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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.

A 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.

How do you do all this? It's incredibly easy:

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.

Keep real rewards distant. The rewards in “Things will be better when...” are usually nonrewards—things will go back to being what they should be when the magical thing happens. Real rewards—happiness, prosperity, career advancement, a new house, children—are far in the distance. They look like they're on the schedule, but there's nothing in the To Do column. For example, everything will be better when we move to our own house in the country... but there's nothing in savings for the house, no plan to save, no house picked out, not even a region of the country settled upon. Or everything will be better when she gets a new job, but she's not applying anywhere, she's not checking the classifieds, she has no skills that would get her a new job, she has no concrete plans to learn skills, and she doesn't know what type of new job she wants to take. Companies have a harder time holding out on rewards, but endlessly delayed raises and promotions, workplace upgrades that are talked about but never get enough budget, and training programs that are canceled for lack of money work well.

Establish one small semi-occasional success. This should be a daily task with a stake attached and a variable chance of success. For example, you need to take your meds at just the right time. Too early and you're logy the next morning and late to work, too late and you're insomniac and keep your partner up until you go to sleep, too anything and you develop nausea that interrupts your meal schedule and sets your precariously balanced blood sugar to swinging, sparking tantrums and weeping fits. It's your partner's job to get you to take your meds at just the right time. Each time she finds an ideal time, it becomes a point of contention—you're always busy at that time, or you're not at home, or you eat too early or too late so the ideal time shifts or vanishes entirely. But every so often you take your meds at just the right time and everything works perfectly, and then your partner gets a jolt of success and the hope that you've reached a turning point.

Chop up their time. Perpetually interrupt them with meetings, visits from supervisors, bells and whistles and time clocks and hourly deadlines. Or if you're partners, be glued to them at the hip, demand their attention at short intervals throughout the day (and make it clear that they aren't allowed to do the same with you), establish certain essential tasks that you won't do and then demand that they do them for you, establish certain essential tasks that they aren't allowed to do for themselves and demand that they rely on you to do it for them (and then do it slowly or badly or on your own schedule). Make sure they have barely enough time to manage both the crisis of the moment and the task of the moment; and if you can't tire them out physically, drain them emotionally.

Enmesh your success with theirs. Company towns are great at this. Everything, from the workers' personal social standing to the selection of groceries at the store, depends upon how well they do their jobs and how well the company as a whole is doing. Less enveloping companies try to tie their workers' self-perceptions in with the public's perception of their brand. People do it by entangling their successes and failures with their partners', even when they shouldn't be entangled. A full-grown adult should be able to take his meds without his partner's help, and there's only so much anyone can do to make someone eat at the right time and swallow their pills, but he still puts the responsibility for managing his meds squarely on her shoulders. The classic maneuver is to blame all your bad moods on your partner: If they weren't so _______ or if they did ______ right, you wouldn't be so stressed/angry/foul-tempered.

Keep everything on the edge. Make sure there's never quite enough money, or time, or goods, or status, or anything else people might want. Insufficiency makes sick systems self-perpetuating, because if there's never enough ______ to fix the system, and never enough time to think of a better solution, everyone has to work on all six cylinders just to keep the system from collapsing.

All of these things work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You're run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can't stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won't be able to go on, and you can't not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can't see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don't have either, and you've been told that you'll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won't make that thing happen so it's better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you're not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn't mean things are better, it means you're not aware yet of what's going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

Eventually you're so crazy that you can't interact with anyone who isn't equally crazy. Normal people have either fled, or told you once too often that you're being stupid and you need to leave. So now you've lost all your reality checks. You're surrounded by people who also live in the crazy and can't see a way out. You spend your time telling one another that it's too bad, but that's how it is, there's no fixing it, and everything will get better when ______ happens. If anyone does get a little better and says, “Hey, guys, this is crazy, we can all stop now,” they've become a stuck cog in the machine. They quickly realize that there's nothing they can do, and they pull out, leaving you alone with your crazy friends.

Finally you think it's ordinary.

You fantasize about being suicidal enough to kill yourself. But that's not all that bad, because you don't think that way all the time, and you're not actually trying to kill yourself. You just wish something would come along and make you dead.

One day you hit rock bottom. Maybe you want so badly to die that stepping out of the sick system looks like a good way to commit suicide, or maybe you're so depressed that you no longer care. Maybe you catch on before then, and realize, as you're standing there with the pill in your hand and your partner too busy on WoW to swallow it, that this is crazier than crazy and it's time to make it stop. Maybe the system makes a mistake, and you look at the pattern of people who got promotions and realize that you will never, never qualify for your promised promotion.

Or maybe a door opens, and something magical happens. The position you've dreamed of opens up. The school you want to go to offers a new scholarship for people just like you—and the person who runs the scholarship tells you confidentially that with your qualifications, you're a shoo-in. Your granduncle dies and leaves you $100,000. You can have exactly what you want—if you walk away from the system you're enmeshed in.

If you step away, two things happen, one after the other:

PANIC! HORROR! THE SKY IS FALLING! I'VE LOST EVERYTHING I EVER HAD AND I'LL NEVER GET IT BACK AGAIN! There's not enough stress, something is wrong, something horrible is happening and I'm not there stopping it, oh god what is my ex-boyfriend doing and can I save him from a safe distance? I'm responsible! I have to call the office and make sure they're okay! I have to make sure everything I left was okay, because it would all fall down without me and now I'm not there and it's falling down and all those innocent people are being hurt and I have to stop it!

...I feel so much better now.

It's all gone, like someone stopped pounding me in the head with a hammer. I didn't even know the hammer was there. Why did I let someone pound me in a hammer all that time? What in hell was I thinking? Why did I think any of that made sense?

Once you're out of the system, it makes no sense at all. None of the carrots they dangled before you mean anything, and you start to truly comprehend just how much stress you were under. You see things you never would have believed while you were in the system. And the relief is greater than you ever could have imagined while you were enmeshed.


But the “you” in these last several paragraphs isn't the “you” from the beginning. To the “you” from the beginning, the lover or employer who needed to set up a sick system to keep other people close, I say: Don't worry. It's not the end of the world. It feels like that right now, when you're all alone and your ex-lover is a hundred miles away; when you're understaffed and your best employees have left you for the competition. But now that you know the secret of setting up a sick system, you know the truth:

Anyone can get caught in your sick system if you start slowly enough.

Anyone can fit into your sick system if your standards are low enough.

Any sick system can meet your needs if you keep your needs small enough.

You'll have a new person fitted into the vacancy in your system in no time. Go out and find some fresh blood, and remember: Don't fit the system to the person, fit the person to the system.

ETA: WHOA, IT PROPAGATED. Look at it go! I'm so pleased that y'all are finding this true and useful. If you'd like to link to it or quote from it, please do. I only ask that you not repost the whole thing.

ETA 2: There are some amazing links in the comments, including:

Not All Vampires Suck Blood - Anton LaVey discusses psychic vampires--people who feign helplessness to keep others under their control. These are exactly the kinds of people who set up sick systems.

Fugitivus: On Interpersonal Badness - On breaking out of sick systems, and how to deal with the aftermath. Read the comments, then read the rest of the blog, because Harriet is incredible.

In Waiting - bigbigtruck 's sometimes funny, sometimes serious series on life as a waitress in an industry that's set up as a chronic sick system. Shows how the system pulls people in, how it keeps them there, and how far it's willing to go to exploit them once it has them. (Warning for a potential trigger in #11.)

ETA 3: Now translated into Russian, with insightful commentary at the end drawn from the software industry.


Jun. 11th, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I'm in a lot of pain in my job, and this is giving me a shock of recognition.

I want to suggest one more variation.

"You could be the best workplace they've ever had..." and then, over a period of years, you could slowly change, dropping, one by one, the features that made you such a great workplace. And the employees, still in love with the workplace-that-was, downplay each successive change, not realizing that they don't work for that company any more. An example from my faraway past: HP. HP lifers still thought they worked for Bill Hewlett's HP for years after that was a lie.

This brings the abusive-boyfriend metaphor to the fore: "but it used to be so good." "he used to be so good to me." Yeah. It was. And then he turned mean, and he's not that guy any more.

I think you miss or devalue one of the things that happen when you step away: grief. Grief for what the company was once, or for what you thought it was, grief for your dreams about the company, grief for the friends you'll miss. Leaving an employer you're emotionally enmeshed with isn't easy for a reason -- you're losing something you value.

I'm grieving now for a dream job that went horribly wrong. It'll take some time.
Jun. 11th, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
Oof, you're right. Usually an abusive person was always abusive under the nice exterior, but workplaces can go from genuinely good to genuinely bad in no time. IME it's because abusive people move into the system--sick systems need sick individuals to keep them running--but the bad apples are often so high up that most of the employees have no idea the issues can be traced back to them, and functionally, the company as a whole has gone sick. Companies that have gone sick can be remarkably good at convincing their employees that they're going to be back to normal any minute now. Or--this is my experience--they abruptly shed most of their employees and hire new ones who can be trained to put up with the system as it is.

I'm sorry your dream job soured. I wish you strength.

You're right, I missed the grieving that can follow in the wake of leaving a sick system. I do my grieving beforehand, so it didn't occur to me that other people would be affected by it. Thanks for pointing that out.
Jun. 11th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)

Now you mention it, my particular sick company went through an enormous hiring binge, growing much much faster than it could promote from within, and hired "professional managers". Many of whom were and are famous assholes.
Jun. 11th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
*nod* And as long as the higher-ups love the managers to little sticky bits, there's no getting rid of them, even if they drive their departments onto the rocks. So much company dysfunction could be avoided if higher-ups were willing to listen to the subordinates... but, of course, one doesn't have lunch or do golf with the subordinates, and the problem manager is One of Us.
Jun. 11th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
Oh, even if you have access to them, the higher-ups will solemnly explain to you that things had gotten Out Of Control, and that it was time to put some standards in place. And, of course, the company is now waaaayyy too big for the higher-ups to be in touch.
Jun. 12th, 2010 12:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
I think part of the problem often *is* that higher-ups have _no_ idea what they're supposed to control, so they're latching on 'productivity measures' in order to monitor the workforce.

Right now, my stats are up and my productivity is down, and I am *so* looking for another job...
Jun. 13th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
There should be a rule: If any bright idea sounds like something out of the Sea Org handbook, it's evil and should be fed to rabid wombats immediately. The more accessible version starts, "If any bright idea sounds like something from Dilbert..." but really, Dilbert is small potatoes compared to how Scientology is run.

Good luck on your job hunt. May you find your ideal job, and may it have plenty of openings and an enormous recruitment bonus for when you snaffle former co-workers to fill them.
Jun. 16th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
I find myself wondering if we worked for the same Boston-based company...
Jun. 16th, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
I firmly believe that if one is in a management role, one's performance review should be conducted by one's subordinates as well as by one's higher ups. And that companies should have subordinates create performance improvement plans for their managers, with incentives tied to managers' performance against those benchmarks.

Jun. 17th, 2010 06:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh!
They have students (mostly in college) do assessments for their teachers/professors. Why not in the business world? Oh, right, the students are PAYING to be there, the employees are PAID; that makes everything ok. *eyeroll*
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 27th, 2010 10:46 am (UTC)
I don't think anyone mentioned anything about firing, just incentives tied to the assessments.

I'm sorry your friend's husband had that experience. It's certainly not right. Then again, I have issues with the concept of tenure anyway.
Jun. 12th, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
it used to be so good

I think that's an important part of hooking people. If you go into a system and you're faced with the pressure and manager abuse etc etc, you have to be desperate to stay (and some people are!). If, on the other hand, you go into a place and it's good, you're making up your mind to stay. And there's something to be said for working things out and talking about problems instead of leaving immediately.

The more I think about this, the more I'm reminded of an article I've lost track off about why videogames are so addictive. The infrequent rewards, the adrenalin, the feeling that you've already invested so much, so it makes sense to stay and work herder... they all seem to add up to an unhealthy addiction to something you'd be better off giving up.
Jun. 12th, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC)
Me too. I got laid off from it over as year ago. I got passed over for promotion over two years ago. I still miss what it had been, the company that I started working for, not the job that burned me out and threw me away.
Nov. 7th, 2010 01:02 am (UTC)
Oh yes, this one. My work place is heading down that treadmill right now, and doing the "hire more and more inexperienced and untrained workers that are paid less and expect less, while trying to pressure the older workers to leave" dance. I'd look for a new job, except that I'm probably going to be going to grad school within a year or two instead.

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