Thursday, December 15, 2016
Fleeing Babylon (Parts XIV–XIX)
This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” The final part in this essay was written recently to bring the story up to the present. This is the last of four segments.
I love my coworkers at the Liahona and then the Ensign. These are some of the best people on earth. And I enjoy my work at the magazines. But a disturbing realization gradually blossoms in my mind and heart. My coworkers, especially my managing editors, are often frustrated. An incredibly complex and aggravating organizational culture exists at Church headquarters. Because of Kirk Hart, I understand it all too well. Perhaps no one else in the department does. Their eyes have not yet been opened. Still, everyone feels the effects. The organizational imperative, I discover, is alive and kicking in the Church Office Building, particularly the fraternal values of obedience and paternalism. I remember a comment Kirk once made. He said he wrote his book for businesses in general, but he wrote it with the Church in the back of his mind. Now I know what he meant.
The organizational imperative is a worldview in which everything is turned upside-down and organizations are more important than the people in or around them. Individuals exist to serve the organization, not the other way around. And if there was ever an organization that came to be viewed as absolutely indispensable, it is the LDS Church. But is it more important than the people it is supposed to help save? Of course not, but in practice priorities often get inverted.
President Hinckley doesn’t hide his displeasure with certain aspects of the corporate Church. In his official biography is this telling comment: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”1 If President Hinckley feels helpless, I ask myself, is it any surprise those of us with no influence over the organization feel even more feeble? Since bureaucracy is a fruit of the organizational imperative’s inverted values and self-preservation impulse, it remains a mystery to those who have not had the organizational imperative explained to them. But to those who see, bureaucracy is neither mysterious nor terribly problematic to cure. As is often the case, education is the issue.
One of my colleagues quits, calling the Curriculum Department the most oppressive place she has ever worked. Some of us jokingly refer to our managing director’s office as “the place where good ideas go to die.” He ups the ante by calling the magazine staffs into the conference room one Friday afternoon and unveiling an astonishingly irrational reorganization. He and his assistants have concocted this thing without even consulting those who know the most about producing magazines. Managing editors are unceremoniously demoted without even the courtesy of breaking the news to them beforehand. They find out the same way the rest of us do—when the new organizational chart is beamed onto the conference room screen and they have to search to find their names. I search for mine and discover I’ve been moved from the Liahona to the Ensign, which means I am one of the few who ends up with a better fit for my skills than before the reshuffling. But overall, I recognize that the restructuring makes it virtually impossible for us to get our work done unless a shadow organization takes shape.
I may not like management theory, but I have taught operations management for nine years. I can recognize when an organization is structurally incompatible with the products it is supposed to produce. Nevertheless, our General Authority adviser bears testimony that this reorganization is inspired and advises us, if we don’t like it, to go take a walk in the park until we do. I am tempted to follow his advice, but I know it would be futile.
After the meeting, we are all numb. I stop in at Larry’s office on the way back to mine. He is one who has perhaps been dealt with most ungraciously, but he has an unerring sense of humor. “This just goes to show,” he quips, “that the Church is run by inspiration and not common sense.” I shake my head.
Before long, as everything begins to unravel, management backtracks in random bursts of cluelessness. But they can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. One of the undermanagers responsible for the carnage reportedly puts his head in his hands and laments, “What have I become?” He doesn’t know the answer. I do. He has become a pawn in the hands of the organizational imperative. He has fallen for the notion that people are things to be manipulated in the arithmetic of arbitrary organizational imperiousness. It isn’t the reorganization that is the real problem, illogical though it may be. The problem is how the reorganization was sprung on the employees. Paternalism at its purest.
Shortly after the disastrous reorganization, our managing director retires, leaving a mutinous department as a monument to his oblivious devotion to the organizational imperative. His replacement, transferred in from a more docile department, is in over his head. He has no clue what has happened or why. He only knows that he has been called upon to cure an illness that is well beyond his abilities to treat. He sets up a “training” session where we are allowed to air our grievances and try to come to a solution.
We are divided into small groups, each with a large easel pad on which a scribe writes our answers to the question, “What is wrong with the department?” On almost every easel, the answer that appears near the top is “We are not trusted.”
For some reason, as he sees this theme repeated over and over, our new director becomes defensive, even though the mess he is facing is not his creation. He suddenly becomes “managerial” and declares, “Trust is something that must be earned.”
This statement goes beyond even the values of the organizational imperative. A primary assumption that drives the organizational imperative is that people are not good or evil. They are neutral, perfectly malleable clay that the organization can mold in any way that suits its purposes. But the director’s statement comes from a quite different assumption: that people—yes, even the dedicated employees in the LDS Church’s Curriculum Department—are fundamentally evil. The values of the individual imperative, by contrast, operate on the assumption that people are basically good. In an organization built upon this assumption, leadership would say, “We trust you. You have to earn our mistrust.”
Morale in the department plummets.
The next year something significant happens. The Church has hired a consulting firm to come in and effect a “cultural change.” So it’s not just the Curriculum Department. Something is apparently wrong with the culture in every department at Church headquarters and even beyond. For those with eyes to see, this is an open admission that the Brethren know something is amiss in the employment side of the Church.
The Curriculum Department employees attend a cultural-change seminar. It is a canned consulting package, two hours of recycled ideas stretched over the course of eight hours. I spent a year as a literary agent representing consultants. I’ve seen this all before. There really is nothing new under the sun in the world of corporate consulting. But of course the consultants totally miss the mark. They don’t understand the organization they’re dealing with, assuming, of course, that all organizations are alike. So, rather than repairing the flaws in our work culture, their program reinforces the already invasive corporate values.
When I return home that evening, I am sick in spirit. A deep pit of despair yawns before me. I pray, and eventually a course of action comes to mind. It feels right, and I gain a sense of peace. The next day I compose an email describing the real problems in the organization and how the consultants have missed an opportunity to cure what is really wrong. I describe the competing organizational and individual values and how the wrong values lead to the rise of management instead of leadership. I even quote Nibley’s commencement address. I send the email to all my coworkers and department managers.
I know it is a risky thing I’ve done, but I felt I had to do it. Within twenty-four hours, no fewer than twenty of my coworkers come to me personally or contact me by phone or email. They thank me and tell me I’ve hit the nail on the head. Someone has forwarded my email to a manager in a different division. He calls and asks permission to send it to all of his people. Why not? What have I got to lose? Some of my coworkers also tell me I am crazy, that I’ve put my head on the chopping block. I know this already.
The next day I am summoned to a meeting with three department managers. They deliver a stern reprimand. Irony is apparently not their strong suit. Perhaps they should reread the Nibley quote. They are especially dismayed that I sent the email to our new executive director, one of the Seventy. But this was intentional. He is a neighbor and good friend of my brother-in-law. He and I ride the bus together, and I tell them he has already seen some of the things I put in the email. When they learn this, they are suddenly unsure what to do. They tell me I am entitled to my own opinions, but I am to keep them to myself.
After the consulting seminar and my email misadventure, I go silently about my work as the organizational culture continues its inevitable death spiral. Cynicism spreads as the bureaucracy deepens. I am near despair. I know I cannot work here any longer. I have reached an unexpected impasse in my life. I am convinced the Church is true, but I dislike the organization, at least the corporate side. I do love my ward. Wistfully, I wish I could go back to the simple days of my mission when everything was black and white and Babylon was a distant, undiscovered country. But, as they say, you cannot go back.
One day as I sit at my desk, a terrible thought slips unbidden into my mind. If the celestial kingdom is anything like Church employment, I don’t want to go there. An eternity of this? You’ve got to be kidding. I open my eyes wide and take a deep breath.
Is there a place in eternity, I wonder, where the organizational imperative has been vanquished? On earth, I am convinced, it is the most powerful and pervasive force that has ever existed. It is Lucifer’s crowning achievement, his most devious and relentless invention. Christopher Lasch is right. It absorbs everything in its path. “Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.”
God rescues me again. Miraculously, a job is created for me at BYU, this time not at the Marriott School. I’m hired as the editorial director at BYU Studies, which publishes BYU’s multidisciplinary scholarly journal, and the position is permanent. No soft money in sight. My boss warns me, though, “Bureaucracy is contagious, and BYU has caught it.” But the university has not wholly succumbed. So I sit in my office, almost safe from the organizational imperative, and read and edit and get a more comprehensive view of the world, particularly LDS history, and hatch plots not just to flee but eventually to defeat Babylon. Perhaps there is hope. Perhaps. Yeah, right. I know. I’m crazy.
I have been at BYU Studies now for over ten years. Perhaps in some corners of the university the organizational imperative is fully operative. But for me it has slowly faded into the background. Universities are, in some ways, resistant to this particular organizational virus. But it is persistent. It will not cease its efforts to slip in through any cracks in academia’s armor.
Nevertheless, life is never easy. I have other challenges in my current situation. I study Mormonism for a living. I am paid to ask questions, to look for inconsistencies. They are everywhere. The church I was so certain about ten years ago has turned out to be much more complex and conflicted than I ever imagined. I discover that the Church’s past is no prettier than its present. For some of my questions, there are no apparent answers. Still, I continue to search for truth. It is elusive.
1. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408.