The Modern Sword of Damocles: The Fear of Unemployment in a Hostile Economy

Originally published April, 8th 2013

The Sword of Damocles was once an anecdote illuminating the dangers and concerns faced by  rulers and other powerful individuals who were often thought to live a life of ease.  The sword was suspended above the throne of Dionysius by a single strand of hair from a horse’s tail while Damocles sat in Dionysius’s place. Damocles quickly realized the precarious nature of sitting in a seat of power along with the fear that accompanies it. Currently, the Sword of Damocles has come to represent a more common anxiety or general fear felt by anyone with “something hanging over their head.”

Within the current economy, the most fearsome weapon faced by people is unemployment. The fear of losing one’s job often leads to employees compromising opinions, remaining silent, or generally not taking the kinds of chances that often lead to growth, both individual and corporate. Instead of bold, happy employees, most companies have engendered a workforce of meek employees who fear rather than respect management. They often scurry to complete their assigned tasks hoping to escape notice rather than risk the judgement that comes with being seen.

Interestingly, this culture has brought about numerous career advisors who, for a fee, will teach anyone how to be successful. These snake-oil-salesmen prey upon the meek by promising them empowerment and showing them how to face their fears and take chances. They encourage employees to step up and be heard by management. In essence, they simply tell the employees to do the very things that companies have either crushed out of them or that will place them in jeopardy.

For this culture to truly be changed, the ideals and actions of management need to be modified. Executives need to be willing to listen to their employees rather than insist that the company align behind their egos. They need to help their employees to feel secure in their positions, even if they choose to offer an opposing view. Managers should encourage discussion and understanding of situations rather than dictating to their employees. If they did, they might learn that there is a better way to accomplish things. If not, the employee should have a better understanding of why things are done a particular way, aside from “management said so”, and will feel better for having been heard out.

It may sound like a fairytale, but there are companies who are attempting to create a positive culture by making changes from the top down. Unfortunately, they need to overcome the momentum (and inertia) created by the more prominent business practices. For example, a manager from a typical company needs to adapt to remembering that his employees are people rather than assets and expenses on a spreadsheet. Alternately, an employee faced with this type of change in environment will usually think it is too good to be true. This employee will require encouragement and consistent support in order to adapt, which is another skill most managers would need to acquire.

Dealing with a culture of fear and insecurity is no easy task and despite what the professional professional-makers claim, it can’t be fixed by any one individual. It will take many people on all levels to move out of their comfort zones to correct the course of our society and begin building a better future. Until that happens, we will all have a sword hanging over our heads.

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