Most of us spend a considerable percentage of our time at work.
In too many workplaces, the pervading culture is that it’s a war zone, not a co-operative endeavour. Competition for advancement is one thing; ratbag backstabbing skulduggery is altogether another. But in too many environments, it’s the law of the jungle that prevails.
So, it’s a management problem? True. And it’s also true that in some workplaces it’s management itself that is the problem. But attitudes need to change all the way down the ladder if ‘work’ is not to be a toxic environment.
Maybe, just for a start, the language needs to be modified. The word most commonly used in discussion of workplace toxicity is ‘conflict’. It might take the fever out of a situation if it was referred to as ‘disagreement’ and accepted as inevitable. And, of course, it needs also to be recognised that everyone’s entitled to their view.
A common situation in which workplace ‘conflict’ arises is when there’s a radical alteration in management structure. We might call this the ‘Superman Syndrome’. The business isn’t doing well, morale is low, the future bleak; the operation stumbles along from day to day. In comes the new-broom hero: There’s going to be some big changes made. There will be one way to do things: her way, or his way. It’s a matter of shape up or ship out.
This is an extreme example maybe. But that’s the ethos that governs very many workplaces.
Change is imposed without consultation. It’s enforced by warnings, threats and punishments, up to and including dismissal. Life can become, literally, a fight for survival.
Some organisations have codes in place to eliminate bullying and harassment. But more often than not, the boss is exempted – and there’s a trickle-down effect. At best, it may be that coercion replaces bullish command as a management method.
So, just for a start, the fundamental perceptions need to be adjusted. The key word is ‘empathy’. The bad seed may be planted at the very first encounter.
“I’m the boss,” Mr or Ms Management assumes. “I am a superior being in relation to this mere Worker Bee.”
“He/she’s a boss,” Worker Bee assumes. “He/she’s a bully who thinks he/she’s better than me.”
It’s assumed from the outset that they have nothing at all in common: they’re members of different species.
It may seem to be stating the obvious, but wouldn’t things work better if they talked to each other? And things would work better still if they actually listened to each other.
If Mr or Ms Management accepts that Worker Bee may have views on the way things are run and that those views might frame a contribution to the operation, that shifts the relationship away from the customary war footing. If Worker Bee accepts that Mr or Ms Management has a job to do, that he or she is the one who has to make the final decision, then a truce becomes possible.
Both sides need to be prepared to listen. Both sides need to recognise that they have the right to speak to the other and be listened to.
Maybe business organisations, be they corporations or backyard workshop operations, also hospitals, universities, schools etc., need to function more like families than military establishments.
Ah, but then, some families are as dysfunctional as the most blinkered, brutish sweatshop. The same things apply in that situation too. Attitudes need to change. Ears need to listen, mouths need to be permitted to speak.
Pollyanna pie-in-the sky? All too simple? But maybe life doesn’t need to be as complicated as we so often make it.