ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - September 2000
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Issue Highlight - Remembering What Matters
-  Peter Block explains the need to look deeper than fashion and technological trends to find meaning in our homes and workplaces.

 In This Issue...
Living Impossible Dreams
Ouch! Is it Time to Redesign Your Systems?
Searching Ourselves: Avoiding Office Boxing Rings
Believe It or Not— Workplace Bias Still Exists

Bedtime Stories for Your Organization
Economy Breeds Short-Sightedness

 Features...
Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Pageturners
Heard on the Street



Searching Ourselves: Avoiding Office Boxing Rings
Emotions are Fueling Conflict in the Workplace. How Can We Put a Lid on Bad Human Behavior?


Summary:
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 self-exploration.
  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 ourselves.


  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, well...soul-less.

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 chord.
“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 running amok.

 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 cynical.

Defense! Defense!

  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.”

  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 above-the-line behavior.

  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 the process.

  Balestracci takes a five-step approach to identifying defensive behavior and making the transition to above-the-line behavior. Each workshop participant must:

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 environment.

 “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.”

     
         September 2000 NFC Homepage

 

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