People at Work ~ I Want To Know More About You

Ask me what is most important.

And I will reply,

It is people,

It is people,

It is people

Maori Proverb

You read a lot these days about the need for new workplace models.

There is a growing consensus that decades of rigid, bottom line, often authoritarian management structures kill the culture necessary for real collaborative relationships.  The old models are broken: the new ones are still out of focus.

In his excellent article Why Today’s Workplace Creates Emotional Conflicts: The Dark Side of Success, business psychologist Douglas La Bier writes, The old style top down autocratic model doesn’t work very well anymore. Recent research found that men (who populate most leadership positions) are often socially conditioned to manage fear in ways that prime them to subordinate and harm others. This can reinforce wanting to perpetuate the old model.”

The research La Bier is citing  points out that many men are conditioned to “manage their emotional manhood.” These ideas raise important questions about the roots of emotional repression within workplace systems. While the motivation to maintain power arrangements to protect position and profit are undoubtedly at the core of defending  the status quo, emotional self-protection also plays a key role in keeping the “personal” out of the workplace. A completely misused and misunderstood term, the “personal” has become a euphemism for anything that has to do with human feelings, which are typically marginalized as not pertinent to business matters.
La Bier’s article speculates that the “suffering” and “trade-offs” that men and women have endured for decades in the name of success may have been due to their inability to “envision a better alternative,” or they had become “too socially conditioned to accepting it.”  I agree with La Bier that decades of unconscious, even abusive management has left a trail of “working wounded” whose inclinations are to keep their heads down, get their work done and seek life’s satisfactions elsewhere. However, the 21st century workplace will only thrive from connection, flexibility and collaboration. It will be difficult for many workers weaned on mistrust and self-protection to open to new possibilities for rewarding workplace relationships.

Investing Without Guarantees

If we’re in agreement that this new 21st century model of “success” must be based on real relationships, how is this going to happen? There’s a lot of “suffering” and cynicism out there. Who takes the first steps? Unless you’re one of the fortunate few who works for an enlightened organization or leader, or whose business has escaped the regimentation that has produced narrow corridors for genuine communication, where will the change come from?

I’ve often spoken with sincere mid-level and even senior leaders who want to reshape the relationships within their sphere of influence but believe they are working against cultural forces within their organizations that make substantive change impossible. The problem with this understandable logic is obvious – who is going to change – and how? The reality is the change will have to come from each of us. If we really believe that relationships are the core transformative energy of the new business environment, we will have to invest in others, without the guarantee of the payoff. The reward must come from the doing. This doesn’t preclude advocating for the systemic changes we believe are needed for  more humane workplaces. But it does require us to elevate our regard for the people we work with now in ways that contribute to a creating a more regenerative workplace climate.

The Stranger Next to Me

In her article, People Aren’t Always Out to Get Us, Ameena Payne shares an experience she had on a Chicago subway during rush hour. Something about the “rush hour” energy made me feel a bit anxious and although I get along with others, I rarely strike up conversations with fellow passengers.Having commuted on New York City subways for years, I can relate; “closing down” under these circumstances is a common reaction.

Ameena continues, I was able to find a free seat and I sat down. I acknowledged the woman I was sitting near just enough to immediately write her off as being someone I wanted to ignore. She just looked at me and smiled and I gave her a half-smile back but turned slightly away to make it clear that I didn’t want to engage her.”

I know many of you have been in the same boat. Right now, you can remember the times when you have acted as Ameena generously admits.  Recalling the times I tuned others out, leaves me with a feeling  of sadness. While I forgive myself for the moments when I was too tired, irritated or anxious to acknowledge the human beings around me, I wish I had behaved differently. We’ve all been there.

Ameena explains, “I am a warm person, hardly ever without a smile and usually very open, but I was having a day where I just felt nonchalant towards other people and the last thing I wanted was to feel “trapped” in a conversation with a “lowly” woman on the train who might pester me for money. I pulled out my textbook, to begin “reviewing” for my exam.”

Workplaces are not subways (although for most transit workers they are) and most workers are not usually thrust into situations with strangers in crowded conditions – but many of today’s workplaces are such high-stress environments that they can activate the same level of limbic arousal. In these states, our physiological responses are  poised for threat. Unless there is a real danger to which we must respond, the only way-out is through a cognitive intervention that must be preceded by awareness. Despite her internal fortification, Ameena found herself engaging in conversation with the pre-judged stranger, She began engaging me in small talk, and after a few minutes, my disposition changed. My short answers became longer and I became genuinely interested in what she had to say.”

Beliefs Block Empathy

There is a personal reckoning required to bring our best to working with others. The systems most of us work in don’t inspire or  encourage genuine contact. I’m not talking about becoming  life-long buddies with co-workers (although that has happily been my experience with several people) but finding ways to bring out the best in each of us – even in the briefest of interactions. It’s often surprising how little it takes to make a positive connection with others. As the poet David Whyte wrote in his poem Loaves and Fishes, ‘People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”

A routine survey of the beliefs that motivate us in our dealings with others will reveal that when we judge others without knowing them, we shut down our natural instinct to see them from our more compassionate selves. We’ve got to consciously create a space for empathy, especially during the times we feel anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed and distracted. We’re learning from neuroscience that we must turn off our defensiveness to be able to turn on our empathy and compassion. We’ve got to know enough to recognize when our threat responses are activated and be skilled enough to turn them off.

Most of us are not schooled in the practice of the kinds of emotions that support collaboration.  As adults, we don’t get recognition or promotions for displaying appreciation or gratitude towards others – but these are the very feelings that promote an atmosphere of comfort, inclusion and trust.

Because most jobs today are so unreasonably demanding of our time and energies, it takes an effort for many people to be sociable. It takes even more effort to be considerate and concerned about how others feel. Most workplace communication is simply transactional, but has the potential to carry with it  a measure of good will and respectful attention. Even these simple interactions can send  a message that, at some level, we care and want to know more about the other person They matter. You care. We are in this together.

You can read the story of Ameena and the Stranger, in its entirety here, but I want to leave you with a little encouragement  and a bit of a promise from her “takeaway” from her subway experience.  Recalling her encounter with the stranger, Ameena wrote, “A year or so later, I have forgotten the specifics of everything she said to me, but remember getting off the train feeling light-hearted after she told me a bit about her life. We had a short but beautiful conversation.”

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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