Sunday, October 30, 2011

Workplace bullying – behind closed doors

From the pre-pubescent “Mum, my teacher’s mean” right through to the be-whiskered deep voiced rumble “That creep was shouting in Serena’s face so close she was being sprayed with spittle”, it seems that bullying is rife in the classroom, usually out of view (or conveniently ignored by those in power) and behind closed doors. And who’s going to believe a child anyway and look dispassionately at both sides? The parent finds that even when the most tentative comment is made, the ranks close and hackles rise. “How dare you question my teaching methods?”

This post is for the boys in my family.  I want to let you know that whilst I can’t do anything to ease your pain, hurt and anger, I can help raise awareness and call these mean teachers by the rightful term: bullies.

How proud I was to hear that in the face of relentless verbal taunts you acted responsibly and wisely. When confronted by a bully, we advise that you turn and walk away, get out of their vicinity and don’t respond. You’ll probably be labelled as a difficult child, wilful and disrespectful. But in the face of threat, embarrassment and discomfort, you showed bravery and courage. You left the classroom where you were the target of the teacher bully. I can’t imagine how much you were provoked to feel that was the only action available to you.

You are marking time, surviving at school, but not thriving as you should be. Sometimes school sucks big time.

When the teacher bully targets one or two children, humiliates and belittles them publicly, the rest of the class responds with nervous titters - best to side with the bully than become a target yourself!

What strength it takes not to respond, to pretend to laugh off the humiliating comments. But you see the pain of those who are targeted day after day, week after week, month after month and you don’t know how to help. You stick up for them when you can, but see the injustice and cruelty. You’ve observed how the teacher looks for any behaviour that is out of line, draws attention to it, but never notices or praises the good. He laughs and brings attention to your classmates learning difficulty to his utter shame and bewilderment.

A domino - Berlin 2009.
To confront the teacher bully and tell them to “back off” from verbally abusing another student takes a lot of courage. By golly, I admire you for this. You’ve drawn attention to the bully’s unacceptable behaviour, which he may not take kindly to; from experience you’ll know this method can often backfire and you may become the next target.

How proud I am of you, standing up for the underdog who was being unfairly harangued. To be confronted by a large, dominant and angry teacher is intimidating, frightening, humiliating. It’s an abuse of power and is never acceptable. It never encourages a student to work harder or better or showcase their talent.

I see strong boys, acting with integrity, courage, intelligence and compassion. I’m so proud to be related to you. The teacher bullies you’re confronting appear to be sadly lacking in these qualities. I wonder if they’re threatened by these strengths in you.

To be confined in a classroom where abuse if rife, to be the target, or observe another being harangued, needled, provoked is horribly painful.

You rail against the unfairness, and as parents and family, we can’t always help. We don’t have the answers, and often feel powerless too. Sometimes it sucks being a parent. We don’t always know how to put a stop to teacher bullying - but we see your hurt, anger and frustration and are here to listen whenever you need to unload.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chaotic Careers

What role has luck played in your life or career?

Jim Bright is professor of Career Development at the Australian Catholic University and quite a presence in the Australian Career Development field. His Chaos theory of Career Development fits with my experience and that of many of my clients.

An article on the role of luck in careers recently appeared in the Financial Review "How to get luck on your side" link here.

Whilst we might like to think that talent and determination are the key factors in success at work, there is often something else happening too. Bright explains that not everyone with talent will make it to the top of their field no matter how hard they try - and discusses the reasons for this.

It's not simply hard work alone that puts some people at the top of their field. Bright and others believe there's an element of luck, of being in the right place at the right time and of putting yourself in the way of opportunities and being open to change.
Like this tree, many people are able to take advantage
of the opportunity for re-growth after a major unforeseen setback.
Bright's theory of career development is that we live in a world of uncertain events, where the idea of our work-life as a linear progression is simply not how life unfolds. People's careers change direction and often appear haphazard as they hit a wall or another opportunity occurs. Often they 'spin around to do something completely different.'

Jim Bright believes people need to be luck ready and says that even if this doesn't come naturally it can, to some extent, be learnt. Bright and Pryor have devised three tests (link here) so you can see where you fit on their luck scale. You will be asked to create a user name and password and then choose the test you wish to complete.

People who score highly in flexibility, optimism, risk (adventurousness), curiosity, persistence, strategy, efficacy and luckiness will be more open to change and put themselves in the way of chance events more often than those who are less flexible in their outlook.
Random events can cause us to change direction.
Along with many others, Bright believes that our vision of careers needs to include the vision of chance and uncertainty. He encourages us not to stick overly rigidly with a plan, and to acknowledge the importance of the complexity of the world in which we live. This will enable us to make the most of the potential of unplanned and unforeseen events.

Three tests
The Luck Readiness Index profiles your response to chance and measures your awareness and readiness to take opportunities in a changing environment.

The Change Perception Index profiles how you view change in your life and career compared to others. Each comes with an extensive in-depth report. These are available for a fee of $9(Aus)

The Exploring Chaos Reality Checklist is free, and is quick and easy to complete. The checklist is designed to assess your thinking about change in your career and the workplace (and I would add in life in general). An informative interesting and useful printable outline of your results is available on completion.

I've mentioned in previous posts about how change can be very uncomfortable for many people.  But even when it's uncomfortable it can be positive and adapting to it can be an indicator of career success.

The future is not predictable - an example is sudden, unexpected downsizing of a company which can leave unprepared workers floundering and stressed.  Learning to be adaptable and to reinvent ourselves to take advantage of random opportunities can be extremely empowering.

The free printable report from the Exploring Chaos Reality Checklist has suggestions for ways to think about your pattern of responses, as well as how to use this information proactively in regards to future events.  Not bad for free!

Link to tests here.

How have chance and random events affected your life?



Sunday, October 23, 2011

Workplace communication - "If you REALLY..."

Imagine before you a small child and a parent – the child is exploring notions of power. How much they have of it, where it begins and ends – not that they’d call it that or be aware of it, but for all intents and purposes that’s what it is.

The small child says, possibly with not much hope of success: “If you REALLY loved me, you’d buy me a pony.”
The parent, taken by surprise, wonders if they’re doing a good job of this parenting thing, may feel guilty for working long hours and not giving quality time to their child. Desperately wanting to be loved, the parent may not spare a thought about the pattern that could begin to evolve if they immediately satisfy the request and those that will inevitably follow. (I certainly don't mean to imply that life will be forever fraught if you give a child a gift, mostly things are fine!)

The child, grows into a young teenager and is asked to help with household chores, specifically to hang out the washing. Possibly embarrassed to be seen hanging out her mother’s bras and her father’s jocks, but more importantly having learnt to manipulate by trading on love, says in a plaintive, pleading tone (which she’s learnt tugs at her mothers heartstrings and brings the desired result): “If you REALLY loved me, I wouldn’t have to do chores and could go play with the other girls.”

Fast forward a couple of years. The youngster, now of driving age, and fully conscious of the power he holds, it having been reinforced time and time again, uses the proven technique: “If you REALLY loved me you’d buy me a car.”

Lo and behold, there’s a lovely new (to him) car. But, horror of horrors, one night he comes home late, slightly under the weather, with the car dented and bent. He says to a parent: “If you REALLY loved me, you’d tell the insurance company you were driving, so I’m not penalised.”

Obviously what follows isn’t predetermined. This kind of power hunger certainly won't happen to everyone, but for some people,  they feel alive and strong when they can manipulate others with language. Feeding this type of addiction to power can become an end in itself. If the person is a bully, this can be disastrous for those caught up in the web.

In the workplace:
The words evolve to be more appropriate for the workplace, but the desire to manipulate others and watch how they respond and capitulate remains. “If you REALLY cared about this department you’d: “work unpaid overtime/not agitate for a pay rise/not lodge a complaint about bullying/sexual harassment.” In fact, the manipulation can be in any sphere and cover many different scenarios.

For those of us brought up to be “good” people, to not rock the boat, and to respect authority, this form of psychological game playing can be very hard to resist. Of course you care about your workplace and the department!

How to respond:
The best exchange I witnessed was so simple, so effective that it’s stuck with me for years. The target, (I’ll call her Jenny and come back to her later on) simply responded to the “If you REALLY …” statement with a calm: “That’s an interesting point of view, I’ll take it on board.” And went on with what she had been doing. This was so simple, so effective as to leave the chronically manipulative co-worker temporarily without words. (And between you and me, looking mildly foolish.)

Sadly, what is simple is not necessarily easy.

The difficulty can be to become aware of the pattern of manipulation. It’s helpful to clarify the scenarios where you get “trapped” so you are aware of them. As the Scouts and Guides say “Be prepared”.
The attacker wants and expects a result. Some want you to squirm and justify your actions, others want to waste your time. Some are bullies. Rarely are they interested in a rational, mature discussion.

Harmless fun?
I once had a co-worker; I’ll call him Tom. He was fun and efficient to work with, but had a dreadful habit of baiting another co-worker who I’ll call James. Tom would deliberately bait James with the tried and tested words “If you REALLY cared about the environment you’d get solar panels installed and get all your windows double glazed. “ Tom didn’t do this maliciously, but simply for the sport of seeing James get totally wound in knots trying to justify how his home was heated and cooled.

James would become flustered and go quite red in the face. Tom just sat there dropping in a word here and there, a bit like a fisherman winding in a fish. At the end of the embarrassing experience when James had been unable to justify why his home wasn’t powered with solar cells, and had flounced off, Tom would look at his watch with satisfaction and announce how much time James had spent on this fruitless exchange. This happened time and time again with Tom gleefully keeping a tally of the time wasted.
Some verbal bullies are like ravenous sharks feeding on your  responses.
As an observer, it was hard to know how, or even if, it was possible, to prevent James getting caught. James took the bait, AND the hook, line and sinker. Repeatedly.

Does James care about the environment? Yes, desperately. Does this mean he needs to justify his decisions about solar panels to Tom? No, not at all. Tom isn’t interested in the reasoning and doesn’t want a mature discussion. As I’ve said, he’s initiated the ‘conversation’ for a very different reason.

What could James have done? James consistently gave his attacker Tom, exactly what he wanted and expected. As well as feeding Tom’s feeling of power, by taking the bait, James was agreeing with the implication that he didn’t care about the environment.

How would my friend Jenny who you met earlier have responded? I suspect she would have stuck to her line: “That’s an interesting point, I’ll take it on board.” If James had learnt to say something like this, even after a history of being trapped in an ever tightening circle of half finished, awkward sentences, Tom would have had little room to manouvre.

Some other possible responses could go along the lines of: “Of course I care about the environment, I’ve got some brochures to look at and am comparing solar options.” And then James casually wanders off not waiting for Tom’s reply.

Or perhaps, “Yes, of course I care about the environment, there’s a lecture at the local college next week, would you like the information so you can attend?” Your tone of voice won’t be dripping with sarcasm and it shouldn’t come out as a put down. You are simply, respectfully replying, adult to adult, as if the initial bait was an honest request for information.

Elgin in ‘The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work’ (p118-9) says: “What the verbal abuser wants is the confrontation. The scene. The fight. The row.” She goes on to say that the abuser doesn’t want to be ignored, but “wants your full and undivided attention. The bait itself is trivial to verbal abusers, (and it is) valued only for its potential to provoke you”. “They care about demonstrating that they have power over you and can control your behaviour”.

“Therefore, anytime you take the bait in a verbal attack and participate in the verbal violence loop, you are letting them get away with it.”

If something like this has happened to you on more than one occasion, identify the themes that catch you and rehearse your responses with someone you trust. It might feel awkward to change a pattern, but the benefit will be well worth while.

All the above are true stories in which I've been involved in some way.

You might find the related post "How to say 'No' graciously" interesting. It's here.

Suzette Haden Elgin's web site on Verbal Self Defense is here.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Workplace communication – teams, games and sport.

I’ve been reading Susan Haden Elgin’s “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work”, (Prentice-Hall 2000) not an easy read, but very interesting.

Elgin is writing about business communication and mentions the fact that dominant adult males control most of the power in America and that many of us spend large amounts of time interacting with dominant adult males. (I have no reason to think things have changed since 2000 or are significantly different in Australia.) She explains that “… most American men today define anything that involves negotiation as a game, at least temporarily, and they switch to gameplaying behaviour for the duration of the negotiation.”

She states that women, other nationalities and different ethnic groups don’t always agree on the meaning of ‘negotiation’ or understand the terminology of gameplaying behaviour and that this leads to massive communication breakdowns in many business settings.

What is your experience at work? Certainly in the workplaces I’ve been in, gameplaying terminology is prevalent. Such comments as “The ball’s in your court”, “Are we all on the same team here?” “We’ll get some runs of the board with this one”, “Don’t waste the play”, “That meeting was a bit of a free for all” or “Good play”, are commonplace.

Often there are a lot of non-verbal signals too, with the action of passing a ball to others at a meeting to denote the next person to speak. There are visual gags and asides that leave the non-initiated perplexed, out of it and wondering what on earth is going on.

Sometimes it’s even more pronounced with the expectation that personnel will attend football, tennis and cricket matches and entertain clients at these venues on weekends and in the evening. If this fills you with dread or loathing, perhaps you and that particular workplace aren’t entirely suited.

I want to make three points relating to games, sports and teams.

Firstly: What does the word game mean to you? Is it something light-hearted and perhaps trivial? Did you love sport at school? Or was it a time of purgatory? Does it matter one way or the other if you win or lose? How do you view the language of games?

Are games to be taken seriously, to be won, do they mean something to you? If they do to everyone but you in the office, what will the effect be? If you’re not speaking the same language, how does this affect your workplace dynamics?

If we don’t understand or relate to the language that is being used, where does that leave us?

Secondly:  How do significant people at your workplace use game playing terminology? Does it pepper their speech? Are you talking the same language? Do you know how they view games? Do they love team sports or do they prefer non-team sports? How does a boss’s love of sport, the fact that he or she takes sport extremely seriously affect everyday work interactions and negotiations?
Do you like being part of a group or team?
Thirdly: How do you view team sports?
I listened to an interview a while ago where two groups were debating the benefit of team sports at school. They were rational adults, full of goodwill and respect for the ‘opposition’, but it was glaringly obvious that they simply couldn’t (not wouldn’t but couldn’t) understand the perspective of the other side.

Those in favour of team sport were adamant about the many benefits of belonging to a team that weren’t easily achievable elsewhere. They talked about the pleasure of belonging, being part of a team (that word again) working towards achieving something together, of having a goal, focus, discipline and purpose. They revelled in the joy of winning! Their entire lives, on field and off, were viewed in a sporting context.

Those against spoke about the pain of not being chosen, of being reluctantly included when the Phys Ed teacher insisted, of being clumsy, not fitting in and of being perplexed about the rules, confused and uncomfortable. They remembered doing anything to get out of dreaded sport at school, forging notes, faking illness - anything to avoid the humiliation of participating. I think it is fair to say they abhorred sport and everything to do with it.

Neither side understood the others perspective, they weren’t being difficult, there was simply a deep gulf separating them.

How do these perceptions, prejudices and beliefs about teams carry into the workplace where sporting terminology and game playing is prevalent? If you hated sport at school, how does that affect you in a workplace? How does your disinterest and lack on knowledge affect the sport lovers?

What do the words team sports mean to you? What images thoughts and feelings arise? “ Be a good sport” (and do something you don’t want to do) “It’s not winning, but how you play the game”, “Don’t be a sore loser”, “This game is for the boys, we don’t want sissies here”, “It’s a bit of a boy’s club here”, “Can’t take the rough and tumble?” (said in a derisive tone)
You might like sport but prefer to work alone.
If you don’t like games and have residual negative feelings regarding team sports, could this affect your body language when the terminology is used in a work setting? How does this affect others?

Like Elgin, I firmly believe effective workplace communication matters. When the terms are unfamiliar and come from the world of sport and games, which not everyone is familiar with, mis-communication can and will take place. Expectations about roles can, as Elgin says, lead to outright confusion and clashes; there will be hurt, baffled and angry people. Unlike her, my experience is that both men and women can be alienated by game terminology - personality type is more relevant than a division along gender lines.

It’s a bit like being in a foreign country for those who aren’t natural games people. They don’t understand the terminology. At best, they may watch and listen with curiosity, but it’s a closed book, which needs courteous, patient, respectful explanation.

Some turn tail and run when team sports are mentioned.
I believe it’s incumbent on both sides, whether male or female and of whatever nationality or ethnic group to work hard to communicate maturely and clearly in terms the other can relate to and understand.

I also believe it’s incumbent for all people involved to listen to any questions or confusion with your whole attention, without interruption or derisive, insulting comments.

It makes good business sense to get the best from the WHOLE workforce without alienating those who are not in the “in group”. It is simply good manners to try to communicate clearly and to work at it ‘till you succeed.


One last thought: If you don't understand team sports and games, does that necessarily make you a poor employee where gameplaying behaviour is prevalent? Is there a place for all personality types which makes for a richer work environment?


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