Every once in a while, I come across a piece of writing that describes an aspect of everyday life SO PERFECTLY that it stops me in my tracks. It names an emotion, a pattern or a situation that I (like most people) have never really thought about head on. But it clicks so easily into the web of our human experience that once it’s been identified, we can’t imagine a time before we knew about it. Lots of examples come to mind (gaslighting being one of them).
Are you ready for a new one?
A few years ago, I happened upon a link to an article by a blogger named issendai, which described the phenomenon of the Sick System, and how both individuals and organizations alike create sick systems to keep people tied to them indefinitely:
So you want to keep your lover or your employee close. Bound to you, even. You have a few options. You could be the best lover they’ve ever had, kind, charming, thoughtful, competent, witty, and a tiger in bed. You could be the best workplace they’ve ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But both of those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as she wants to under those systems, and you want to keep her even when she doesn’t want to stay. How do you pin her to your side, irrevocably, permanently, and perfectly legally?
You create a sick system.
The sick system has four basic rules:
Rule 1: Keep them too busy to think. Thinking is dangerous. If people can stop and think about their situation logically, they might realize how crazy things are.
Rule 2: Keep them tired. Exhaustion is the perfect defense against any good thinking that might slip through. Fixing the system requires change, and change requires effort, and effort requires energy that just isn’t there. No energy, and your lover’s dangerous epiphany is converted into nothing but a couple of boring fights.
This is also a corollary to keeping them too busy to think. Of course you can’t turn off anyone’s thought processes completely—but you can keep them too tired to do any original thinking. The decision center in the brain tires out just like a muscle, and when it’s exhausted, people start making certain predictable types of logic mistakes. Found a system based on those mistakes, and you’re golden.
Rule 3: Keep them emotionally involved. Make them love you if you can, or if you’re a company, foster a company culture of extreme loyalty. Otherwise, tie their success to yours, so if you do well, they do well, and if you fail, they fail. If you’re working in an industry where failure isn’t a possibility (the government, utilities), establish a status system where workers do better or worse based on seniority. (This also works in bad relationships if you’re polyamorous.)
Also note that if you set up a system in which personal loyalty and devotion are proof of your lover’s worthiness as a person, you can make people love you. Or at least think they love you. In fact, any combination of intermittent rewards plus too much exhaustion to consider other alternatives will induce people to think they love you, even if they hate you as well.
Rule 4: Reward intermittently. Intermittent gratification is the most addictive kind there is. If you know the lever will always produce a pellet, you’ll push it only as often as you need a pellet. If you know it never produces a pellet, you’ll stop pushing. But if the lever sometimes produces a pellet and sometimes doesn’t, you’ll keep pushing forever, even if you have more than enough pellets (because what if there’s a dry run and you have no pellets at all?). It’s the motivation behind gambling, collectible cards, most video games, the Internet itself, and relationships with crazy people.
Is any of this sounding familiar to you? Have you experienced this kind of system? You may think that you are savvy enough to avoid this kind of relationship in your personal life. But in professional settings, it is INCREDIBLY easy to get caught up in a sick system and not realize it for years, especially when it is tied to your livelihood. They are everywhere.
The article goes on to explain how sick systems are so simple to sustain for the people behind them, and the tactics they use:
Keep the crises rolling. Incompetence is a great way to do this: If the office system routinely works badly or the controlling partner routinely makes major mistakes, you’re guaranteed ongoing crises. Poor money management works well, too. So does being in an industry where the clients are guaranteed to be volatile and flaky, or preferring friends who are themselves in perpetual crisis. You can also institutionalize regular crises: Workers in the Sea Org, the elite wing of Scientology, must exceed the previous week’s production every single week or face serious penalties. Because this is impossible, it guarantees regular crises as the deadline approaches.
Regular crises perform two functions: They keep people too busy to think, and they provide intermittent reinforcement. After all, sometimes you win—and when you’ve mostly lost, a taste of success is addictive.
But why wouldn’t people eventually realize that the crises are a permanent state of affairs? Because you’ve explained them away with an explanation that gives them hope.
Things will be better when... I get a new job. I’m mean to you now because I’m so stressed, but I’m sure that will go away when I’m not working at this awful place.
The production schedule is crazy because the client is nuts. We just need to get through this cycle, then we’ll have a new client, and they’ll be much better.
She has a bad temper because she just started with a new therapist. She’ll be better when she settles in.
Now, the first person isn’t actually looking for a job. (They’re too stressed to fill out applications.) The second industry always has another crazy client, because all the clients are crazy. (Or better yet, because the company is set up to destroy the workflow and make the client look crazy.) The third person has been with her “new” therapist for a year. (But not for three years! Or five!) But the explanation sounds plausible, and every now and then the person has a good day or a production cycle goes smoothly. Intermittent reinforcement + hope = “Someday it will always be like this.” Perpetual crises mean the person is too tired to notice that it has never been like this for long.
If you’re interested in diving deeper, I highly recommend checking out the Sick Systems article in its entirety.
But wait, there’s more! In a follow up article, issendai lists the personal qualities that can keep ANYONE in a sick system. And they’re not what you might think!
This is where I’m supposed to follow up with What to Do to Fix the World, but the answer is: nothing. You can’t fix a sick system from within unless you have power, and you can’t fix a sick system from outside, period. You can’t compel people to leave. You can convince them to leave, but the moment that convinces them is individual, like enlightenment striking a monk because his master made a joke about a spade. And when a stuck person chooses to leave, it will be long, long, long after they should have gotten out.
So instead I offer you a list:
Qualities That Keep You in a Sick System
- A strong work ethic
- A need to be useful to others
You don’t need to lose these qualities to get out. But if you’re stuck and trying to figure out what’s keeping you in, remember that people rarely get stuck because of their vices. They’re usually caught by their virtues.
That last part always hits me like a ton of bricks, how about you? And what lessons can we take from all of this? For me, the most important lessons are the simplest (but often the hardest to master):
- Trust your gut
- Trust your gut
- Trust your gut
2 replies on “The (successful) formula of the sick system”
This was pretty interesting. I am loyal to a fault. It has impacted choices I’ve made and caused me to stay in work environments too long. I’m going to have to read more about this topic. Thanks!
It’s SO common Stacy! And it’s really hard to see when you’re in the middle of it. But I think having a name for it and knowing that other people have experienced it too is really helpful to changing the pattern. Let me know if you find other good writing on it!