the mouth and laid-off.

If you’ve been with a company for 10 years and you’ve been repeatedly passed over for a promotion, you’re salary is probably at the highest it’s ever going to be and you are undoubtedly on the lay-off list that all organizations keep should some unplanned organizational crisis come along that requires cost cutting. So beat them to the punch (pun intended) and don’t feel bad because you have that urge to quit and find another job after a couple years…it’s in your DNA.


One Response to “Waiting for Santa Claus”
  1. Jenette W Routte says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your next write ups thanks once again.

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