This week we were able to salvage a potentially damaging office situation with a client group. In a team meeting where the main topic was engagement and communication, a supervisor was sharing his point of view with the audience (of almost 50 people). As he was speaking, he kept using the phrase “when I was just an employee.” As we were standing in front of the group, we could see some raised eyebrows and concerned facial expressions. Quick to see this reaction, we were able to nip this in this in the bud by asking the speaker to clarify his intent, as we were all “just employees.” This is a great example of when words and actions do not always match our intentions.
We explained to the group that had we not taken the time to clarify his intent, the following morning the office gossip would have been swirling about what this supervisor had said at the meeting the night before. The gossip likely would have been the focus of the day instead of the important tasks at hand. In the course of just a minute or two the office dynamic could have changed for the worse longer term had we not intervened. This supervisor was fortunate to have a unique opportunity to clean up his words and clarify his intent in front of the group, but this is usually not the case.
In the situation above, we were able to salvage it, however, we are not always in the right place at the right time, like superheroes.
Several weeks ago, we learned of another unfortunate incident between two coworkers. One employee (Employee A) had been meeting with a second employee (Employee B). Employee B speaks very loudly, which is her normal speaking voice. Employee A felt as if she was being yelled at, and walked away with an impression of “this person does not like me.” A week later, the two employees have an accidental incident where Employee B was getting up from her chair and had swung her backpack across her back, not realizing Employee A was standing closely behind her. The backpack made contact with Employee A and she began to yell at Employee B, causing a commotion and disruption. Employee B wasb completely taken off-guard and did not even know why she was being yelled at.
After a few minutes the situation diffused and the manager was able to speak with both employees and they were able to figure out the communication lapse between the two of them. Employee A came to realize that Employee B is a usual loud-talker and was not yelling at her at all. Additionally, Employee B apologized profusely for any misunderstanding and also stated there was no intentional action to hit Employee A with her backpack. Had the manager not intercepted quickly, the situation could have been exponentially worse. It is easy to foresee each employee telling their coworkers about the incident, and again the gossip would have taken over the department instead of the important work to be done on their shift.
Both examples above are common, everyday occurrences. Both illustrate the power erroneous assumptions can have with interpersonal relationships and setting the wrong tone in an office environment.
To combat problems like this, we recommend three steps.
• Firstly, when, or if, you find yourself in an uncomfortable interaction with a coworker, the best thing to do is to take a step back and do not engage in a knee-jerk fashion. Sometimes taking a pause can diffuse a situation and also provide you with enough time to think.
• Secondly, always assume positive intent. Sometimes we may hear things or see things that seem odd or misdirected. As was the case in our first example, it could be a simple case of misaligned actions and intentions. With an assumption of positive intent, we are of the mindset that most people do not purposely mean to cause harm or hard feelings to their coworkers. By taking a pause and assuming positive intent, it becomes easier to take the last step, which is to respectfully ask a clarifying question. By taking this action, you avoid a misunderstanding that can have a lasting impact.
• A final thought to share. It’s common that coworkers do harbor bad feelings towards one another because explanations of past encounters have gone unexplained. Rather than harbor those hard feelings, we recommend that forgiveness can go a long way in restoring a positive work environment.