There is a negative side to success in a career, and psychologist Douglas LaBier sees it daily in the Washington winners who seek his help.
Although the people who "have it made"--lawyers, doctors, writers, teachers, business people, bureaucrats, scientists, politicians, professors--may appear well-adjusted in their private lives, they sense that something is wrong on the job.
One man, a successful attorney for a prominent law firm, told LaBier everything was fine "except for some troublesome feelings of anger and depression which float around inside . . . " He tried working harder, but it didn't help.
In one large federal department, where LaBier was a consultant, many staff members showed signs of anxiety, depression and paranoia. They were "hostile, uncooperative, rebellious," and often unable to work with others.
Why, LaBier asked, are these outwardly successful people having problems? Why do they think they need therapy? The answer, he has concluded, may be that they have adapted themselves to a fast-paced, career-oriented--and unhealthy--environment.
"For most adults in our society, success in life means successful adaptation--fitting in--particularly to work and career," says LaBier, 38, a senior fellow at the Project on Technology, Work and Character and faculty member of the Washington School of Psychiatry. "It involves a molding of one's attitudes, character traits and desires into those for which there is a payoff, particularly from careers within large organizations and bureaucracies. . .."
The careerist's attitude, he says, is that career is "the primary and most-important aim of life. It means upward movement within an organization to positions or role of increasing power, responsibility or management." That in itself, he notes, is neither good nor bad.
The problem arises when an organization rewards negative characteristics as the way to get ahead. He cites the most extreme example of the Nazi SS, in which "a very sick, sadistic desire to kill" might bring promotion. "The person with a well-developed heart would be maladjusted."
On a far less dramatic level, the negative is emphasized frequently in Washington, LaBier contends, because of the nature of the work. His culprit: the much-beleaguered federal bureaucracy, which sets the tone for the city's working atmosphere, inside government and out.
For many, he says, career success "means upward movement within government bureaucracies. But in these bureaucracies, there is no 'bottom line'--no profit-and-loss statement. In fact, there is little tangible product." Jobs often are thin and empty. "The bottom line is 'looking good.'"
The frustration of this, he says, "leads many to puff up their positions, to seek power and domination or aggrandize their importance to the workings of government or policy-making."
"The place is so seductive," one federal agency policy planner told him, "because they tell you what an impact you will have on things if you stick with it, and that your work is so important. The next thing you know, you're working 24 hours a day, sleeping on the couch in your office, playing out being a rising star, enjoying life in the fast lane, and all that.
"But when you take a good look at it all, you see that the work isn't that important. You're really after power, exciting power.
"At the highest levels of many parts of the federal bureaucracy," says LaBier, "what is valued most is the ability to appear and act tough; to put others down and humiliate them; to constantly test others, and to produce a flurry of activity upon demand--a memo, decisive talk at meetings, 'fire-fighting' . . . "
These values, if they become the shared attitudes in an organization, may compete with "and gradually overwhelm other, healthier tendencies," says LaBier, who is writing a book on pathology in the workplace. The careerist may tell him or herself, "I don't believe in what the administration is doing, but I like power," pretending to go along with a policy that conflicts with the individual's ideology.
If along the way, such a careerist has self-doubts about the worth of his or her work, says LaBier, it could be a handicap to successful advancement. "So it then becomes normal to ignore or repress feelings like anger, self-disgust, boredom or self-betrayal, if they conflict too much with getting ahead."
The careerist attitudes can spill over into private lives, where individuals "appraise their potential partners not on the basis of shared goals, values or capacity for feeling," he says, "but in terms of a checklist on appearance-oriented traits, much like the accessories on a new car. Often the underlying concern is how much the prospective partner will aid or hinder one's career ambitions."
Eventually, though, many who have conformed to the unhealthy office environment begin to sense inner guilt, says LaBier, which may lead them to seek help. They have been caught in a complex bind: normal people trying to adjust to an abnormal environment.
If the work situation is to blame, then these troubled workers don't need therapy, he contends. Instead, "that person needs good advice and consciousness-raising" to become aware of what is happening to them. "A negative situation is bringing out a negative side of their character."
LaBier stresses that there are healthy federal offices, and that many bureaucrats, if they recognize the negative aspects of a job, maintain their personal integrity or "leave the situation when it becomes impossible. Some of the best do not hesitate to risk their careers if they run up against a brick wall," and have told him, "I'd never work in a situation that nutty."
For his book, "Passions at Work," researcher-psychologist Douglas LaBier is looking for people who want to discuss how career pursuits have affected them emotionally. He may be contacted at Project on Technology, Work and Character, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, 20009, tel. 462-3003. Workshops on work and human development are open to professionals and the public.