Does Your Office Need an Intervention?
by Cheryl Dolan and Faith Oliver
“If there’s one thing the winners of the Boston Globe’s 100 Top Places to Work have in common, it’s this: They all believe it’s good business to keep employees satisfied, motivated, and working hard. Show them respect,” says Shirley Leung, assistant managing editor of business news for the Globe.
But not every company is so lucky. In fact, many organizations are bastions of dysfunction, where overwork and stress fuel negative and aggressive behaviors. For example, take bullying — one of those behaviors which tends to spike up during stressful times. One recent study states, “37% of the U.S. workforce (an est. 54 million Americans) report being bullied at work; an additional 12% witness it. 49% of workers. Simultaneously 45% report neither experiencing nor witnessing bullying. Hence, a silent epidemic.”
If this sounds like your company, maybe you need an office intervention.
Some say dysfunctional workplace behaviors, such as bullying and aggression, are just part of work, that they don’t affect the bottom line, and that people should just “knock it off,” and get back to business. But the results of this thinking deeply negatively impact business. “The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person — or of an organization. It impairs analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem solving,” says David Rock ofStrategy+Business.
For one such company, an employee engagement survey revealed poor morale, rampant relational aggression, and a bully at the center. Leadership hadn’t addressed the dysfunctional dynamic, and staff members weren’t held accountable for workplace relationships.
As advisors to this company, we focused on changing the entire environment requiring leadership to be intimately involved, claim full responsibility for the state of the workplace, include/support HR, and make a public commitment to do what it takes to create a thriving, functional workplace.
And the results? “Two years after we finished our ‘office intervention,’ morale is still great, productivity is consistently high, several new initiatives have been introduced and successfully implemented by staff, no one has left, several people have been promoted. It continues to work!” declared the COO.
So we think office interventions are a good way to combat dysfunction in the workplace. But you don’t need to hire consultants to make the change in your own workplace. The key components are to create a context of trust, mutual responsibility, and mutual accountability. That’s not so hard to achieve when you practice the following:
- Start talking. One-on-one confidential interviews with all employees created a context for trust — first venting, then sharing, and eventually creating solutions.
- Reinvent what you remember. A variety of group exercises were designed for staff to experience new memories together, interrupting their habitual reactions to each other. These exercises included simply sitting in a circle to engage in relaxed eye contact, which has significant impact according to neuroscience research: “[Parts of the brain can] actually be stimulated through eye contact because specific cells are particularly responsive to facial expression and eye gaze. Caring social signals activate this higher region of the brain and promote learner safety.”
- Change your daily routine — in a helpful way. Centering exercises, including deep breathing, were incorporated into daily routines, allowing people to interrupt the flight or flight response and choose to “respond rather than react” to situations on the spot.
- Be helpful, not forceful. Leaders shifted their focus to making change, as employees also learned to take personal responsibility. Neuroscience tells us that managers and leaders who “help people think better and don’t tell them what to do,” while allowing them to define their concerns, are fundamental to transforming workplace behavior including performance according to David Rock.
- Don’t just talk — change. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey outline a clear process for turning complaints into commitments. Ultimately all the employees committed to stopping the relational violence, the cliques were dissolved, and the bully lost her power.
- Create a partnership within your organization. Managers partnered with staff, enabling commitments to work. Accountability involved ongoing conversations, regular staff meetings, and consistent performance management, creating new habits over time. These behaviors became the “new normal.”
Positive workplaces are possible. How receptive is yours?