“Horizontal” Relationships: building blocks for life beyond the current job tyranny
Foundational BQE works: The Courage to Be Disliked (Part I)
This post is part of “Foundational BQE works,” an occasional series of reactions to what I’ve dubbed canon works for anyone developing their “Big Quit Energy”—trying to beat workaholism, set boundaries, fight back against workhumpers, or simply seeking better attitudes on work.
This is the first reaction to Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to be Disliked. Find the full list of foundational works and their respective reaction posts here.
Since beginning these writings, I’ve felt the discomfort of not knowing what exactly I’m “quitting” by developing Big Quit Energy. I’ve had “workaholism” as a stand-in answer because many of us suffer from those impulses. That’s fine, but I yearn for a clearer positive idea of what to “quit into” – a moral philosophy to replace the work-humper philosophy currently oppressing my psyche.
Reading Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s description of “horizontal relationships” in their philosophical treatise The Courage to Be Disliked (based on the theories of 19th century psychologist Alfred Adler) feels like the start of an answer. Beyond that, it named a notion that’s been gnawing me for a long time, enough to drive me to start Big Quit Energy.
After explaining exactly what Kishimi and Koga mean by “horizontal relationships,” this will be my first attempt to articulate 1) why I think they’re central to long-term antiwork goals, and 2) how striving for them as an ideal has helped me establish some semblance of balance in my own job.
Let’s dive in.
A primer on “horizontal” relationships
Horizontal relationships, intuitively enough, are egalitarian relationships in which both parties enjoy equal status. Think of the balanced feeling of a truly good friendship, where each person makes their own choices and, while there’s mutual support if requested, neither person feels the need to force or coerce their friend.
At the other side of the spectrum are “vertical” (or hierarchical) relationships where one person wields more power and influence over the other. Parent-child, teacher-student, coach-player, and (certainly) employer-employee relationships are usually vertical.
So far, so obvious. But what’s radical about Kishimi and Koga is that, while most of us may think it’s natural and “right” for some relationships to be hierarchical, their philosophy rests on the belief that none should be. Without exception, no one should ever seek to control or force someone else to take (or not take) an action.
Behind this reasoning is Adler’s fundamental theory is that all human troubles (and joys) stem from interpersonal relationships—no one can exist truly alone in society—and “are caused by intruding on other people’s tasks, or by other people intruding into your task.” In short, coercion never works:
“Forcing change while ignoring the other person’s intention can only lead to intense reactions.”
Instead of coercion, true collaboration emerges from “the feeling of being OK in the world,” which, in turn, arises from seeing all beings as equal comrades. It comes from committing to make all relationships horizontal, striving for the ideal of a society where no one is violating anyone else’s agency.
Sounds nice in theory, but we can’t have everyone doing whatever they want, right?
To be clear, this does not mean that people get to act without regard to each other. Yes, everyone exercises free choice, but the genius twist is that if people genuinely feel like everyone respects their consent, they won’t feel any need to violate anyone else’s consent either. And being the social animals that we are, humans that feel secure in their autonomy often desire to contribute and collaborate in a functional society without being forced.
It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t listen to others with more experience and skill in a specific context (what the authors call a “smaller community”). For example, for the smaller community of a basketball team to function, players need to suspend their equal status and accept directives from their coach without question.
But—this is crucial—ONLY within the context of basketball. If they bump into each other at Applebee’s, the coach shouldn’t expect (as many do, believe-you-me) to retain authority over players and make them fetch a chicken basket.
Kishimi and Koga advise people on the “lower” end of such a relationship to remember their equal status in the larger context of life:
“When we run into trouble with our smaller communities, like school or family, remember to listen to the voice of a larger community… [meaning that] if a teacher bullies you, remember that you are equals in the larger community, if not in the norms of the school itself, [and] it’s fine to let go of the relationship. Living in fear of one’s relationships falling apart is an unfree way to live.”
(They also elaborate into what they see as proper power dynamics for parent-child and other seemingly naturally imbalanced relationships. We’ll explore this in a later post. As a non-parent, I’m already steeling for the disdain of any parent that reads it.)
As a general life philosophy, I’m VERY drawn to this idea. This way of thinking has unlocked beautiful outlooks and experiences for me, and I’ll even add the hot take that organized religions (at their rare best) essentially advocate radical horizontality. The tweet at the top (by Marfmellow, one of my better follow decisions) captures this feeling for me--the “soft empathy” and the sense of moral clarity that results from viewing life this way.
But you didn’t come here for spiritual guidance. You came to know how this can give you respite from the work-humpers in your life. Say no more.
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Why I see horizontal relationships as essential for healthy Big Quit Energy
When we grow into adulthood, we (theoretically, in western society at least) leave behind most vertical relationships. Except, of course, for the one that dominates our waking day—the one with our employer. Our job is perhaps the one domain where we will knowingly swallow unfair treatment because we need the money. Taken to extremes, lopsided work relationships lead people to debase and destroy themselves for a paycheck.
When you look at the most “radical” proposals of the labor or antiwork movements through an Adlerian lens, it’s interesting that they’re all attempts to make the relationship between workers and bosses structurally horizontal:
Re-normalizing labor unions consolidates worker power so that negotiation with owners happen among equals.
Universal basic income, among other things, undercuts the survival fear that drives workers to tolerate a subservient relationship to their boss, making it more likely that they’ll stand up against any attacks on their dignity.
Worker co-ops, of course, cut out the boss altogether—these are enterprises where workers, through a democratic process, manage their work life through horizontal relationships with each other.
While the feasibility of these ideas is still up for debate, I do think we are so closed off to them in America because our culture has fully normalized totalitarian authority of employers over employees. Even very progressive people tend to defend it, sincere in the belief that enterprises CANNOT function without an authority coercing workers. It’s a deeply cynical view of humans, assuming that they ultimately can’t be trusted.
The Courage to Be Disliked doesn’t have explicit takes on labor policy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kishimi and Koga advised ultimate confidence in workers to do what needs to be done, letting go of the fearful temptation to install an authority figure to force them (which always backfires in the long-term anyway). A worker in a society with this organizing principle would enjoy much more autonomy and freedom.
Sweet utopian visions, Vago. But I won’t be working in a co-op anytime soon. Can any of this help me with my shit boss, like, right now?
When I started this article, I honestly wasn’t sure if horizontal relationships were useful or possible within the confines of “normal” jobs. Upon reflection, it’s at least true that I’ve been able to improve (not fully fix) my own experience as a worker by, in subtle ways, nudging my relationship with my bosses to feel more horizontal.
If you’re in a dynamic where your boss feels empowered to walk all over you, think of this as a way to “reset” the relationship on more even footing. It’s based on my specific experience (so take it for what it’s worth), but here are the changes I’ve implemented:
The first step is updating your internal story and remembering that you and your boss ARE equals, despite what the org chart says. Your boss is not smarter or more virtuous than you. Trust me, I’ve known a lot of bosses. None of them were better than the people they managed at anything, and the better bosses were good precisely because they accepted this fact. Even while you’ll eventually do what they tell you (under at least some baseline level of coercion), start thinking of it as a “choice” nonetheless—something you’re choosing to do for an equal.
The second step is to start acting like it (skillfully and subtly). This means not being overly deferential, and certainly not cowering at their presence (if that’s something you currently do). A couple examples:
When they spring you with an “urgent” (but not really) request, don’t rush to do it. Instead, say “I’ll do that for you in a minute, after I finish [whatever other stupid shit they’re having you do].” Honestly, I suggest saying this even if you plan on doing it immediately. Make it normal for them to have to wait a beat for you to meet their demands.
When they have an opinion that you disagree with, express your view respectfully but honestly and without any hint of apology. The way you would a friend (one that you don’t insult as part of your normal banter, of course).
Building routine pockets of unavailability into your day and treating it as perfectly natural. Many people like to block off “focus time” in their calendars, for example. Try it. When your boss tries to book a meeting over it, tell them you’re not available. They’ll insist if it’s really urgent, and then you can “move things around” for them. But again, the important thing here is setting the baseline “normal” that you’re not at their beck-and-call.
These lame Jedi-mind tricks make a difference because half the battle in life is framing
Whether in a negotiation or a relationship, the default terms you establish matter. And they’re often framed most by your attitude, not your words. You’re not necessarily saying to your boss “we are equals,” but you’re making it FEEL that way. They’ll feel you as someone who sees themselves as worthy of equal respect, and most will start treating you that way. As James Baldwin says, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you.”
I do say MOST bosses will start treating you with more respect, because some truly base their self-worth on dominating those “below” them—more than normal levels. These may bristle and retaliate, which really sucks. I would take that as a sign that you need to leave ASAP. I know that’s easier said than done, but you can at least know to start putting plans in motion while you endure the present dynamic. No job is worth a relationship like that.
But back to bosses who aren’t yet full sociopaths. Once you establish this “horizontal feel” with them, they won’t be shocked when you politely decline after-hours functions or push back against workloads that destroy your personal life. I’m not guaranteeing they’ll never saddle you, but they’ll be more cautious about trying. This is the main change I’ve noticed at my job over the last year, after I consciously stopped acting like a people-pleasing work mule.
This subtle practice of learning not to fear your boss isn’t easy or automatic—especially if, like me, you’ve been conditioned for years (starting in school) to FEAR BIG DADDY UP TOP! But as I’ve gotten better at it, it really has improved life at my job. I swear.
Crucial point: I do mean “respectfully” and “politely”
I use those words with intention. Adhering to horizontality means acting as if you’re EQUALS. Not as if YOU’RE the one who’s higher.
Because #1, you’re not better than anyone, not in the grand context of living beings—your boss included. We are taught to strive for superiority and status, but as Kishimi and Koga put it, “people obsessed with being special can’t accept their normal selves.” They advise one to cultivate “the courage to be normal” to be truly happy.
And #2, more pragmatically, if you act as if you’re better than your boss (I’ve made this mistake) they will feel the disrespect. The unfortunate fact is that, within the context of your job, they can and probably will fuck your shit right up. While “respectful” doesn’t mean “subservient,” it does means treat them as you would treat someone you respect.
By the way, this mindset also helps career-climbing work-humpers (if you’re still into that)
When I was interning at my first ad job, I was pulled into a small meeting to share some research for a new business pitch. There, I saw one dude who I had never been in a meeting with, though I’d seen him lurking around doing what seemed like unremarkable errands. I didn’t think much of him beyond “cool, a new person to meet,” and walked everyone through the research as I would any other meeting.
Afterward, my supervisor pulled me aside: “[Unremarkable dude from meeting] really liked your work. Great job.”
I found it odd to single that dude out, but hey it still feels good to get praise. “That’s great to hear. Is he the account person [basically someone who deals with the client] on this?”
“Oh, no no no. He’s the company president.”
Guess I had never bothered to check who ran the place, which…yikes. But my obliviousness gifted me the valuable lesson to think of “higher ups” as just another idiot like me. Nothing good can come from putting additional pressure on myself just because someone has a lofty title, and I should do my best no matter who’s in the room anyway.
The reason this has helped my career instead of producing backlash is that (on my better days, at least) I treat everyone with respect as a matter of course. So even if you’ve inexplicably stumbled on here looking for career advice, horizontal relationships will help you too. (they’re also a great way to look at networking)
I am NOT saying—like many wishful self-helpers—that this is a neat trick that will solve your situation. For me, it’s more of a useful coping mechanism to make life a little more pleasant while we abolish jobs altogether (or at least while I finally gather the nerve to freelance).
All in all, committing to horizontal relationships is committing to preserving your dignity through the process of getting your much-needed paycheck. It’s a way of asserting, in subtle ways, that you’re selling your work, not your status as a being worthy of respect and choice.
I’m still more excitement than eloquence at this stage, trying to fully wrap my mind around this concept. I’d love to know if it resonates with your experience, if you’ve ever applied anything similar, and how it has worked out. Thank you for reading!
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