We Need New Models for Workplace Relationships – Part 1

I used to facilitate a three-day seminar I had co-developed for the American Management Association on conflict management. From San Francisco to New York, I heard an endless array of workplace “war stories” over five years.  One woman’s experience remains with me today.  (Sara) was distressed and sought out my advice at the end of the first day of the seminar.
Fresh out of school and only in her job for six months, Sara seemed bewildered by many of the conversations she listened to during the day’s team activities. Everyone here seems unhappy.  I’m here because I want to get a better understanding of how to get along with people at work.  I know this is a course on conflict, but no one seems to have good workplace relationships.  I may sound naïve but…is this the way it is everywhere?”

I really felt for Sara. Although I wanted to reassure her with positive stories of workplace goodwill and camaraderie, I had few to share from my brief time in the corporate sector.  My later experiences working in nonprofit management weren’t much better. While passion for the cause often united my co-workers, they had many of the same relationship issues as my corporate colleagues. I asked Sara the same question I will ask you – What did you expect?  What did you think it would be like to work with and for other people before your first job? Who and what were your workplace role models?

Sara’s response was typical of many people I have since asked who’ve said – I  never really gave it much thought.  She asked me if I would pose the question to the group the next day.
While most people in the group echoed Sara’s answer  – they had not thought about their expectations of working with others before they got a job – here’s a taste of some of the group’s responses.

  • It’s difficult to trust other people at work
  • It’s hard to have “relationships” because most people have an agenda
  • I’m not there to have fun
  • Work and social life don’t mix
  • It’s better to leave personal relationships for outside of work
  • I don’t have time for relationships at work
  • Office politics (power) ruins relationships

The group’s attitudes about workplace relationships centered on two key areas – trust and time. This group, like many others that I work with, had much to say about why they feel what they feel about work relationships. Responsibility is usually squarely placed on bosses and co-workers and not personal behavior and organizational culture. While personality and communication issues are certainly contributing factors in many of these conflicts, they are not the whole story.

Our Role Models

In  1989, Dilbert, the American comic strip, began reinforcing negative workplace stereotypes, or some might say – espousing workplace truths, in twenty-five languages and 2000 newspapers worldwide. Wally, a key character in the Dilbert series, is a master cynic. Sharing his “wisdom” in a keynote speech, Wally proclaims, “The source of all unhappiness is other people. As soon as you learn to think of other people as noisy furniture, the sooner you will be happy.”

OK, perhaps Dilbert’s not your cup of tea; I confess to avoiding it.  But surely, you’ve seen The Office, a long running (2005-2013) U.S. remake of the hit BBC 2001 series that’s been described as a “mockumentary on a group of typical office workers, where the workday consists of ego clashes, inappropriate behavior and tedium.”  Despite my concerns that cynical depictions like these contribute to cultural perceptions of toxic workplaces, I’m sure that they also touch on unexpressed truths that resonate with many workers.

Writing about the cultural phenomenon that is Dilbert, Steven Rogelberg, Ph.D at Bowling Green University writes, “There’s been a debate about whether Dilbert fuels workplace cynicism or whether cynical people seek out Dilbert.  Data suggests cynical people anticipate that Dilbert-like situations will happen, which may become a self-fulfilling prophesy.” When researchers showed various Dilbert strips to business and psychology students who had work or managerial experience they found that those students who were rated as more cynical by an earlier measurement, tended to be more cynical about their current work environment.  Of that group, those with previous work experience  reported low satisfaction in contrast to those who didn’t expect to encounter Dilbert-like situations in their jobs.

Birth of the Mechanistic Mindset

More than a century before Dilbert our work lives were shaped by the mechanistic models of time by late 19th efficiency experts like Frederick Taylor whose methods for standardization of equipment and people is assumed to have produced the economic success of the modern era. Taylor’s quest was clear; control and maximize the motions of workers to get the highest possible output for every dollar spent.  Taylor, like many architects of early capitalism, saw workers as being too strong-willed and lazy.
Taylor’s emphasis was on time and tasks. No one considered the concept of relationships among workers and conveniently maxims that the personal life had no place in business were born.  While the canons of management theory usually refer to Taylor’s primacy in understanding the evolution of the modern worker, recently historians from Harvard and Brown Universities have traced the formation of worker management back one hundred years before Taylor.

In a Bloomberg News article, How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism, authors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman point out that slavery was a major contributing  force in the economic boom of the 19th century.  The article highlights the role that commodified human beings played in the emergence of modern capitalism itself. “The plantation didn’t just produce the commodities that fueled the broader economy, it also generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management. As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time—motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.”

Let’s Put All of the Baggage on the Table 

Trends in corporate life have and will continue to shift, however slowly.  Employee motivation is now referred to as engagement and employees as talent.  Yet the slow-moving behemoth that characterizes much of the corporate mindset still does not really understand how human relationships work.  While there is a glimmer of realization that companies need to “leverage” people power, the fundamental beliefs that drive business are still built on a lack of understanding – and appreciation of human dynamics.

The enduring mind-body split continues to dominate the way our work systems are structured.  Leaders still model power politics. Trust polls are chronically low.  Bully behavior is still tolerated. Long, arduous work days are the norm. Tasks and projects operate in a permanent crisis modality. Many organizational leaders still do not understand (or care) that the atrophied systems, with their centuries – old legacy of people as commodities and assets, will never produce relationships that flourish, despite spiffy new buzzwords. But individuals within the system must also take responsibility for the old, unexamined thinking they bring to the table.  Workers need to understand that they bring beliefs, feelings and behaviors to work that have been absorbed from the same toxic legacies. Expectations that workplace relationships will be redefined from the top-down are unrealistic and a remnant of organizational paternalism.

If we agree that relationships are the gold standard of the work of the future – the lifeblood of personal and organizational success, nothing less than major change will make that possible.   If we believe that thriving relationships are a sign of good health, we must take steps to contribute to the growth of that collective well-being.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about rethinking workplace relationships. What’ our vision? We’ll consider some recent contributions from neuroscience about the nature of the social brain and emotional contagion, which should influence how we structure new processes and systems that enhance how we relate to each other at work.
Cynicism won’t get us there. We can all agree that the old models are not working.  Our real work is to imagine the new ones – together.

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Anne Brink says:

    Wow. Excellent and timely. I am working on instituting an effort in Portland Oregon to have the community of businesses here take on, together, that they can move down a path of being much more Juicy. Had a realization in December that it’s not just CEO’s that we want to work with. Everyone is responsible and everyone can make a difference. Excited to read your next post. Thank you Louise for your insight.

  2. John Wenger says:

    Great post Louise. Like you, I made a fresh cup of tea before sitting down to read. Yes, we need to re-vision what we want from work. Yes, we need to play our part in creating the kind of workplace relationships we actually want, rather than accept what we get. Was it Glasser who said that we can’t change other people, we can only change ourselves; but if we change ourselves, others can’t help but respond to us differently? I like how you bring in the effects of the system: old ideas about getting people to do things. As I read, I thought, we’ve just swapped slavery for wage slavery. Not good enough. If we want to mobilise people, we need to ensure the conditions are right for people to find Meaning, Mastery and Autonomy at work.
    Nice one.

    • Hi John.
      This gets tricky – I’ve found this info about research being done by Brown and Harvard on economic history fascinating. We go way back before Taylor and the others in terms of organizing
      people as part of the means of production – and then I guess build a management “theory” over time around it. Yet, is this a fair comparison to today’s workplace conditions? Surely wage vs. salaried workers (esp low wage “unskilled workers) are still struggling for basic rights (like the Chinese factory workers that struck this week for a few extra minutes to go to the toilet)! However, I think when we really try to understand how the systems we work in evolved, this information really does give pause to understand how far with still have to go. And there are so many pieces to it, quite daunting. Our mindsets around “ownership” also have to change. The average worker is not a slave (although the resurgence of global slavery is hideous and should not be tolerated by an “enlightened” society, yet even highly qualified, skilled workers have to give up a great deal of their personal freedom (just the hiring process alone is terribly invasive) to get a job and work for others.
      I think if we really went for Mastery, Meaning and Autonomy in the workplace, we’d transform work as we know it.
      Thanks for commenting,
      As always,

  3. pixelrites says:

    A great post; thank you. A collective imagination for the workplace is a good first step.

  4. G’day Louise,
    Thanks for an interesting read.
    You made several arguments that demonstrate real problems with the models which impact American workplaces.
    Balancing the right to privacy, with opportunities for free expression within our relations is indeed a spatial dilemma.
    I look forward to evaluating your thoughts on media.
    Simon Reynolds

  5. Gurmeet Singh Pawar says:

    That was a great article. One of our Community members posted this on Google community (https://plus.google.com/communities/102639329871769249076?gpsrc=src:signup-header;actn:signup&hl=en-GB#communities/102639329871769249076).
    I really appreciate your few points:
    “Sharing his “wisdom” in a keynote speech, Wally proclaims, “The source of all unhappiness is other people.”
    This in itself is in my personal experience the most determining factor in every endeavor. I have come to a conclusion that humans (due to some reason) have the tendency to look outside for answers. Maybe there is a belief and a very strong one that allows them to put themselves as correct and unconsciously or consciously make it a base to read every situation. Now when we instead of questioning ourselves look for answers outside, we end up reading things most of the time with skewed basis. When we start with a basis that happiness lies outside of us, we put our entire effort on changing the world, which the world outside does not accept. As the world is also made up of individuals who also view outside them as source of happiness/unhappiness and there is a clash of belief, each looking for correction and subsequent happiness outside. It is then when Ego takes control and arouses conflict and stalls collaboration.
    I look forward to your Part 2, where you mentioned discussing about Neuroscience.
    I have also seen that most of the conflicts and problems in the sphere of human relations is due to the immense dependency of humans on its Middle Brain (mammal brain) that is the house of feelings. As feelings are divided into 2 parts – Likeness or dislike, whenever we do something that appeals to the likeness side (due to mapping of the stimulus as positive) we end up appreciating the stimulus of the person and same holds true vice versa.
    My experience about the matter is at my individual level, so the answer for this (as per my understanding) lies at individual level. The answer as per me is to train our brain to question oneself before sending our response out. How this can be ensured at a group level or how one do things so as to remap certain stimulus as positive in the group is little difficult for me to contemplate. I am also not sure when this attempt might become an ethical question?
    I am going to look forward to you next article keenly.
    Thanking you
    Gurmeet Singh Pawar.

    • Hi
      Thanks for your comments. Pleased that you liked the article.
      Most Western cultures have a long history of relating to external events rather than introspection to understand their experience. Of course what we have known from psychology and philosophy – and now neuroscience is that experience is generated from within. In many ways, we were taught to mistrust our inner wisdom. There is clearly a trend (I believe due to decades of influence from Eastern traditions and now insights from science) towards greater understanding and reliance on our inner knowledge as a guide for experience.
      To your point about the human reactivity of the brain, once we develop a deeper understanding of the brain’s reward/threat patterns we can use our cognitive skills to become more “mindfully” responsive to external stimuli.
      Louise Altman

  6. Louise
    Thank you for this beautifully constructed article. It is inspiring as a call to create a different kind of vision — one we can all work on together. I’ll look forward to Part II! I particularly appreciate how you differentiate (in the comments) today’s economic and maybe emotional “slavery” from the actual historical antecedent. It’s important to understand the connections and the origins of mental models but not get confused about how those models are applied to contemporary systems.

    • Dan, thanks so much. Your appreciation means a lot to me (and I urge readers to discover your excellent work over at http://www.unfoldingleadership.com/blog/)
      Thanks for pointing out this distinction. I certainly don’t want to sensationalize these connections but I must say that when one considers the bare bones (which in some cases the remnants are only in the residual belief systems) of the structural nature of much of work today (for example even the origins of the cubicle discussed last week in HBR by the author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office) you can trace the economic roots of work, even for well paid “talent” in 2013. These are big leaps, I know, but I think its valuable that researchers and work-related writers are beginning to make them.
      What is most interesting to me is that the systems and structures (putting things like literal cubicles aside) are mental constructs – models – from which most organizations still derive their thinking. Often we act as if these “things” are fixed, when in fact, they are simple thoughts. These thought models have been remarkably resilient because they have maintained an economic status quo. We talk about new kinds of leadership and work models but unless we place them within the context of their economic origins, we don’t have the complete picture. Bottom line is that unless we collectively imagine a new way of working together, we will continue to get more of the same.
      Thx again

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