Light and Shadows in the Workplace

Abstract

Every workplace is infused with light and shadows. The present paper attempts to define major factors of grisaille or sunshine within an organization. The shadowy aspects come from elements which gravely harm its development and the growth of its members. By contrast light radiates from the competence, mutual support and good spirits that may reign in a place of work. All members of a given milieu contribute to the creation of shadows and light, whether they are in the first ranks or top of the administrative hierarchy.

Belonging

The luminous aspect of work is characterized, both among first line employees and managerial personnel, by a sense of belonging in the accomplishment of a common task. In a group where strong interpersonal task-oriented solidarity has developed, the feeling of togetherness is usually a potent motivator: it truly is if group strength is based on mutual support in the pursuit of common goals. This exerts attraction not only on members of the group mentioned but on other workers who are in contact with them. People who belong to such an attractive group usually share a congenial atmosphere, even when their work is difficult. This collective spirit can be represented by the expression: “together we can do it”. We shall see later on what conditions favour the development of such solidarity.

In most employees who have not become dispirited or cynical, for example in new recruits, a strong desire to become full members of their work group may be observed, which is matched by an implicit expectation of acceptance and support by their seniors. This need manifests itself in interaction with co-workers, unit chiefs and middle level managers, sometimes with clients, ultimately reaching to upper management. Where does such need for acceptance and support come from?

Attributing it to some personality defect would be an error. Based on my work in several organizations, I propose that daily work and life in general comprise difficult elements which challenge everyone with very strong demands. If the load becomes too burdensome, it can drive someone to the brink of psychological distress. Then support by coworkers, reinforced by immediate or middle level managers, becomes an imperious, practically indispensable resource. If support is offered and accepted, equilibrium is restored and the person concerned is steadied in his or her ability to cope with the problems at hand. By contrast, in moments of great emotional frailty, indifference or hostility by colleagues, rigidity, authoritarian demands or even simple “professional distance” by managers may cause intolerable surcharge, be perceived by the person in distress as a kind of treason. A combination of such attitudes may easily become a potent factor of physical and emotional exhaustion.

Solidarity or Feelings of Alienation

Two vectors underpin the interaction dynamics which link together the members of an organization. Such dynamics may create a climate of mutual support or, on the contrary, generate powerful feelings of alienation (not being part of, being “other”, excluded). It finds its origin in two main sources: how the work is done and the personal history of each employee. Let me explain further.

Errors

Voluntarily or not, certain clients or recipients of a service, whether directly, through the phone, mail or e-mail, cause technical or relational problems. Some are verbally aggressive, a few individuals make threats of physical harm and, in rare cases, they act out or try to do it. In such circumstances the employee directly concerned lives through difficult moments, varying from mild fear to terror; in reaction he or she feels a whole range of emotions, from mild aggressiveness to barely controllable rage. Then it is likely that errors are committed on the technical or relational levels, that professional objectivity, a virtue highly recommended in an administrative environment, becomes hampered or lost.

Professional objectivity may also be forgotten for a quite different reason, this time not through aggressiveness but by sympathy for a client in trouble or evidently in distress. Then any person with a minimum of compassion will try to make reasonable accommodations in applying the official rules. In turn, those flexible adjustments may be perceived by colleagues and administrators as unacceptable.

Finally a mistake may be due to a number of other reasons related to technical aspects, personality traits or the life circumstances of an employee.

In all of those cases the employee infringes upon administrative rules or, even though no rule has been broken, an application judged as too indulgent or too strict may bring reproach and sanctions from other workers or managers. From colleagues sanctions are usually expressed by words or behaviour, often in the form of distance, exclusion, indifference, ridicule or clearly worded hostility. Authority figures will go from discreet reminders to activating the administrative machine : official letters in the employee’s file, reports to upper tiers of authority, meetings with union, administration or joint committees, temporary suspension, dismissal. Submitted to such treatment, an employee may go through highly painful experiences, come to work as if entering prison, loose sleep and appetite, live under the impression of being held in contempt by all. It is a free fall into the dark areas of the workplace, aptly described by the expression “descent into Hell”. A voyage of this type usually leads directly to the doctor’s office, with a prescription of antidepressants and a recommendation for a prolonged sickness leave of absence.

Can this be avoided? Can we even reverse the trend and return towards air and light? Yes, certainly.

Correcting Errors

Someone who has made a serious mistake at work feels ill at ease well before any corrective action has been taken by colleagues or managers. Often he or she is besieged by self-reproaches and feelings of great insecurity. In such a predicament, losing support from colleagues and authority figures will aggravate the stress. To become the object of a cascade of sanctions confirms one’s worse fears, pushing the stress level to the breaking point.

Furthermore, individual distress may quickly degenerate into deterioration of the atmosphere of the work group since a besieged individual will necessarily enter into defensive actions, seeking support, fighting presumed enemies or adopting self-destructive behaviour. An antidote against this type of contamination may be quickly exerted by colleagues and immediate managers if they adopt toward the person in distress a posture of listening and caring. Being a good listener and accepting the individual concerned as a person distinct from the mistake(s) committed do not mean acceptance of the reproved behaviour. They emit a non-verbal signal that could be translated as follows: “I accept you as a person, but this does not mean you are infallible. Accepting you in this manner, I would like to know as exactly as possible what happened, if you really want to tell me.”

Here let us open a parenthesis on empathy, a resource initially developed in helping relationships.  It is accessible to anyone who wants to use it. Empathy allows one to feel other people’s feelings without losing consciousness of one’s individuality, while sympathy leads to suffering with the other by identifying with him or her.

Follows a patient effort to reconstitute the facts and circumstances in which they happened, without preconceived judgment on the part of the listener. Curiously enough, fact reconstitution often leads to a balanced view of what really happened, with a relatively clear perception of the direct or indirect contributions of all actors in a given situation. In the same vein, if a mistake was effectively committed ways and means to correct the error tend to reveal themselves. When no error happened, elucidating the situation immediately becomes possible, as well as a valid interpretation to all concerned. When an error did happen, the approach already described allows to creatively search for solutions functionally related to the problem instead of rushing to sanctions. A process of this type is efficient at the motivation level: it associates the individual concerned in searching for solutions rather than simply imposing a sanction that will depreciate him or her in the eyes of colleagues and managers.

This approach may be adopted both by colleagues and authority figures. It does not set aside comprehension and emotional intelligence for managerial personnel only. On the contrary it presents these features as modalities of interaction between all human beings, accessible to anyone who wishes to practice openness of heart and mind, whatever his rank in the organizational hierarchy.

Leadership

Here one must distinguish between official leadership, linked to the post occupied by each employee, and spontaneous leadership, depending on the personality and behaviour of each individual. In a large organization, jurisdictions are carefully allotted to officially sanctioned functions which, in turn, are entrusted to specific individuals. This fact erroneously lead incumbents of low status posts to believe they cannot have influence in their work place, and the higher ups in the hierarchy to think they have a quasi monopoly on leadership. As the song proclaims, “it ain’t necessarily so”. Natural, spontaneous leadership manifests itself in day to day activities according to the vicissitudes of life at work. The social climate of a work group depends as much on the moods and actions of first line workers as it does reflect those of administration or union chiefs. Literally, the social climate is everyone’s business; it results from inputs by all members of a given administrative unit, plus those by the heads of the hierarchy. Thus is created a work climate which, in real life, may be located as somewhere between heavenly and hellish, with attending consequences on the operations of the whole organization and the welfare of its members.

Aspects Related to Individual Personalities

The social climate of a workplace depends on three factors:

  • the energy each individual invests in accomplishing his task,
  • the level of solidarity manifested by colleagues,
  • how much support is brought in by management.

These   three factors interact in a systemic way, in the sense that they exert mutual influence on each other, for better or worse. None of them may be considered as a primary or single cause.

Furthermore, the interaction system just described is incomplete, one must add to it personality factors pertaining to each employee, to each person in a managerial position. On the basis of observations made in several workplaces, I have identified a number of personality traits that strongly influence the social climate of a work group, namely

  • emotional difficulties reaching back to early childhood,
  • tendencies to establish dominant-dominated relationships,
  • rivalries and jealousies with colleagues who occupy highly-coveted posts,
  • rivalries and jealousies related to sentimental life.

Persons Affected By Emotional Deprivation

An individual who has lacked adequate mothering or fathering harbours strong impressions of emotional emptiness, of being generally unsatisfied : his major relationship modality is to constantly seek attention, services, favours, loans of money. He or she is very often in trouble, needing to be saved from a painful situation. Such persons have a low level of autonomy. In addition they are rather impervious to many qualities that favour group life: discretion, the ability to listen, observing implicit codes of conduct (what can be told or not, dressing codes, humour, how to pass indirect messages or understand them). Hence they are rapidly labelled as annoying, tiresome or worse, harassing.

They are prone to become scapegoats of their group, the authorities or both, a situation where painful treatments inflicted upon them are justified by their authors as ways to correct the faulty behaviour of the “culprit”. Basically, they are not intentionally at fault but in a state of emotional pain that requires urgent intervention.

Here action by colleagues able to express empathy without being overwhelmed by the internal disarray of their work mate may act as a powerful antidote to exclusion or constant hostility. This type of action will not accomplish miracles with the person here described, but it will allow him to find a minimum of acceptance in his work group and function more or less adequately, which will relieve those who “can’t stand him”.

Of course, acceptance by a few colleagues will not suffice to integrate in a work group an emotionally deprived person. Immediate and intermediary level managers have an important role to play in personalizing their relationship with the individual in question in order to bring him immediate support and, in a longer time perspective, orient him towards expert help. In addition, they are well placed to interpret their intervention to the other members of the work team, primarily those who are prone to rejection, so that support by colleagues and authorities is not perceived as weakness or favouritism. In a given workplace, people affected by emotional deprivation (there are always such persons at every level of the organization) constitute in a certain way a test of the empathy level of their colleagues, their managers and, often, of their subordinates.

Dominant-Dominated

A general tendency to establish a dominant-dominated rapport is another element that may poison the work climate. We are not talking here of leadership qualities; we are speaking of a constant dictatorial will to submit the interlocutor. Whether such an attitude is adopted by colleagues or managers is equally detrimental. The individual who wants to dominate in all circumstances inevitably provokes in his interlocutors a submission, “freeze” or rebellion reflex. Submission may be the expected answer by the dominant, but its undertow effect is to elicit very strong unconscious anger in the person who is dominated. Aggressiveness provoked by dictatorial behaviour may express itself in an attitude of “waiting for the day I will be dominant” or will be transferred onto other people of easier access, or may be turned against the very person who accepts domination. When such a climate prevails in a work group there is great danger of someone becoming the scapegoat of the dominant or, sometimes, of the whole work team plus managers.

The other reaction, namely freeze or conscious rebellion, may take several forms:

  • avoidance of contact with the dominating individual,
  • immediate counterattacks resulting in endless quarrels,
  • vengeful ruminations, complaints to colleagues or managers,
  • plots to overthrow the presumed “tyrant”.

Thus the social climate of a whole team, or for that matter of a whole organization, may rapidly deteriorate to a severe degree, with a sequence of grievances, resignations, sick leaves, requests for transfer to other work teams.  The dominant-dominated dynamics bring, within a work team, a split between the submissive, the rebels and the neutrals. Usually the submissive flee, the rebels fight while the neutrals do their utmost not to be part of anything. Hence at atmosphere of mini-civil war is created which may contaminate other work teams and some of the managers, or both.

The antidote to this predicament lies in the hands of those who will exert leadership, formal or not, in favour of equalitarian relationships. The objective is not to negate all difference between levels of responsibility but to establish the value of each individual as a fundamental basis of work relationships. The motto could be “statuses and responsibilities differ but, as human beings, we are all equal in rights.” In that perspective, differences in tasks, levels of authority or types of personality do not justify tyrannical domination (“to the prince’s fancy”), rather they are prerequisites to functional operations within the organization. This also invites people with equalitarian views to seek positions of authority where they will be able to lead in a democratic fashion by supporting colleagues and subordinates. In the same vein, any abuse of power will be countered, either by direct confrontation of the authoritarian person or by tactical strategic actions oriented towards restoring or maintaining an equalitarian climate. Here leadership abilities marked by openness to others is an indispensable factor for the creation and sustenance of a stimulating workplace, where solidarity is encouraged by top management.

Rivalries and Jealousies

Many difficulties in work relationships arise from rivalries and jealousies linked to nominations of colleagues to coveted posts, or dissatisfaction with the leadership style of a given manager. Some people are very competitive and link their personal value to rising in the hierarchy or occupying a very specific function in the work team. If nominations to higher posts or specific responsibilities are not entrusted as wished, the individual concerned feels personally attacked or downgraded. For that matter, becoming hierarchically subordinate to somebody after previously occupying his post is a difficult experience. Most probably the new “boss” will be considered by his ex-boss as totally off the mark in his leadership.

Rivalries and jealousies between two persons, at a deeper level than strictly behaviour, bring the wish to eliminate the competitor. The individual who feels in danger to be eliminated will react in self-defence and, depending on the way he or she manages his-her aggressiveness, will resort to counterattack, flight or freeze. Here again such moves, by the initial aggressor or the individual attacked, will bring a search for allies, potentially generating factions that will compete for dominance or generalized ganging-up against one individual used as scapegoat. Sometimes collective anger focuses on a given manager and makes things really rough for him or her.

A positive outcome to competition is possible when rivals agree to subordinate their personal wishes to the development of the organization they belong to. Otherwise, self-protection or self-promotion of a few ambitious individuals become predominant, creating an atmosphere I would qualify as “paranoid”, where suspicion, backbiting and plotting reign supreme. In those cases, higher management may intervene by truly promoting professional and relational competence as the prime criteria for nominations and promotions, while natural leaders in first lines may create informal alliances in favour of a climate where peaceful harmonious relationships become more important than individual ego-enhancement.

Heart Issues

« L’amour est enfant de bohème » sings Carmen. In a workplace the quest for love is constantly active, although officially it has no place there. The love quest breeds all kinds of intrigues, pushing one towards another who may perceive the move as agreeable or, on the contrary, out of place, offensive, ridicule, intolerable. In turn, colleagues or management will react to such desire related actions-reactions in a variety of ways, ranging from encouragement to “laisser faire”, envy, jealousy. The latter will generate retaliation, hostility, denunciation and repressive actions. Here again, the work climate may be disturbed for the vagaries of the heart interest almost everyone and news about them, verified or not, spread with the speed of light.

At the level of internal feelings desire is irrepressible. No one can truly refrain from feeling, and feeling constantly brings surprises.  It is only at the level of behaviour that self-governance is possible. I cannot help feeling something, but I can decide what I will do with that feeling: keep it internal or express in a variety of ways to one or more persons. So a basic question in any work situation is: “Faced with the force of libido and its powerful tendency to express itself, what can be done?” First of all examine one’s own attitude towards desire. Have I made peace with my own impulses towards others, how? Can I accept that someone may feel desire for me or for others? There is here no hint that everything is acceptable. Social life is impossible unless the expression of desire respects a number of agreed upon implicit or explicit guidelines. Anything imposed by force, trickery, threat or harassment in unacceptable. In the case of sexual harassment, let me try to specify the term. I believe that polite expression of a desire for contact with someone cannot be defined as an attack, even though the recipient of the offer may feel embarrassed. On the other hand if the expression of desire is depreciative, insulting, repeated, if it does not take into account the limits or refusal of the person concerned, then we are faced with harassment.

What about the individual who may engage in harassment? Before condemning him or her immediately to all kinds of sanctions, let us try to understand the underlying personal dynamics, a suggestion that in no way approves or condones harassment. Among people accused of harassing others, one often finds individuals with severe emotional deprivation or persons who have not learned to manage their libido. A feeling of emotional void, usually linked with the relative or total absence of adequate parental figures, may push the affected person to define someone as the living incarnation of the ideal mother or father who is sorely missed. Then the individual in need will be attracted by the idealized other as if by an irresistible force, declaring feelings that are in reality requests for rather than offers of love.

If the idealized person responds by outright rejection, ridicule or counterattack, the individual suffering from emotional deprivation goes into deeper pain. He may react by retreating and seeking elsewhere the emotional support he lacks, but he may also convince himself that by persisting in his approach he will eventually win over the courted person’s acceptance. Persisting, the seeker may be perceived as harassing, be treated as such and become the object of a stream of sanctions by workmates or management. In worse cases, the search for contact with someone who responds negatively is transformed into hate for the rejecter. Then extreme actions may be resorted to. Heartaches sometimes reach the danger zone.

So what can a courted person do if he or she does not accept a given offer of contact? Let us specify quickly that everyone is absolutely free to accept such an offer. But everything depends on how refusal is expressed. Refusal to enter into a process leading to intimacy is not necessarily a rejection of all types of relationship. Someone receiving an offer to enter a relationship that soon proves to be an introduction to more intense encounters  may well define clear limits, such as correct interaction at work but no more. If the suitor continues trying to convince, the limiting attitude may be maintained with added firmness, without hostility. This message may be reinforced by sympathetic colleagues and even authority figures who will help the seeker find elsewhere a needed response to his or her affective needs. Thus may be avoided escalation of requests-refusals that may quickly reach the crisis point, sometimes with serious consequences, and spread out to the whole work team. In rare occasions when a frustrated seeker of contact with a work mate may become violent and act out, professional help must immediately by reached, well before major sanctions are applied such as dismissal or legal actions.

If improper behaviour is engaged into by someone who does not evidently suffer from emotional deprivation but has a low level of self-control, three forms of intervention are functional : first, the definition of clear limits by the courted person, completed by support from colleagues who are in good terms with the seeker. If this is not sufficient, firm intervention by a higher authority figure will usually be efficient, reinforced if need be by gradual sanctions.

Conclusion

The work milieu and, above all, its social climate may push in two opposite directions : develop the feeling of belonging and solidarity, highly motivating, or breed alienation, loss of motivation, disengagement, mutual aggressions. In this domain both members and official leaders of a work team may reinforce group cohesion or severely hamper it. When a significant minority of members show empathy and collaboration, their group’s social climate favours quality of work and personal development of members. When they veer into indifference, cynicism or authoritarianism, the negative repercussions are immediate on the quality of work and the psychological state of the whole work team.

A group may find itself in temporary trouble which impedes its capacity to function in harmony. In such situations, hope is placed in management. People expect managers to be comprehensive and competent, rapidly finding solutions to technical, logistical or relational problems. In other words, it is expected from administrative managers that they will be attentive to the needs of first line workers and rapidly send appropriate resources to “the frontlines”. If upper management responds to such requests with mistrust, hostility, controls that are perceived as excessive or useless, or by doubting the competence of first line workers, the employees feel abandoned to their wits. They rapidly become demotivated. When management pays attention to the needs of first line workers and manifestly tries to answer them, the employees feel supported, even though long delays may have to be tolerated before solutions are effectively brought to bear.

Let us now talk about higher management members, who are the objects of high expectations. They validate or not the work accomplished in first lines. They link the work organization to administrative and political structures, obtain required budgets. From higher management, in collaboration with several administrative and professional collaborators, comes the general orientation of work and the personnel training programs.

To first line workers, when all else fails in relations with middle level management, colleagues or certain customers, higher management becomes the ultimate recourse. An attitude of listening, professional and personal support, orientation to appropriate resources, discreet efficient administrative action, all of this may create the difference between discouragement and investment in work of renewed energy. Inversely, what is perceived in first lines of work as indifference or worse still, hostility, incites to withdrawal, resigning, counter-manipulation or outright conflict.

This being said, all members of an organization, top managers included, need empathic responses from co-workers to adequately fulfil their roles and find personal accomplishment. A work milieu is basically a human network, a system of relationships where mutual support based on listening and comprehension acts as oxygen in a biological organism. Its almost total absence or severe rationing push everyone to self-protect by flight, attack or passive resistance, creating a very dark work climate, the world of shadows mentioned in the title of this paper. By contrast, a work environment marked by a climate of emotional openness, comprehension and cooperation inspires a feeling of well-being that sometimes reaches euphoria. Then light reigns abundant.

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