Emotions at work – do we generally allow space for them?
Organisational health is related to a complex sequence of interactions; the people, how they are, what they are hoping to achieve, resource quality and availability, practical processes, leadership and a range of other factors.
I am a workplace mediator and my focus is on the interpersonal relationships within organisations. Are people dealing effectively with difficult and awkward personal interactions – or not? Do the employees have good skills for managing themselves and each other?
I have recently been invited to work with a few schools – helping them look at specific issues of internal conflict and after doing this work found myself reflecting on the organisational impact of negative conflict.
Let’s look at a scenario; it is based on a case that I have dealt with but names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
John is a competent and thoughtful person, section head at a large secondary school and someone who is generally well-liked by his staff. John is also someone who is used to keeping his private life separate from his work. This means that when he starts getting irritable at work, paying less attention to his staff than they are used to, no one quite understands what is going on. John hasn’t told anyone that his mother is ill nor that his wife might be leaving him. For John, that’s private. But John doesn’t realize how much of his "private life" is actually affecting the people at his job.
One member of staff, Lucy, tries to talk to him about what’s going on and John’s reaction is curt. To him, everything at work is fine and Lucy’s concerned approach makes no sense to him.
Sound familiar? Some version of this has probably happened to most of you who are reading this article. Some of you might be John, others might be Lucy, and some of you are the other staff in that office, equally affected by John’s "out of the blue" impatience and anger.
So what happens next? Most typical is that staff gather together, complaining about John’s moods, and, if it’s really bad, thinking about finding a new place to work. Maybe John doesn’t understand why staff don’t seem to come together as easily as a team or why it seems like they can’t get anything done. Maybe John feels undermined by Lucy or by anyone else who approaches him. His manager – perhaps a deputy head, is really busy and not noticing that there is a problem building. Or perhaps they have noticed but don’t know what to do about it and so are ignoring it and hoping that it will go away of its own accord.
Our personal lives are not separate from our work lives, whether we talk about them with our colleagues or not. The costs of not dealing with the personal stuff at work can be great and will have both organizational and personal consequences including, deterioration in teaching quality, grievances, staff turnover, presenteeism (people at work but not performing effectively), absenteeism, sick leave, increased complaints, stress, frustration and anxiety, loss of sleep, strained relationships and a general reduction in morale.
Many of us feel ill equipped to manage difficult conversations at work, particularly when they veer between details about our personal lives and how they affect our work lives.
Let’s go back to the story we started with. Why is John suddenly acting so strangely? Well, there could be many different things going on. John might not be comfortable talking about his personal situation – his worries and concerns at home – because he thinks that it might negatively impact his ‘work identity’; the strong competent manager he wants to be seen as – and wants to be. To admit to vulnerability can feel like a betrayal of the professional mask.
For Lucy, when she was rebuffed in her initial approach she is likely to have felt hurt and not wishing to be hurt again kept a good distance.
So we end up in a place where both people are avoiding what they see as a difficult conversation and this in turn can easily lead into a negative escalation.
There are opportunities throughout any emerging negative scenario for anyone to stop the downward spiral, but for most of us what is needed is always about stepping beyond our fears. It is not about the fear going away; it is about gathering our courage in the face of our fear and taking a step beyond it to a new place.
We often don’t notice that we are in conflict because we are so used to being in this place that it feels normal. We say things like "they are always like that" or "you just have to live with it". The reality is that we have become desensitized and have often stopped noticing that we are being hurt.
Having noticed, if we want to do something new we have to find some courage – this requires a focussed effort to get through our fear. It is easier for many of us to avoid difficult situations, we are not at ease with the feelings that arise in what we imagine will be scary situations and so we tend to retreat from them.
It is easy to read these words, but to contemplate taking a new action in a difficult situation we need something that supports us in moving towards the thing we want to run away from. We need to find an underlying desire in ourselves to try and make a positive intervention, to find a genuine place where we want things to move in a healthier direction. Getting at this place can be really tough if we are feeling hurt or humiliated by earlier events because what we may actually want is revenge rather than reconciliation.
We want the other person to know that they have hurt us and we want them to experience the same thing or worse. So we have to grapple with this as well as our fear of getting hurt.
I haven’t yet come across an easy method for achieving this change from negative to positive thinking, as a mediator I often find myself supporting people through this process– it can feel like helping John and Lucy to see that there is a human being in front of them not just a monster.
In trying to write about this topic I have a desire to offer a neat sequence of steps, a solution – do this and everything will be okay. Unfortunately I dont think that such a thing exists. Instead I offer a range of questions, some of which may help:
Trying to answer questions of this type sometimes helps me to change my perspective on a situation. If that occurs it can free me to act in a different manner – hopefully one that is more useful for both me and anyone with whom I am in conflict.
This transition allows me to get closer to the best scenario outcome rather than the worst. It is also about finding ways of being less afraid of conflict and treating conflict as something that is natural and inevitable.
If we manage to think differently about conflict it becomes neither good nor bad, just something that is present in our lives. If we accept this possibility, we can then focus on how we interact with conflict and whether this interaction leads to constructive outcomes.
A healthy and productive school (or any other organisation or group) is one with plenty of conflict that is being dealt with well by people who are open to the gifts that it can offer. It is one where people manage to step beyond their fears to a place where there is compassion, creativity and readiness to learn.
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