Ourselves: Avoiding Office Boxing Rings
Emotions are Fueling Conflict in the Workplace. How Can
We Put a Lid on Bad Human Behavior?
As you wait for the 9:00 a.m.
meeting with your co-worker, it takes all of the strength
you have not to scream. It's 9:45 and he's late again.
The scenario is played out time and again in our
workplaces and is the basis for many jokes appearing
everywhere from Dilbert to contemporary cinema.
Different people have different idiosyncrasies.
But in an already stressed-out workplace, how can we work
together without letting them interfere with our state of
mind? According to Davis Balestracci, it's all about
The idea is simple: Instead of blaming co-workers
for irritating you, blame yourself for allowing yourself
to become irritated. His simple five-step approach might
well help us learn how to save the angry energy over a
coworkers tardiness and channel it to increased
profitability for the company-and a happier lives for
For almost a decade, our society has been on
a journey of self-exploration. Leadership seminars held
by companies like Franklin/Covey encourage harnessing the
power of habit (habit, according to Covey, is the most
intimate of companions; it is representative of who we
are, and the most powerful determinant of what we will
achieve). The pursuit of self-connecting is a big part of
leisure time, also. You see it in bookstores, embodied in
the proliferation of little blank books: journal writing,
the act of finding an open page and some privacy to
explore thoughts and feelings, is one of the hottest
leisure activities today.
Surely all this self-exploration must translate
into the work environment?
Davis Balestracci, principal research analyst at
BlueCross and BlueShield of Minnesota, thinks it does.
Balestracci leads seminars around the globe on how
healthcare providers can better deal with human emotion
in the workplace. He’s on a mission to get people
to examine their deepest selves on the job, and make
better decisions based on what they find within.
If this sounds frightening to you, you’re
not alone. Balestracci admits his participants can be
trepidatious walking into his seminar the first day. But
it might be helpful to remember that we carry ourselves
with us to the workplace everyday. We can’t drive
ourselves into the parking lot if we don’t have
someone to turn the ignition key.
“We’re all human,” says
Balestracci. “We need to understand the human
emotions we bring with us to work and how they affect our
reactions to the people and situations we face.”
Without exploring our own emotions and being honest with
ourselves, Balestracci warns, day-long seminars, what he
calls “Kumbaya retreats,” won’t be
effective at propelling company improvements and
inspiring corporate change. It’ll all seem,
The Workplace is Wild!
Your office building is a ripe environment for
craziness. Silly policies and stressed out employees are
so common that even Hollywood is making fun of
white-collar USA. In the movie Office Space, a young exec
makes the mistake of printing a report on the wrong kind
of paper. He then spends his time and energy backpedaling
to save his career, and (surprise!) loses faith in the
worthiness of the cause. Kevin Spacey, in American
Beauty, takes a great deal of pleasure in telling his
boss why he should be the one to be downsized, then
waltzes into a more satisfying and decidedly downscale
job selling burgers at a drive-thru.
In the real world, most companies
aren’t that bad, but the message strikes a
“The pressure to respond to business opportunities
is creating rapid change and high-stress work
environments,” says Balestracci. Add to that the
constant readjustments in technology (have you ever
unknowingly had your software upgraded overnight, or lost
the previous two-months’ e-mail messages from a
server failure?) and the stress of balancing career and
home, and it’s no wonder the land of cubicles is
According to Balestracci, there are three more
ingredients added to this stress-laden workplace stew. As
human beings, we bring three major things to work with
us: The beliefs and values we were raised with (which
aren’t the same as Rhonda’s or Rashmi’s
on the other side of the partition wall); our
relationships (who do we naturally get along with?) and
our preconceptions, which are too often
When we bring this baggage with us to work,
it’s easy to fall into defensive behavior.
Everybody has hot buttons—a colleague who regularly
infringes on our domain, a superior who’s
unreceptive to our ideas with no explanation why.
Recognizing the hot buttons, figuring out why we’re
sensitive, and talking openly about why it bugs us is
essential to resolving the conflict and moving on.
The real trick in the workplace is to establish
new skills in each individual to consciously alter the
sense of being threatened. “The hardest part about
this is it’s a voluntary decision on the part of
the individual. It can take anywhere from two minutes to
20 years,” says Balestracci.
But there are ways to accelerate the process.
Balestracci recommends developing skills that create a
common bond among co-workers, such as open communication,
honesty and trust. These skills will dispel mixed-up
perceptions and emphasize the sharing of values and
beliefs. But it doesn’t happen overnight. For his
workshops, Balestracci insists on a five-week workshop
schedule, with two-and-a-half-hour sessions broken up by
one week each. “It takes a lot of work to change
individual behavior,” he says. “The idea of
having so much time between sessions seems inconvenient
at first, but after teaching the seminar many times,
it’s clear that participants see the method to the
madness.” Altering beliefs is a slow transition
that starts with awareness, and that’s why
Balestracci emphasizes self-discovery as the greatest
tool for improving quality in the workplace.
To Thine Own Self, Be Honest
As the old saying goes, “Know thyself.”
Know thy motives, recognize thy behavior. In response to
a hot button, defensive behavior is reactionary. Instead,
we all need to step back and evaluate what we feel and
why we feel that way. If we acquire the habit of
evaluating our response before we react on it, the
outcome will more likely be what Balestracci refers to as
Above-the-line behavior requires each of us to
deal with our own hot buttons, to identify not only how
other people are contributing to the problem, but how we
contribute to the problem as well. “Identify the
actions you could have taken, and why you didn’t
take them,” Balestracci says. What insights do you
have upon exploring your own preconceptions and beliefs?
What changes can you make? What perceptions and beliefs
are in your way? Most likely, the resulting action you
take, after this kind of self-reflection, will be
Addressing human emotion in the workplace is
essential to a well-functioning environment, and yet it
scares so many people, especially when colleagues are
asked to be honest about emotional issues in face-to-face
workshops. But Balestracci wouldn’t have it any
other way. In his workshops at BlueCross and BlueShield,
officemates sit together and sort through facts and
feelings, learning to be truthful and compassionate in
Balestracci takes a five-step approach to
identifying defensive behavior and making the transition
to above-the-line behavior. Each workshop participant
1. Identify the biggest frustration facing you, and how
you and others have contributed to the problem.
2. Identify specifically how others contributed to the
problem, and then specifically how you contributed.
3. Assume responsibility for the entire situation. What
could you have done to prevent it?
4. Without blaming yourself, why did you decide not to
take actions to prevent the problem?
5. What insights do you have? What changes would you
make? What attitudes and behaviors are in your way?
By participating in the workshops over several
weeks, people ease into new behaviors, take on common
values, and gain healthier perceptions about their
“People learn that above-the-line behavior is
healthy behavior,” says Balestracci. “Taking
responsibility for our own feelings—and the way we
act on them—is a conscious choice, and it’s
based in the realization that the only person we can
change is ourselves.”