HR Learner in Development

Posts Tagged ‘Ergonomics

Workplace conflict can have catostrophic consequences. Avoiding them can be done by analysing your interpersonal communication techniques.

 

I am posting below a critical incident report I have written as part of my training in an Interpersonal Communication class that I thought might bring some insight to others.  While I have not done an employee relations case or investigation, I can’t help but think that these would be some of the steps I would use to assess the situation and suggest action items for the future to resolve a dispute.  

Incident Description 

Nancy, Steven, Paul and Sylvia work together.  Within team meetings, they collaborate and respect each other’s opinions.  After work, they often unwind at a bar, joke with one another, and enjoy each other’s company without the pressures of their jobs.  Nancy works with Sylvia at the front desk whereas Steven and Paul have private offices.  One day, Steven, the Director of the department, signed his name on Nancy’s calendar, but Nancy used white out to erase his name.  A few days later when she was away from her desk, Steven noticed what had happened and joked with Paul about it.  To tease Nancy, he again signed his name to her calendar for the current month, and the four months following.  When Nancy returned, Sylvia told her what had happened and she became noticeably upset.  When Sylvia commented about it, Nancy went so far as to call Steven a jerk, and suggested that he must be trying to get her to quit.  When Steven heard that she had gotten upset, he said to Sylvia, “She didn’t have to be so OCD about it.  The calendar isn’t even technically her’s.” 

Analysis 

Nancy is clearly territorial about her space.  She prefers supplies and personal items at her desk a certain way and if someone challenges that order, she reacts negatively.  This extends of course to her desk calendar.  When Steven challenged that space, Nancy’s security seemed to have been threatened.  Additionally, Steven violated her space not once but twice.  Nancy was expecting him to understand that she was not pleased with him writing on her calendar after the initial exchange, when she used white out to make the calendar ‘clean’ again.  A drawback of this non-verbal communication was that the degree to how much the act of signing her calendar affected her did not come across in her behavior.  It seems as though Steven did not take the context into consideration when he decided to recreate the act again.  

Another aspect of this exchange is the issue of rank.  Nancy has a lower position than Steven.  Her responsibilities are to provide support to the department and to Steven directly.  In the past, Steven has expressed his desire to be viewed as a ‘team member’ as he views the term ‘boss’ in a negative light.  His objective, it seems, is to create a working culture which has a lower power distance.  This is clear even in how he invites us to all participate in after work fun.  One expression in the department has always been “We hang; we cool.”  However, Steven is providing mixed messages, as his actions speak louder than his words.  

In this scenario, the presence of the high power distance reality becomes apparent.   Steven feels that it is in his power to sign his name on Nancy’s calendar.  As he understands the office, Nancy’s space serves him, and he should be able to manipulate that space as needed.  However, the negative emotions that ensued because of his behavior actually impacted Nancy’s productivity a great deal for a period of time.  

It seems that Nancy is more comfortable in a low power distance scenario seeing as she is uncomfortable with her boss taking over her space.   At the same time, this points to her desire for a high level of uncertainty avoidance.  Again, she appreciates order and neatness in her area, and if a pen is not where it is supposed to be, she knows someone else has moved it.  Steven, however, feels that this level of uncertainty in the work environment is ill-advised.  In discussing the event, Steven mentioned that Nancy should learn how to better adapt to change.  His reasoning for signing Nancy’s calendar for the second time was that he was trying to help her get more comfortable with the idea that not everything in her office space is untouchable.  

Finally, when he realized how much the second occurrence had affected her, Steven jumped to conclusions and used a stereotype for Nancy’s behavior.  Because she wanted a degree of order he was unused to seeing, he verbally categorized her as maybe having an obsessive compulsive disorder.  

Teachable Moments/Insights 

After speaking with Steven about the event a bit more, it becomes clear that the intentions behind Steven’s actions were good. While he did want to make her slightly uncomfortable, Steven was trying to provide Nancy with a growth opportunity to get past her strict assumptions of her work environment.  He in no means intended for Nancy to get upset about the matter and he did apologize in the end after discovering that it did hurt her.     

But who is right and who is wrong in this situation?  Should Steven have been more respectful of Nancy’s space, or should Nancy be more open to change?  Overall, the lesson Steven was trying to impart could have been done differently, with greater tact, if it were done more openly and without an element of power. 

Continuing in the duality vein, an additional insight is how quickly something can go from innocent fun, to an environment of tension and blame, especially when it comes to labeling someone.   Because Steven persisted in writing on Nancy’s calendar, she called him a jerk.  Because Nancy was so defensive of her area, Steven said she might have OCD.  While the statement came out slightly in jest, the mere fact that he could accuse her of having a psychological disorder based on this occurrence seemed unfounded.  However, as tensions normalized, the labeling disappeared.  It stands to reason that each were protecting their self-concepts.  They were each labeling the other as an attempt to save face.  However, the reality of the situation was more complex than Steven being a jerk or Nancy being OCD. 

Additionally, it stands to reason that Sylvia  will more readily side with Nancy because she spends more time with her and is on her same level.  While Paul was unable to comment about the situation. 

Action Plan 

Going forward, several measures should be taken to avoid further conflicts. 

For one, the goal of having an open working environment free of the pressures of rank needs to be reassessed.  While some areas of the work are freely on the same level, such as creating departmental objectives and brainstorming future initiatives, others are more exclusively rank specific.  To some degree, this is to be expected, but these roles have been blurred over time.  For the department to function at a greater level, it is important for a more succinct system to be in place for communicating what is and what is not culturally acceptable within the department in terms of power distribution. 

Additionally, Nancy assumed that Steven would know not to try marking her calendar again due to the fact that she had removed it in the first place.  However, he did not use the context of his surroundings to reach that conclusion.  Going forward, communication should be made verbally and explicitly.  Assuming that Steven will know based on a look or a change in the environment is not enough, but he will respond to a conversation. 

I would not suggest Steven press the issue of training Nancy on becoming more comfortable with change in her environment.  The territoriality that occurs in the office environment is only natural for one who has been on the job a few weeks, let alone three years, as Nancy has been.  Everyone has their own unique way of operating with their environment, and Nancy has found a way that is successful to her.  At this point, to threaten that continuity, or to encourage her to change, is more of a hindrance to her productivity than an opportunity for growth.   There is also seemingly no need for this change in environment as the department is not in danger of being relocated. 

While this team has been working together for over two years, they are still learning about the expectations, assumptions, learning styles, and communication styles of each of the members.  All in all, it would benefit this team to take some time in meetings to discuss where they each stand on certain matters such as Geert Hofstede’s cultural value dimensions, how they use non-verbal communication, and how their self-concepts and perceptions play into their roles within the department, among other issues.  This understanding of interpersonal communication would provide them with the tools necessary to function at a higher level as a team.

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