Stoic advice: filing complaints at work

work complaints[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, here is my “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

S. writes: “I am a physician in Northeast Mexico. Recently I’ve been working at a small rural clinic, and I’ve been confronted with mistakes by other doctors working here, to which I don’t know how to properly react, I’ve pointed them out to the hospital administrators (so they won’t happen again, not looking for punishment for those who made them). Though I try to control my emotions as best as I can, I find myself constantly angry and complaining about this, which is not under my control, but I would like to know if there’s any Stoic advice to deal with this kind of situations, because I cannot remain silent, for these mistakes could cost someone’s life at worst, and a lot of money at least; yet administrators ignore my comments while this kind of things keep happening, and they even give us more work load (as some sort of punishment). To what extent should one keep complaining about things that are wrong? Even though they are not under our control, pointing them out so they don’t happen again is under our control.”

This is a really though situation, testing the limits of Stoicism as a practical philosophy. You obviously know the dichotomy of control, so there is no point in quoting Epictetus (though for people who want the reference, check Enchiridion 1.1). But something from Cicero will, I think, help put things in perspective. In De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (About the Ends of Goods and Evils), written around 45BCE, he discusses Epicureanism, Stoicism and Academicism. In book III he imagines a dialogue with Cato the Younger, the Stoic role model, in order to present a number of Stoics doctrines. Here is what he says at 22:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.'”

The metaphor of the archer here stands for what Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life describes as the Stoic internalization of our goals: to actually hit the target is not in our power, because it is affected by external factors, such as a sudden gust of wind, or perhaps the fact that the target itself moves (which is likely, if it is an enemy’s soldier). What is under our control, instead, is to do our best to hit the target, which includes practicing to improve our aim, taking care of the bow, making or acquiring well balanced arrows, and so forth.

While this is superficially similar to Epictetus’ dichotomy of control, it more explicitly concerns actions, and not just judgments, as the Epictetan version clearly refers to. In your case, your goal is to do the best you can to make your administrators listen and take action, but the outcome, whether they do, in fact, listen and take action, is just as outside of your control as Cato’s arrow.

It doesn’t follow, however, that you should cease your efforts. You have already been practicing the virtues of justice — because you want the patients to be treated fairly and their life not to be imperiled — and that of courage — by standing up to the administrators for what is right. It may, however, be time to flex the muscle of a third virtue, prudence, or practical wisdom, which tells you how to morally navigate complex situations. For instance, are there any of your colleagues who share your concern, and with whom perhaps you can join forces to gain the ear of the administration? Failing that, can you escalate the fight to higher levels of the administration, perhaps not at the place where you work, but at whatever higher structure from which it depends? If that too fails, maybe you can go to the authorities and denounce your administrators for willful negligence? Or you can contact a local paper to see if they are willing to run a story about the situation? Indeed, all the above mentioned courses of action could be pursued in parallel, or at least in rapid sequence.

In terms of your anger, it is certainly understandable, given the circumstances. But it isn’t useful, either for you or for your cause. As Seneca reminds us:

“In the first place, it is easier to banish dangerous passions than to rule them … There are certain things whose beginnings lie in our own power, but which, when developed, drag us along by their own force and leave us no retreat.” (On Anger, I.7)

The practical implication of this is clear: you need to nip your anger in the bud, not letting it develop and fester. To do this, use some simple cognitive distancing techniques: as soon as you feel anger begin to boil inside you, disengage from the situation by going outside for a walk, or retiring to the washroom for a few deep breadth. (In terms of breathing, in these cases do it using your diaphragm, not your chest, as it is more effective toward calming you down.)

You can also practice some negative visualization before beginning your shift: actually visualize one of your colleagues making a mistake, yourself taking control of the situation to repair the damage, and then talking to your colleague about it, not judgmentally, but with understanding and compassion. Or visualize your next encounter with a stubborn administrator, imagining yourself confronting him with the facts while maintaining a calm demeanor. Calm and deliberateness are most effective when talking to people, far more so than being agitated and raising one’s voice.

Your general attitude should be that of Marcus Aurelius when he was in the field, battling the Marcomanni:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

Of course, none of the above may work. You may fail to address the problem effectively despite your best efforts. At that point you have one last choice: either you keep working at the clinic with the chief goal of countering and minimizing your colleagues’ mistakes, or you quit in order to find work at another place, where you can help people more effectively. There are many people needing medical assistance, and one needs to balance the moral tradeoff inherent in these last two options: which one is better for both you and your patients? Where will you do the most good? If this is to be traded off for your own serenity, how much and for how long is it worth it? As always in virtue ethics, there are never simple answers to complex questions, but it is precisely through this sort of trying circumstances that we learn to practice our virtues and become better prokoptontes. It is worth recalling what Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, wrote in Lectures I.6:

“Only by exhibiting actions in harmony with the sound words which he has received will anyone be helped by philosophy.”


4 thoughts on “Stoic advice: filing complaints at work

  1. Having practiced medicine for over 10 years, I came to the same conclusions even without the benefit of Stoicism, although partaking of Stoicism has helped to come to terms with this even more. It’s unfortunate that many medical systems allow poor medical care to continue, because they are businesses. As long as the profits are coming, there is no concern for negligence, even at the cost of lives. There is a low ceiling for how effective one can become by appealing to higher levels of management, and greater people than me have tried and failed.

    Ultimately, you gave great advice, Massimo!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Me good, them bad!

    I know that sounds like a caricature, but that simple statement sums up attitudes throughout society. We are all convinced of our own rectitude and the wrongness of others. But is that attitude sustainable? Is it possible that each of us can be right and all others wrong? Examine the idea and you see its massive internal contradictions make it unsustainable.

    The reality is that we are all imperfect people, making mistakes in an imperfect world and have an imperfect grasp of reality. The further reality is that we are good at seeing the mistakes of others but terrible at seeing our own mistakes.

    Think about it, grasp this idea and hopefully you will be overcome by a sense of humility. If not, read no further.

    But if you have discovered a healthy sense of realism and a profound humility you are ready to embrace the next steps. You want to be a change agent? Wonderful, we all do.

    The first step to being a change agent is to embrace excellence. By this I mean a deep, thoroughgoing commitment to being the very best at what you do, an excellence so great that it earns the admiration and respect of both your colleagues and bosses. Without this no-one will listen to you. Unquestioned excellence is your passport to a better future.

    The second step is to respect power. You lack power, your bosses possess power. This creates an insuperable impasse.

    The third step is to acquire power. My German bosses had a simple, blunt message for me. You want to change things? Work hard, win promotion and then you can change things. Until then, shut up and do your job!

    But there is another way to acquire power, and that is to be adopted by a powerful corporate mentor who trusts your judgement and believes in your ability. In effect you borrow his power to achieve the changes you desire. But you better be bloody good at your job because he will sacrifice you in a heartbeat if things go wrong.

    The third way to acquire power is to win the confidence and trust of your boss. Do your job, willingly, excellently, unfailingly, without complaint and with great enthusiasm.

    And then always practise completed staff work.

    The idea is simple. Stop complaining and give me a fully thought out, so complete a proposal, in every detail, that all I have to do is put my signature to it.

    Do all of this, thoughtfully, intelligently, consistently and respectfully, and you will be surprised by discovering a receptive boss who values you and your contributions.

    None of these things are easy to do. But if you want to do the easy thing, sit back and complain about others. You won’t have a happy life.


  3. There are four further things I should mention.

    1) Take the time and trouble to understand the motivation of your bosses. Do this charitably in the same way you hope they will charitably understand your motivation. They are subject to very different pressures, needs and goals than you are. Once you understand this you will be more sympathetic and you can recast your proposal in terms they can recognise.

    2) Expose them to your proposals gradually. Do not ask for a decision up front. They need time to recognise your point of view and this also provides opportunity for useful feedback that can improve your proposal. Only ask for a decision once the idea has been thoroughly canvassed and examined. Bosses do not like surprises and invariably react to them with rejection.

    3) Consult other stakeholders. There are always more stakeholders than are visible at first glance. Involve them and get their support.

    4) Do an adverse consequences analysis. Things can and do go wrong, embarrassingly. Your boss will take the blame so he will want to be sure that you have considered all eventualities.


  4. Fortunately, I have never been put in the position of your correspondent from Mexico, but this is useful in helping to understand the problems.

    There are a couple of typos which need attention, one of them possibly changing a sentence unintentionally. When you say “Epictean” in your second paragraph I guess you mean “Epictetan”, but when, in your third paragraph, you say “patience” I am not sure if you mean that or “patients”.

    Liked by 1 person

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