Get Your Boardroom Out Of My Ambulance

Office life“In a former life” I worked in Corporate America.  Since defecting and taking refuge in the world of emergency medicine and cardiac education, one thing has become abundantly clear.    I’d rather be working in the back of an ambulance than in the boardroom.


The corporate environment distorts our perception of life, clouds our judgment and mangles the rational mind.  The result is an inability to recognize true emergencies and respond appropriately.  Exaggerated jargon in the workplace creates a “constant state of emergency”.    Whether specific terminology is used to motivate and stimulate an emotional response from employees or used because it creates a sense of self- importance within leadership, the impact leaves us less likely to recognize and then willingly and effectively intervene in a crisis.  In addition, we overestimate other situations and, as a result, our response is one of panic rather than purpose.


The ability to be mindful of others and effectively cope is replaced by a lack of awareness dysfunctional actions and emotions.  It makes sense, right?  If the fact that the delivery of widgets didn’t arrive “by the drop dead date” to the customer is treated like an “emergency”, then how are you suppose to react to that annoying pressure in your chest?   What, if anything, are you going to do when your colleague begins choking on a piece of steak during a business dinner?  Are you going to be paralyzed and unable to help?  Actually, you probably won’t even notice that he left the table fifteen minutes ago and is now alone and unconscious in the men’s room.


During my career I attended numerous “emergency,” “all hands” meetings where we discussed how to “stop the bleeding” of a failing project that was already “on life support.”  We were faced with having to decide whether or not to “pull the plug” on a “critical” project in order to avert “disaster” or plan an “oxygen- move” and breathe new life into the project.  At the height of a project, the conference room where all-nighters were pulled was referred to as the “war room.” When projects were completed we often held a “post-mortem”.  One of our team values actually stated “be on the cutting-edge, but not the bleeding-edge.”   Of course!  No one wanted our team to “hemorrhage” capital in this “cut-throat” corporate environment where being a “team player” was key, but you first had to “drink the cool-aid.”  You may even be selected to be the one to “shoot the puppy.”


The Internet distorts the lens even further.  Business and career websites are riddled with advice columns and warning articles with titles such as “10 Deadliest Resume Mistakes,” “How Not to Commit Career Suicide” and “Catastrophic Project Management Blunders.” In an article entitled “How to Survive a Sadistic Boss,” I learned that a sadistic boss “loves the sound of weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments coming from the cubicles outside his or her office?”   Seriously?  Really.


Corporate America thrives on the Western culture of exaggeration.  In this culture, stress is created on purpose because it gives us a sense of importance.  How is the employee who is late for a meeting, yet not running and crashing through the conference room door and apologizing profusely viewed by his boss and colleagues?  He is seen as lacking a good work ethic, passion and energy.  He doesn’t care about his work.  However, your other frenzied colleague who breathlessly takes her seat, scrambles to find a pen and whose heart rate and blood pressure are elevated is seen as “a real trooper” and a “valuable member of the team” despite the fact that in this state of self-created stress, she isn’t able to listen to what is being said, hear the information being shared or make decisions.


Therefore, there is no boardroom in my ambulance.  The use of terminology that masks serious situations with benign language indeed effectively alters perception. (Los Angeles Times, 25 Mar. 1991: A9 in Norris, 231). This is particularly true in the military as well as emergency medicine and first responders.  In addition, demeanor affects those around us, especially our patient(s) and even ourselves.  The next time you see us arrive on scene, watch our movements and how we communicate with one another.  Notice how we enter a house and address the family and patient.  Are we behaving like we are late to a meeting?


Strolling through the front door, we calmly introduce ourselves and casually say something like “so, what’s going on today” or “I’m just going to put my hands on your head to protect your neck, ok?”  We enter a situation with the immediate ability to not only listen to the patient and bystanders, but to really hear what we are being told. Regardless of the seriousness of the situation, we make every attempt to conduct ourselves in a manner that says “business as usual.”  In fact, one of the quietest and calmest emergency scenes I have worked was a cardiac arrest.  The only voice that could be heard was that of the Paramedic.  We worked on the patient with fluid transition between chest compression and ventilations, switching roles every two minutes to ensure quality physical performance.  Unnecessary chatter was kept to a minimum.  When we were unable to resuscitate this particular elderly patient within the prescribed amount of time per protocol, the Paramedic instructed us to cease our efforts and time of death was called. Prior to leaving, we gently lifted the man off the floor and placed him in his bed, his head on a pillow and a soft blanket neatly draped on top.


When we leave a scene like that, we feel everything.  We hurt.  We feel empty.  There is tremendous physical and emotional stress in being a first responder and the incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and substance abuse are high.  But this stress is not manufactured so we can feel important or prove we are motivated.  There is just genuineness to life.


Personally, when I pick up the kids from school, I am just grateful to see them and nothing else matters. There is no yelling over spilled milk or shoes left in the hallway because having shed my misguided corporate persona, I am able to appropriately define priorities and respond as necessary – truly necessary.  How different from the days of picking the kids up at daycare after a day at the office, still “having a heart attack” over that late delivery of widgets and oblivious to anyone but myself.


Come into my ambulance and enjoy the ride.

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