Creating a Winning Atmosphere at Work

If everyone would like to work in a thriving and nurturing environment, why is it that almost no one loves being at work? Most of us accept the drudgery, tolerate the personal undermining and the adversarial communication because we don`t realize there is a better way.

So What’s This All About?

We are not destined to work in an environment where the most we have to look forward to is Friday afternoon. There are specific steps that can be taken to begin to reclaim some of the enthusiasm, some of the air of celebration and some of the fundamental respect for individual human dignity that is apparent within flourishing business organizations and on championship teams. What is required is to learn to:

1. Not take people`s actions personally.

2. Listen with compassion.

3. Just hear people`s communication.

4. Give up the need to be right.

5. Not tolerate abusive behavior.

6. Not sell out.

7. Look for the best in people.

8. Acknowledge people.

9. Forgive others.

10. Communicate upsets

Let’s Talk About This…

Recently, I was riding an elevator down from a Friday afternoon visit to the high-rise offices of a consultant friend, when the car stopped on one of the lower floors. After the doors opened, two well dressed professional women in their late twenties trudged in simultaneously. They both slumped against the handrail, knowingly exchanged exhausted glances, and then released long relieving sighs.

“What happened to you two,” I asked.

“We work for a law firm,” replied the first matter-of-factly.

“Thank God its the weekend,” rejoiced the second.

After more than 16 years as management coaches and consultants to hundreds of service organizations and a wide variety of companies, we are convinced that the sentiment expressed by these two capable and self-assured women was certainly not unique to their firm, law firms in general or even companies in general.

If everyone would like to work in a thriving, enlivening and nurturing environment, why is it that almost no one loves being at work?

Contrast the environment within the typical company with the vitality and enthusiasm of a championship sports team. Though recent Wimbledon doubles champions Gigi Fernandez and Natalia Zvereva, worked intensely, their team eluded an air of celebration and unstoppability. They both pulled together despite their individual positions on the court. On the sidelines they seemed to genuinely care about one another, and they seemed able to include and resolve their personal differences. Which of us wouldn`t want this kind of excitement and aliveness duplicated in our workplace. Yet in the face of this possibility, the management and employees within most companies seem resigned to the impossibility of its fulfillment.

Why is it that most of us simply acquiesce when confronted by the drudgery and suffering that, according to seemingly every statistical measure, characterizes life within the many companies? Why is it that given the possibility of real fulfillment and satisfaction demonstrated by championship teams and by other successful organizations, we tolerate the gossip, petty jealousy, personal undermining and adversarial communication that seem to pervade many offices, assured of the inevitability of this condition? The answer to these questions is not very complicated. Human beings, have failed to learn two fundamental lessons of their own existence: how to live with themselves and how to live with each other. The critical nature of empowering human relationships has long been overlooked in the workplace.

Recently, these fundamental failures have been popularly discussed in the context of codependency. First promoted by psychologists Virginia Satir and Don Jackson in the 1960`s, the notions of codependency assert that children learn to communicate within the family system in order to ensure their own survival and the satisfaction of their own needs. As adults these structures of behavior and communication have become habitual and involuntary, and they provide the world view through which all of our experience and perception are filtered and interpreted.

According to the psychologists, however, most family systems are fundamentally dysfunctional, operating with unspoken rules, such as “don`t talk”, “don`t trust”, and “don`t feel”, and the survival mechanisms produced within these dysfunctional systems inhibit communication, lower self-esteem and stand in the way of realistic goal setting and achievement. In the workplace these mechanisms negatively impact our interaction with coworkers and clients.

The result of these codependent behaviors is an environment of suppressed emotion, distrust, alienation, anger and a pervasive sense of personal insufficiency. Individual attention is on oneself: trying to make it; trying to prove one`s adequacy; trying to garner acknowledgement; trying to gain approval and appreciation.

The typical work environment has become one in which many of us feel that no one appears to really care, and no acknowledgement takes place. Errors and mistakes provoke attack, derision and reprimand while correct and even excellent performance goes seemingly unnoticed and unappreciated. Risk taking and creativity are inhibited, distrust increases, communication is suppressed, attorneys complain that staff members aren`t motivated, and we express our natural enthusiasm on the weekend in gardening, in tennis or in community service.

Is this condition inevitable? Are we destined to an environment where the most we have to look forward to is Friday afternoon? Not at all. There are specific steps that can be taken to begin to reclaim some of the enthusiasm, some of the air of celebration and some of the fundamental respect for individual human dignity that is apparent within flourishing business organizations or on championship teams:

1. Don`t take it personally

Given the dysfunctional communication strategies demonstrated by most adults, repressed anger and upset are frequently brewing just beneath the surface within many individuals. Their angry and offensive outbursts have little or nothing to do with any occurrence in the present moment. Some unresolved upset from the past has simply been triggered and bursts forth in an inappropriate manner.

For example, an employee has had a fight with a spouse, associate or customer, and because the issue which precipitated the argument remained unresolved, the anger and upset has been suppressed. Once in the office, the tension mounts. Later in the day the employee notices an insignificant error in a report you prepared, and all Hell breaks loose. Under such circumstances does it make sense to take this outburst personally? Logically, the answer is no. Taking someone else`s anger personally is insane because it simply never is a personal phenomenon. This is not to say, however, that it is easy to remain calm in the face of another persons` anger, recognizing that it is not personal. It is never easy, but armed with this insight you can begin to develop an ability to stand firmly in the face of another`s upset without taking it as a personal attack.

2. Listen with compassion

Life is a difficult and challenging enterprise for everyone, and this fundamental truth goes largely unrecognized. Attention on oneself caused by one`s sense of insufficiency negates the ability to really see others clearly. That others may be suffering, that others may be in pain, that others may also be self-consumed is largely obscured by our own overwhelming concerns, survival strategies or painful circumstances. Yet, similar concerns, similar survival strategies, and similar painful circumstances are common experiences shared by all others. To one extent or another, no one is free from the difficulties of day-to-day living.

Given this knowledge, rather than reacting to someone`s anger or upset, it is possible for you to deeply appreciate his or her feelings and experience. Rather than reacting to someone`s anger or upset, it is useful and necessary for you to demonstrate empathy. Remember, there but for the grace of God go I.

3. Just hear the communication

In order to lessen tension within the workplace, it is necessary to provide a safe environment for open, honest communication. Get people to talk about what is going on with them, to describe their present experience, and then just listen. Don`t respond. Don`t offer advice. Don`t try to console. Just listen with compassion and understanding.

People are not interested in an intelligent response, nor do they want your well intentioned advice or sincere consolation. What most of us want is simply to be heard, and in the vast number of cases, quiet and attentive listening will allow the upset to disappear.

What makes this most difficult for us is that the unresolved upset from the past, which is the actual source of another`s anger, remains invisible, and the upset individual will erroneously direct his or her anger at whom ever triggered this repressed episode. The natural tendency under these circumstances is for us to defend or counterattack, and unfortunately, this negates any possibility of producing an environment conducive to real happiness and satisfaction.

4. Give up the need to be right

This is really tough. For most human beings, the necessity to be right, the unconscious desire to win is all important. This drive, this necessity is expressed with employees, coworkers and even with family. Individuals are reduced to objects, and friends and family are sacrificed simply to preserve an egocentric point of view. We would rather be right, would rather win the argument than coexist happily, but being right and being happy are mutually exclusive.

When we are confronted by another`s dearly held position, charging forward in denial or counterattack in an attempt to prove a counterpoint only adds fuel to the fire. Can there be any peaceful resolution under such circumstances? The challenge here is for us to listen with compassion and understanding and allow the other person to communicate fully even if it is tinged with accusation.

5. Don`t tolerate abusive behavior

Listening with compassion and demonstrating empathy for another`s circumstances does not mean becoming the whipping boy for everyone`s inappropriate expression of anger. Do not tolerate abuse. Insist on being treated with dignity and respect, and establish and maintain appropriate boundaries with others.

Should an angry coworker persist in an attack, express concern for his or her upset, but state clearly your unwillingness to tolerate abusive behavior. Leave the present situation if necessary. Buy time by walking away until cooler heads prevail. Later, return to the “scene of the crime” and give the person an opportunity to communicate, and it may be wise to request the presence of an intermediary to facilitate both parties` communication.

6. Don`t sell out

In a competitive environment where everyone is trying to prove some personal value and survive, fear and intimidation are frequently the tools used to control and manipulate others. We all know when we have failed to stand up for ourselves which inevitably results in negative self-evaluation. The truth of the matter is that we either behave consistent with our own standards of behavior and produce the results we intend, or we are left with the justifications, excuses and reasons for failing to produce those results. Selling out always precludes the possibility of satisfactory results, perpetuates the mechanism of dysfunctional communication and diminishes our self-esteem.

7. Look for the best in people

George Allen, the late coach of the Washington Redskins, was legendary in his ability to take a group of older, veteran players which other coaches had written off, and mold them into a championship team. Coach Allen looked for and expected the best from his players, and as a consequence they played beyond what others might perceive as their limitations. George Allen stood for their greatness and enthusiastically cheered and supported them. Finally, Coach Allen always took a very personal interest in his players, remembering their backgrounds and college careers long after they had left the NFL.

Is this the ordinary way coworkers operate with each other? Clearly not. Attention on oneself caused by one`s own sense of insufficiency drives people into competition with one another and creates a bias toward critical, negative analysis of another in order to enhance one`s own social standing and appearance. We literally look for the worst in others in an attempt to conceal or dilute our own self-perceived shortcomings by comparison.

In order to counter this seemingly natural tendency, learn to look for and expect the best in all coworkers and become everyone else`s greatest fan. What is it about each individual that makes him or her a valuable contribution to the firm? Who are these people really, and what are their best attributes and strengths? Merely casual relationships with coworkers and clients makes this kind of positive assessment impossible.

8. Acknowledge people

In his book, The One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard mentions the importance of catching people in the act of doing something right and praising them for it. Likewise, the great management theorist, Frederick Herzberg demonstrated that recognition and a sense of accomplishment provide the greatest levels of motivation and increased employee productivity once a minimally acceptable level of financial security had been achieved.

Everyone craves positive attention, for most individuals live with a sense of insufficiency and of their own shortcomings. Look for opportunities to acknowledge coworkers. What positive impact are they making on the firm? Acknowledge people for doing a good job, for making a deadline, for keeping their promises. Acknowledge them for their appearance, for the way they manage their workload, or for the way they treat others. Always remember to keep it authentic and sincere, and look for and find numerous opportunities to thank people for the many large and small contributions that they make to the firm.

Not only is it important to acknowledge people for their actions and behaviors, but it is also important for you to thank individuals for the intangible contributions that they make, for their sincerity, for their commitment and their enthusiasm. Thank people for who they are and what they bring to the party. Acknowledge them for caring, for their smile, for their devotion and loyalty.

9. Forgive others

True forgiveness requires giving up resentment against and the desire to punish; it necessitates pardon, the cessation of anger and the ability to overlook. The definition also states, “to give as before; grace.” Given the unconscious desire to win at all costs and the necessity to be right, we tend to hold on to every injustice, every wrong, every resentment and every regret. What often goes unnoticed is that unforgiven resentments must always be suppressed, managed or controlled. They arise again and again whenever the person who is the object of the resentment comes into the room or is mentioned in conversation. What makes matters worse is that the suppressed anger also arises whenever any similar instance resembles a past transgression. Resentments divert attention, breed gossip and provoke physical illness.

For your own sanity, it is critically important to forgive others. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself and to another. Forgiveness does not deny the inappropriate nature of another`s acts; it does not condone or tolerate future abuse, but in forgiveness, in giving up the resentment and the right to punish, you are left with serenity, freedom and peace of mind.

Forgiveness necessitates a commitment to something greater than your desire to win the argument, to be right at any cost. While this would seem like a simple requirement, in practice it is not. However, by confronting the price that is paid for an unwillingness to forgive, your ability to let go of the harms of the past can be developed.

10. Communicate upsets

Human beings live in the illusion that unexpressed anger, upset and disappointment will simply disappear over time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like resentments, unexpressed upsets inevitably arise again and again. They divert your attention and sap energy. Moreover, unfulfilled expectations, thwarted intentions and undelivered communications – the stuff of which upsets are made – provide the evidence by which other individuals are tried and sentenced.

Upsets necessarily and predictably result in your judgment of another who is perceived as the source of your upset; this decision requires your quiet accumulation of further evidence demonstrating its accuracy; finally, this accumulation of evidence results in your termination of the former relationship and the estrangement of the individual. Only communication can break this cycle. Only communication can provide salvation for continued viable and productive relationships.

Upsets are best communicated as a report on your own feelings and emotional state rather than as an indictment of another`s actions or behaviors. For example, the statement, “When you…, I feel…,” is an effective model of this kind of communication. This takes the emphasis off the other individual`s behavior and puts it squarely where it belongs, on your feelings about the behavior which are rooted in an unremembered episode from the past.

To Wrap it All Up Nice and Neat

None of these specific steps are particularly easy. They all require clear awareness of your own emotional state and behavioral patterns; they require a rigorous commitment to the possibility of real dignity and satisfaction in human interaction, and they require a practical discipline in their implementation as they all run counter to many of our typical reactions as human beings under stress. With practice though, these steps do offer the real possibility of a work environment characterized by genuine satisfaction, smooth productivity and authentic enthusiasm. Our lives in the workplace can continue to be spent in anger and frustration; they can continue to be used up endlessly proving our sufficiency and self-worth; they can remain devoted to faulting others and justifying ourselves, or they can be dedicated to creating a profession of genuine human interaction, partnership and peace.

Copyright 1992 Legal Management
Copyright 1999, 2001, 2006 Scott Hunter

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