Managing Cultural and Emotional ‘Contradictions’ at Work

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Our emotional lives are full of what appear to be contradictions: Love the job or pizza in some respects, hate it in others.

But ambivalent feelings, unlike colliding cultural beliefs held by the same person, do not create contradictions.

That’s because it can be true that a job or a pizza is great in one respect, such as the great pay or the sauce, but also true that it is not so great in another, different respect, e.g., the horrible work load or the unwanted fattening calories.

So, there’s no contradiction in hating one thing about pizzas and loving another.

Nonetheless,  emotions cannot—despite being somehow “opposite”–literally “contradict” each other, since they are not statements of belief that can be characterized as “true” or “false”.

On the other hand, truly contradictorybeliefs (within as well as between psyches), instructions and tasks (un)consciously routinely impede and burden job performance —often with a “cultural” source, including national, regional and work cultures.

For example, as “translations” and implementation of beliefs, office instructions of the “I want you to….” form can rightly be regarded as “contradictory” when logically they cannot all be obeyed and amount to “I (don’t) want you to….”.

Anemotional contradiction, expressed in statements, would exist if and only if, for example, we loved and hated exactly the same thing, in exactly the same respect and for exactly the same reasons, e.g., “I love and hate my job because it keeps me busy (with no ambivalence about being kept busy).”

Is this possible?

Contradictory  Emotions: Something the Brain Won’t Allow

Such “emotional contradictions” are, I believe, impossible. Our brain physiology probably won’t allow it at all.

That’s because specific emotions are immediate physiological responses to specific internal or external stimuli, cues and information. When an emotion changes, the associated stimuli, cues and information must change as a cause or consequence of that emotional change.

That is to say, when an emotional change occurs or difference exists, it is to be expected that it will be the result or cause of changes in perceptions of and beliefs about situations, objects, relationships, etc., usually direct and immediate.

(Some effective psychotherapy is based on that connection: to change an emotion, change the beliefs and perceptions, if not also the environments and brain chemistry, that trigger it.)

Hence it is impossible, or at least unlikely in the extreme (barring weird effects of weird drugs, medication, Zen meditation, hypnosis, etc.) that we could ever have “opposite” emotional responses to exactly the same thing with no ambivalence whatsoever. “I love you and hate you (or my job) for one and the same reason!” No way.

Emotional ambivalence? Yes, it is possible. Emotional “contradictions”? No.

But Beliefs Are Another (Brain) Matter

However, beliefs, as opposed to emotions, are an entirely different matter. Somehow our brains are perfectly capable of believing one thing and its denial, mostly because of ignoring, denying or being unaware of the missing links or logic that would directly connect, compare and expose them as contradictory.

Many, in Western cultures, lament factory farming, but devour fried chicken. The inconsistency here is hidden by the logical, evidential and physical distance between the processing plants and our plates and palates, and is overridden or hidden by the savory sauce.

Although this cultural and personal tension is likely to be experienced as emotional ambivalence—“it’s tasty, but nasty”, “great ends, cruel means”, the unalterable bottom line, from the standpoint of decision making, action and the underlying beliefs, is “I should eat chicken” and “I should not eat chicken”, a clear contradiction, irrespective of whether it is based on ambivalence.

Expressed as exhortations, the clash becomes “Eat chicken!” and “Don’t eat chicken!” Since these are not true or false, they are not statements that can contradict each other, but they are absolutely incompatible actions.

One of the most common and disconcerting examples of a very stressful workplace-culture contradiction is the all-too-prevalent “shifted goalpost syndrome”, created by the all-too-familiar manager or boss who assigns one task only to redefine or reject it upon completion. Even though this is a sequence of inconsistent decisions, it is also a set of beliefs, and therefore can be regarded as a workplace contradiction: “This job should and should not be done this way.”

Karen Horney’s Cultural Contradiction-Neurosis Nexus

A wonderful tool for understanding and analyzing cultural contradictions was developed by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, and is a concept that seems to be “culture-free” (i.e., universally valid, as opposed to “culture-bound”).

In her 1937 book, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, Horney identifies cultural contradictions as a trigger of neurosis—contradictions that almost all members of a culture are exposed to and to which some, unable to ignore, cope with or compartmentalize them, succumb by developing neurotic behavior patterns, including self-defeating, vacillating or paralyzing ones spawned by such contradictions.

Such behaviors can be caused by (un)consciously accepting contradictory culturally-implanted beliefs, e.g., when a self-described average person believes both “I must try to be really special” and “I’ll never really be special”.

This contradiction often results in trying (and necessarily failing) to be special in the same way as everyone else is trying, by attempting to do two incompatible things: 1. Be unique; 2. Adopt mass-marketed (and therefore) obsolescent, passing and ultimately self-defeating symbols and forms of uniqueness, such as piercings, tattoos, the latest iPhone, a BMW a GQ-Calvin Klein image or cookie-cutter MTV gangsta rapper attitudes.

When means and ends are inconsistent in this way, and efforts are guaranteed to be self-defeating, the stage is set for neurosis (even if only mild), much of which is characterized by such self-defeat, as the self becomes its worst enemy, e.g., by literally starving oneself to death in order to look healthier or sexier, or by demanding “respect” as “special” for looking and behaving like every other off-the-rack Nike-psyche mall-prowling thug.

Writing within a culture that has changed, but not completely, Horney paid particular attention to the American contradiction between the trumpeted exhortation to sacrifice oneself or at least cooperate (in her day, more commonly heard in Sunday school and in church) and the diametrically opposite exhortation to “look out for number one”, to unswervingly strive for Charlie Sheenish “winning!” and to fiercely compete (a psychological staple of fiercely competitive elite schools and individual professional sports, such as boxing).

Such intense competitiveness is perhaps just as, if not more ferocious in 2012, given job markets (nearly) as bleak as those of 1937, exacerbated by the much greater number of under- and unemployed post-secondary graduates with higher degrees and correspondingly higher expectations.

As for the other half of the contradiction—self-sacrifice, intense media coverage of self-sacrificing heroes (as rare, necessary reminders to put others before oneself) partially fill whatever cultural vacuum has been created by dwindling Sunday school attendance.

More Examples

Another example of American cultural contradiction: In the days of the U.S. draft, military culture collided with the then prevailing educational culture to the extent that the “think for yourself” critical and reflective ideology of university education clashed with the essential “obey, without question”, “I don’t know, but I’ve been told…” mind set required for an army to function.

For some caught in that bind, the mental and emotional squeeze challenged their adaptive skills and resilience, with some risk of “discharge”—emotional and/or administrative.

A virtually identical clash is deeply embedded within U.S. culture and the American psyche In the form of a perceived and persistent collision between public education and private religion.

Educational and business demands for critical scientific thinking and empirical evidence collide with the demands for and of blind religious or metaphysical faith, manifested, for example, in the endless evolution vs. special creation/”intelligent design” debate that should have ended with the Clarence Darrow “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925.

When such conflicting norms are internalized in an individual, the contradiction becomes personal, as well as cultural, e.g., when exhortations to fiercely compete and cooperate with everyone are internalized as rules of behavior.

For some, that conflict is damaging. For many, if not most, others, there are ways out of the conflict.

In China, this kind of conceptual and emotional clash may exist in anyone who has been unable to compartmentalize and isolate from each other the clearly colliding and pervasive ideologies of unleashed competitive entrepreneurial capitalism and official “cooperative” political communism, or traditional filial and sober Confucian conservatism with modern self-indulgent and frivolous materialism.

Techniques of Emotional and Logical Evasion: The Super Bowl and Supermen

Of course, with respect to the competition-cooperation contradiction, the most common solution is to cooperate with an in-group and compete with an out-group. That’s one reason why the Super Bowl is so popular.

The game vividly reinforces while mitigating and partially evading that contradictory compete-cooperate model and message, as players display equally superhuman levels of cooperation and competition, thereby resolving what would otherwise be very nagging and awkward tension in the American psyche.

It works for the Green Bay Packers; it works for IBM, it works for the average American employee and Little League kid who wants to be the star of the team.

Within the narrower in-group, cultural contradictions can also be repackaged and re-experienced as more reasonable and manageable emotional ambivalence—the kind of diametrically opposite, yet mixed feelings typical of 12-year-old boys when they first start to think about girls: “Eeeewww!” and “Ooooo!”.

For example, in some cultures many, if not the majority of men both intensely fear and deeply desire women—the same women or woman (but for different reasons). What would otherwise have to be recognized as contradictory beliefs are reduced to acceptable ambivalence.

They may be very predisposed to believe that when their (super-)masculine power has been lost to a woman, their remaining power must be exerted (in a state of denial, if not also anger or fear). As a result, they are under cultural and psychological pressure to resolve the psychologically hidden but logically obvious contradiction between “Men are stronger than women” and “Men are weaker than women”.

Hence, some very confused and self-defeating male behaviors and feelings seem all but inevitable. Among them is the bizarre “elevation” of women to the status of precious family jewels that must therefore be kept under lock and key like common chattel, or cut in unnatural ways to enhance their value, e.g., cosmetic surgery or worse.

A mild, relatively innocuous version of this is our male custom of opening doors for women: Do we do it as an expression of our power over them (since they “need our help” to push the door open), or their power over us (as their devoted “servants”)?—a question that the characterization of the practice as “gentlemanly behavior” tastefully suppresses and sidesteps.

Workplace Management of Contradictions

In workplace culture, whenever an employee is torn between helping and competing with, if not sabotaging, the new guy, (s)he is experiencing a cultural contradiction in a very vivid, if not articulated way: “I want to help, but without grooming somebody to replace me or make me look bad.”

If the in-group solution is unappealing or impractical, providing just enough help to create gratitude, but not a serious competitor, is a second way to “resolve” the contradiction.

The same problem and solution are sometimes evident in the relationship with clients. That’s how some extremely competitive and less “spiritual” martial arts instructors may attempt to resolve the contradiction between believing they should and should not train others to be better than themselves.

By slowing down the belt-awarding process, and spending way too much class time practicing and repeating one basic kick (something that I was too often forced to do as a karate student-client), they, by such an evasion, delay the day they will have to confront the tension between their beliefs (while, as a bonus, maximizing total fees paid by disciple-clients)—something I really disliked and give an emphatic “thumbs-down”.

…Without a trace of ambivalence or contradiction.




By Michael Moffa