The Seasonality of Workplace Conflict

January is supposed to mark the beginning of a new year, and yet as I get older, I’m shocked by how little changes from year to year. We don’t have flying cars, we still die of the same diseases at around the same age, and most of us still have to go to offices and perform bureaucratic chores for rich people in the name of “Work”. We had a rapid era of progress in society between 1945 and 2000 and then it just… ended. We don’t have more recessions than we used to (in fact, we have fewer) but we also fail to recover from them. Our economy continues to grow, though at a mediocre pace; our society is falling to pieces.

Every year, we each get closer to death, we burn a few billion barrels of oil, and our progress is, on the whole, disappointing. Our corporate masters get richer and their parties more lavish; the upper-middle class sees stagnation, while the middle and lower classes face outright decline. It’s an ugly picture. Yet, people have to spend 2,000 hours per year pretending that something else is the case. They go to work and put forth efforts as if they’re on a fast track to promotion and wealth; most of them (and all of their superiors) know they’re not. Social expectations force them to work as hard as they would if they were to be made CEOs tomorrow, even when it’s clearly not true.

I’ve seen enough of the corporate world to know that there are three seasons in which conflict is more likely than in the rest of the year. One needs to watch out every day in the corporate world; not a day goes by where someone, somewhere, isn’t stabbed in the back. Yet, there are three periods that are dangerous enough to merit special concern: the post-holiday depths of winter, the first warm days in the spring, and those waning dog days of summer that linger on into an autumn of disappointment. The conflicts in each hunting season are different– so are those who tend to hunt and be hunted. It’s worth exploring each.

All of these assessments are based on an American work culture and a New York climate. It’s probable that they apply differently to other climates and cultures.

A Sky Blue As Death (Jan. 2 to Jan. 31)

The holidays end with a crash; what was once a proud and perfectly good young tree is left tossed into billowing darkness, landing with a thud on the ice-caked street, destined either for a landfill, or to be pulp for tomorrow’s TPS reports. People have tired of festivities and fake merriment, but it’s still going to be winter for two or three months.

I’ll discuss this later: poor people pin their futile hopes on the summer, while rich people pin theirs on the early winter: ski season, free-flowing spicy booze, the kiss-at-midnight of the romance novel. (The middle classes venerate autumn, reminiscent of the elite New England schools they want their kids to attend; hence, the “pumpkin spice” craze.) Disappointment abounds everywhere; it just comes at different times for different people.

Executives return to work on January 2nd, having failed to reconnect with their work-orphaned children and having been asked too many unwanted questions about their work (since they’d freely admit, after a few drinks, that they don’t know what they do, but that it’s clearly socially harmful). They’re annoyed by the failure of the holiday season, but also amped. It’s a New Year; a new chance.

Corporate executives are predatory creatures. Their primary goal is to take risks where the benefits accrue to them and the (probable) losses are externalized to someone else. Usually, their companies suffer, but this doesn’t bother them. If they’re any good at being executives, they’ll be promoted away from their messes before anyone notices what happened. January is the perfect time to make a mess and try to turn to it into personal profit. If it doesn’t work, one has the whole rest of the year to clean it up. So, what do executives do? The only thing they know how to do: reorganize. This often involves firings, demotions, unwanted changes in responsibilities, and various forms of cost-cutting.

People tend to reflect most on their mortality at two times: their birthday, and the New Year. A year has passed, they think, and what have I done with it? Executives aren’t immune to this. They see VPs who’ve become SVPs and EVPs and C-Words in record time, or founders who’ve raised $100 million while they’re scrounging along on a Series A, and they compare their lap times to others, and they get pissed off. They take it out on their workers. Clearly, they reason, their inferior career results (relative to what they consider their peer group) are the fault of the people below them.

If there’s something good to be said for the January conflicts, it’s that they tend to stay within the first month of the year. The anger tends to flow downward from the top, which means that the people most pissed off can act quickly, and so it ends fast as well. Workers get fired and move on, and by the beginning of February, it’s over. The same can’t be said of the other two conflict seasons, which come at unpredictable times and tend to linger.

Slushy Times — Low Conflict (Feb. 1 to March 15)

After the January reorganizations, companies find a new, slightly lesser rhythm, and it becomes “the new normal”. The sky is gray, the sun is faint, and the world whirrs along, the season less oppressive each morning. Situation normal. Ah, back to work. Add a shot of espresso to my chai, please.

Then spring comes along and everything gets fucked up again.

Breakup Season (March 15 to May 15)

This is the only conflict season, of the three, that seems to be driven by weather rather than the cultural aspects we ascribe to seasons. Office people spend so much time indoors that climactic seasons aren’t that relevant. Holiday stress and post-holiday misery will be about the same in San Diego or Miami as in Boston or New York. Summer, as well, is cultural more than climatic; it’s the time of freedom for schoolchildren, the period of barbecues and long evenings, and in North America, the time of our high national holidays (May 5 in Mexico; July 1 in Canada; July 4 is the U.S.)

“Spring fever”, on the other hand, seems to come from the weather itself, and spring weather in the U.S. is notoriously unpredictable. March 15 might be 80 degrees; it might be the day of a blizzard.

In college, spring was “breakup season”. People tended to leave unsatisfying relationships in search of better partners. “Men shed their beards, women shed their men,” the saying was. It’s also a rutting period. “Alpha male” conflicts are common, and since men and women are far more similar than they are different, I imagine that alpha female conflicts occur with similar frequency. This “spring fever” period is short– perhaps three weeks– but it’s unpredictable when it will arrive. It may not exist in tropical climates; I’m not sure.

Winter conflicts tend to come from above: management is pissed off and acts; and, although the company is worse for it– because, please note, executives do things for the good of themselves and never that of the company– it’s over quickly. Summer conflicts tend to come from below; dashed proletarian hopes make August anything but. Springtime hostilities come from everywhere. No one is safe. As people come out of hibernation, they assess their social status and, if unhappy– which, in the artificial scarcity of office life, they always will be– they will fight over turf.

Not all of these conflicts are directed at improving salary or career potential. If two men are competing over a “work wife”, one of them will get the other fired. There’s no economic reasoning to this sort of thing, and that makes it dangerously unpredictable.

This is perhaps the meanest of the three conflict seasons, since it seems to lack purpose. Most of the fights, though their results are brutal and jobs are lost in them, are over nothing. Though 90 percent of reorganizations and layoffs are poorly-thought-out, ill-intended, and harmful; people understand that corporations actually need to do these things in order to survive. Winter conflicts tend to be impersonal: people get laid off, but they get severance. In the typical January conflict, no one’s trying to hurt anyone. Spring conflicts, in the workplace, have a personal flavor to them: people are trying to take their rivals down. They’ll fight over the silliest things; or they’ll fight over nothing. The least politically astute tend to fail hardest in this time, because they’re drawn into conflicts that seem to be about one thing but are, in fact, about something else. Efforts to resolve the notional problem often worsens the real one, as the makers of the problem profit when their rivals misestimate their true motives.

Intern Season — Low Conflict (May 16 to Aug. 15)

Spring’s conflicts die out, the fever breaks, and people find themselves exhausted enough to be satisfied, for a while, with their new positions in the pecking order. Those who’ve lost rank (if not fired) will start to look for other jobs, and those who’ve gained position will take a breather. As a result, there’s a low-conflict period in the early summer. People start to go on vacations.

This low-conflict period may be endangered. Why? As the American work culture gets meaner and stupider, taking vacation gets more dangerous. Startups offer “unlimited vacation” knowing people won’t take more than one week at a time. They eschew long vacations not because they’re scared of their bosses; they’re afraid of their co-workers snatching turf while they’re gone: better responsibilities taken away, and worse ones delegated onto them. If American work culture continues as it has, and vacations go extinct as they have among Japanese salarymen, we can expect this to become a meaner and more bitter time when people are pissed off because late spring used to be a relaxed season.

In the more prestigious companies, there’s another factor: interns. The company wants to put on a nice face. Elite college students, and recent graduates, have the backing of what’s effectively a union for smart people. If one Harvard or MIT kid has a bad experience, recruiting at the whole college will be more difficult for years. Corporations like to play nice during the summer, because they don’t want to look bad in front of the young people they need to recruit (bait, then switch) in order to get their grunt work done.

Failed Harvest (Aug. 16 to Nov. 15)

Ah, summer. Catching fireflies, building tree houses, telling ghost stories. Lemonade, water balloon fights, and freedom that lasts forever…

…then you grow up, and become an office drone, and summer is just shit. Hazy, humming, tepid shit.

As I said, the rich executive types tend to pin their false hope on the holiday season, while the poors and subordinates venerate the summer. It disappoints. It always does. The weekend gets rained out, or is too hot; that 78-degree sunny day happens on Tuesday and is therefore worthless. The stack of novels one intended to “get around to” remains unread, because who has time to read after capitalism eats its fill of one’s time and energy?

January conflicts tend to be top-down; executives are looking to make cuts and changes that will enable them, if random fluctuations turn in their favor, to claim credit. Summer conflicts tend to come from the bottom. The poors collectively find themselves thinking, Well, summer is over, and what a lousy one it was. This begins around August. Company-wide mailing lists and Slack chats blow up. Passive aggression mounts. Terminal middle managers, stewing about their lot, decide which peons they’re willing to sacrifice in the next “harvest”. One doesn’t feel the snappy bitterness of the executive-initiated January conflicts, or the aggressive head-butting of spring fever; this is more of a dull, dog-days warping, like train rails bent and made useless by heat. The intensity is low, but it goes on for a long time.

As the daylight wanes in August, people realize how little time they spent outdoors because they were cooped up in an office, because that’s what adults are supposed to do. September’s just sad; it used to be a time of new beginnings, and now it’s more-of-the-same with less daylight. Then comes October, when one sees the pretty foliage on the way to work and promptly forgets that it’s out there. Sneezy, drippy November whirls in and, in an open-plan office, everyone gets the sniffles.

Dismal Gray Merriment — Low Conflict (Nov. 16 to Jan. 1)

To be an office peon in November is truly depressing. It’s dark when one leaves work. Yet it’s a shared depression. It hits everyone the same. Summer is a distant memory (until it is spring and that failed summer was just yesterday) and the weather’s not that cold, but it’s not warm either. Then come holidays and travel (to the often colder Jobless Interior, where most people grew up, and which would be a decent place to live if there were, you know, still jobs there… like in the ’70s) and alcohol-fueled parties.

This is a period of low conflict. The holidays are distracting, and performance expectations are low. It’s unpleasant to have to go to work, because the sunny, warm afternoons are becoming rarer, but it’s not to bad to be there, because there aren’t a lot of executive hard-ons poking around either.

In American work culture, people try to take turf in a colleague’s absence. If someone goes to Australia for three weeks, he might come back to find that someone else has become his boss, or that some smiling dickhead took over his plum project. Yet, most absences in the holiday period are due to the mild but annoying illnesses that circulate in the winter. Because performance expectations are low toward the end of the year, it’s not a time when there’s high demand to go on vacation.

That most absences are due to transient illness makes it difficult for people who would vie for the absentee’s turf, because they don’t know how long a person will be out. It’s hard to campaign against someone when you don’t know how much time you have. Moreover, a young person who never takes vacation can attack someone who’s in another country, without fearing retaliation; but colds and flus and stomach bugs get everyone. It’s socially acceptable, in American work culture, to fuck someone over while he’s on vacation, but someone who steals from the sick will have it done right back to him when he gets the dog flu a month later.

Conclusion?

This topic deserves no conclusion. After all, the droning cycle of office competition– with petty motives; but, often, catastrophic results– does not end. If it has no conclusion, with one misspent year rolling soundlessly into the next, should an essay on the topic? What is there to say?

I describe here what is, not what should be. Office culture should not be. It’s a blight. It’s useless. It’s not even very productive; robots will obviate it soon, and any fight against them will be a losing one. Yet, so long as people must survive and endure it, there will be value available to the world in analyzing its ebbs and flows. That said, this cycle of winter bitterness, spring mania, summer disappointment, and autumn wretchedness serves no purpose. It is not natural; in failing to extinguish subordination to the rich as a necessity for survival, we as a species have created it. It sucks, and I do not expect it to change. Storms and droughts end, but their causes do not.

Happy New Year?

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10 thoughts on “The Seasonality of Workplace Conflict

  1. Working this week (between Xmas and New Years). As many have commented before me, it’s disorienting. Half the office is gone, it’s hard to even know what day of the week it is. Somehow having Christmas on Monday is even stranger than usual.

    It is dismal and grey.

  2. Holidays: My understanding is that May 5, Cinco De Mayo, is a bigger deal in the USA than in Mexico (thank you Budweiser), and that September 16, Independence Day, is a more important.

  3. I noticed this – Spring is when everyone goes psycho. All the truly sick shit starts to happen. People disappearing and no one knows why. Another thing I love is your observation that we always think this is the year that things will happen, when we innovate and blow up – but where and how we work prevents just that. We’d be building condos on Mars by now if it were not for the modern office.

  4. The seven traditional signs of a cult:
    1. Opposing critical thinking
    2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
    3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
    4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
    5. Dishonoring the family unit
    6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
    7. Separation from the Church.
    Should we add cyclical conflicts to the list?
    Cults like cycles.

  5. > robots will obviate it soon, and any fight against them will be a losing one.

    We shall be ready to accept robots without starving the poor. There shall be more campaigns for unconditional basic income.

  6. Nobody in Mexico celebrates May 5. It’s a little-known regional holiday, only official (though barely) observed in the town of Puebla.

    Mexico’s real holiday is September 16.

  7. A tangent – are you sure that corporations are mostly owned by “rich people”? What about the collective ownership of hundreds of millions of small savers who also own the stock – directly, or through some funds? I wonder if they don’t outweigh the rich.

      • That is true, but you often say that people working in the corporations “make money for the rich”. While this is true, millions of ordinary people who hold stock also benefit. The question is whether the rich are even the majority here or are corporate profits mostly returning to the 99%.

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