Chapter 2: Combating Counter-production

Before this position, I worked in professional settings. Employees spoke and dressed with a business tone. Staff had upbeat attitudes even if they were faking it. They put-on for their place of employment. Everyone made a conscious effort to conduct themselves with professionalism. I don’t have to eat lunch with you or hang out with you but if we both preserve professional work standards, we can coexist.

My new workplace was different. Management and staff blatantly neglected protocol and policy, which should always be upheld, especially above flawed interpretation. In cases that you don’t know how to handle yourself, revert to protocol. My company built a culture around unprofessional work ethics. I’m not aware of any company that purposely does that. No executives or board members ever said “we’re not going to follow any rules, but we’ll have them ready just in case.” My environment was diverse and lax. I am not saying that diversity equates to unprofessionalism. What I am saying is, team islands craft crises. In my experience, more extreme work environments, create greater chances for in/outgroups such as workplaces with a diversity imbalance. However, to combine in/outgroups and unprofessional work ethics create grounds for internal and external conflicts.

Conflicts that arise within a department usually stimulate around social groups. Ingroup members know what to expect from one another. They share cultural attributes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, lifestyle orientation or religious beliefs. Outgroups are those that don’t belong or identify to a specific ingroup.

It’s important to explore social groups because we base our opinions and create bias towards those that are in outgroups. We interact and communicate according to our opinion of others. If ingroups (majority) viewed outgroups (minority) as they did themselves, social injustice wouldn’t exist and neither would the need to classify.

The views that executive management has toward certain groups, will permeate throughout the organization starting with upper management, supervisors down to regular staff. The existence of social groups creates barriers to communication.

Every workplace has social groups that fit into several categories:

  • Titles
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Offices and Open plan
  • Accent and Language
  • Background
  • Lifestyle Orientation
  • Seniority
  • Religious Affiliation

I found that no one is solely in one group. Employees can share similarities with ingroup and outgroup members. The ingroups that I fit into weren’t ones of influence.  A large percentage of the staff shared a similar faith, and we were all in an open floor plan while titled positions had offices.  The largest and most influential group were the employees with backgrounds.

Social and human services are attractive fields to survivors of substance abuse, sexual abuse, criminal past, homelessness, domestic violence and sometimes a combination of issues. It’s a field that a person can feel comfortable having a background. Often, survivors want to take those experiences and perform service to the community. Having a background was beyond me.  I knew nothing about the disease of addiction and recovery. What I learned was that survivors recovering from an addiction or healing from their past, substitute that behavior for less destructive ones, but harmful nonetheless.  These behaviors were distracting and hindered staff productivity.

As a new hire, it’s natural to want to assimilate into your environment. The problem was trying to assimilate into counter-productive social cultures or groups. Employees should be aligning themselves with company objectives and job roles not cultural display. I changed my mind-set to fit the office environment. I don’t know how many times I stopped my work to take a cigarette break with coworkers, and I don’t smoke. We are all familiar with the “Freshman 15.” Well, the “Office 15” is a similar phenomenon. Dealing with high-pressure and stress, one of our natural responses is emotional eating. Breakfast had barely begun before staff was having conversations about lunch. I didn’t know it at the time, but fitting in with my coworkers was never going to happen.

Placing more value or concern towards the needs of one social group will always create workplace crises. Outgroup members will naturally take on assimilating into social groups instead of what drives the company, which is successful workplace practices.

Management is responsible for limiting counter-production. As a regular staff person, you do not have the power to rid the office environment of cliques or social groups. As I mentioned, our office wasn’t the typical set-up.  The open plan forged the way for counter-production. It gave us a license to violate every office code there was. In the last several years, open office plans have become the norm in many companies. I think open plans are unhealthy, disruptive and stressful. Departments having over 6 or 7 staff should, at least, have cubicles.  Open office plans don’t fit every personality because of a lack of privacy and concentration. As a highly sensitive person, I struggled every day with my identity and individuality. Even when I tried to stop assimilating, I was melded into the complexities of my coworkers.

I can’t say this loud enough: Boundaries, Boundaries, and Boundaries!

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries is vital to surviving a workplace plagued with issues and void of privacy. I also failed in this area. Setting boundaries is not easy. Coworkers will test your discipline during your employment. Remember why you’re at work. It’s not a social gathering. If are looking to make friends, find a mate or have fun, you’re headed for trouble. When conflicts arise, productivity and work will become secondary. Work becomes difficult when gossip, rumors and pettiness are sucking the life out of you. Avoiding social interaction with coworkers isn’t always conceivable but here is a list of boundaries that you can set:

1. Mind your own business. Don’t engage in gossip and rumors. You’re not a dumping site. You have the right to say that you don’t want to hear it.

2. Don’t lend money. It’s difficult recouping money lent to family members. You know the awkward feeling at Sunday dinner when your relative should have paid you months ago but hasn’t. Lending money to coworkers is even worse because you can’t avoid each other. When you spend that amount of time with a person, you see all of their spending habits. Every payday is a painful reminder of the debt owed.

3. Do YOUR job. I don’t know how many times I had to stay late stopping to help coworkers (with longer tenure) to do their jobs. Are you ready for the big IF’s?

  • If they need help, redirect them to a manager or supervisor. It’s not your position to train because you’re not getting paid for it.
  • If it’s within the role of your position, carry on.
  • If the coworker is your supervisor, it’s time to look for another job because you are dealing with hasty executive management that may be using favoritism to influence decisions.
  • If you just feel the urge to help, finish your work first.

4. Keep your social life outside work. Office dating is a huge NO! There are rare exceptions when dating works out. Office romances get messy, whether they work out or not. If it doesn’t work, remember, you have to look at this person every day and even see him or her flirting with other people. Your work-wife or husband that never noticed the quiet person in corner, will suddenly take interest in your new crush. Also, expect your coworkers to be in your business and start gossiping. Last, people can get petty and untrustworthy during breakups, leaving all of your personal business exposed.

5. Think anti-social. Waiting 6 to 12 months before sharing personal business isn’t necessarily bad. I was constantly being sabotaged with my personal business. You don’t know how long you’re going to stay at this job and don’t want to overexpose yourself. You aren’t required to provide your coworkers with reasons to trust you, as long as they have complete faith in your ability to perform. You need a chance to learn if they are trustworthy. More than likely, they aren’t.

6. Keep your salary a secret. This may be up for debate because some employees want the right to share salary information. I think, salary and raises are nobody’s business. Don’t give coworkers a reason to dislike you or bring your value as an employee into question. Coworkers that want to know how much you make usually want to use your salary as leverage to complain. I’m always for employees protesting for the greater good but usually it’s driven by personal gain. Besides, employees don’t direct their complaints to the right source, they stay among the staff, which becomes office gossip. If a coworker feels that they deserve a raise, they can compete for one based on merit and not your salary.

7. It’s called a 9 to 5 for a reason. I don’t suggest that you work overtime unless it’s compensated, which can be monetary or time-off. Also, don’t feel guilty for saying no. You and your employer agreed to your work scheduled. Frankly, unpaid overtime is not a duty. Spending all of your time at work won’t always equate to a job promotion or a raise. If you start this pattern, it will be hard to say no down-the-line.

Waste Management

I had to dedicate a section to the topic of waste management because it took me down in the end. Personal crises for employees happens when they fail to guard emotional, mental, physical and environmental space. It’s important that we nourish our spirits with positive influences.

Waste management is controlling the noise and energetic traffic that congests our lives. People can only hold negativity for a short time before spreading it. Managing waste is within our power and reach. You are not a dumping site for negativity. I spent years filling my spirit with toxic energy by allowing my coworkers to dump gossip, rumors, and other personal garbage onto me. Toxic people have nothing to offer you but negative feelings, bad energy and a host of other problems. You may think that you’re helping them release by listening to their junk but it’s nothing but an exchange of energy. Many years ago, I went to school for massage therapy. Instructors taught students to “shake off the energy” after finishing a session. We did this by rapidly waving our hands, splashing our faces and washing our arms.  I remember ending one session and realizing the client was under the weather because I suddenly had a headache, sore throat and fatigue. The client got up from the table and said “wow, I didn’t feel well when I came in, but I feel great now.” It’s because we exchanged energy.

I can’t tell you how easy getting sucked into the raging inferno of a toxic person is, especially when you’re naïve and can only see the “good” in a person. We want to believe that poor Sue is just having a rough time. But then, that rough time, turns into a rough month, which turns into a rough year. Suddenly, a light bulb comes on, after catching a glimpse of Sue dumping the same story onto coworkers with more enthusiasm each time. Knowing Sue, she probably told you it was a secret and not to tell anyone, which made you feel special. When will you learn? Poor Sue is an energy bandit and you didn’t even put up a fight.

Toxic people reel you in by gaining your sympathy using guilt, fear or a sad story, which leads to manipulation.  Most people can’t identify a toxic person until it’s too late, especially in the workplace with many other distractions. Understand that bullies, tyrants and abusers fall into the toxic category. In my experience, toxic people are miserable and phony. However, they speak their own language and consistently display certain behaviors.

You can spot a toxic person using these identifiers:

1.Blame Game. Toxic people accuse or blames a person for actions that they had no involvement in, which allows them to avoid taking responsibility for their own faults, actions and life. I’m sure we’ve all had a coworker like Sue yell “who stole my pen?” We hear the word “stole” and quickly react because we don’t want to be identified with stealing. Sue used guilt and fear to stoke your sympathy. Now, the entire office is looking for Sue’s pen.  It could be possible that Sue simply misplaced or lost her pen.

2. Amnesia. They consistently commit wrongful acts against a person but claim that they don’t remember doing it or the person is making it up. Our director ran the office like a tyrant. One time, I stayed after to work to complete a report. Employees weren’t required to answer the phone after hours. I sat there with assurance, while the phone rang off the hook. The director stormed into the office, stood over me and stared me down for several seconds, as I typed. Then, stormed back inside her office and slammed the door so loud the room shook.  I calmly sent an email and copied my managers stating that if it happened again, I’d be filing a complaint to HR. The next day, the director called me in saying that they never did that and didn’t know what I was talking about.

3. Egotistical. Toxic people make light of issues that are important to you like they don’t matter.  In turn, they redirect the conversation onto themselves, placing greater significance on their personal needs. Making the other person emotionally responsible for their unmet need, thus, keeping them in emotional bondage. Remember commenting to Sue that you felt sick and would ask to go home? Remember Sue grabbing your hand and placing it on her forehead asking you is she hot? Remember Sue going to the manager before you got the chance, so now it looks like your faking? Remember Sue grabbing her bag and waving bye? Sue is not a piece of work, she’s toxic.

4. Fear-Factor. Using fear tactics is the most effective way to keep a person engaged in toxic behavior. Our director kept us after work late for a meeting. She said that if we didn’t properly sign out our company vans each day, they would report them stolen. Thus, having us arrested and taken to jail.

5. Gracious Giver. Occasionally, everyone wants to feel cherished. Toxic people will use manipulation to get back into your good graces after a fight, argument or committing a wrongful act against you. They use gifts and acts of kindness to keep you in emotional bondage.  Whenever our director had a meltdown, we could expect pizza or fried chicken for lunch. On some occasions, we could leave early.

6. The not-so-sorry apology. Toxic people aren’t truly apologetic. They use phrases like “I’m sorry IF.” I’m sorry, IF you felt that way. I’m sorry, IF you misunderstood me. They never apologize for their actions and IF they do, it’s only IF something happened because it never does…right?

7. Avid Excuse Maker. Toxic people will mistreat you and blame unrelated external reasons. I called you that name because I’m having financial problems and dealing with stress. They continually force you into failure with them, eventually, making you responsible for their happiness or lack there-of.

8. The Jeopardy Contestant. Toxic people are always in deep thought. They’re always putting the wrongs they commit into a form of a question. I asked myself “Why are you like this?” “Why can’t you stop drinking?” Or, they look in the mirror and say “Who are you?” “You need help!” They talk to themselves but never own their behavior by using a personal pronoun.

9. The Mime Artist. In this case, imitation isn’t the best form of flattery. Strength of character begets self-confidence, the toxic person’s archenemy. They need the victim to feel bad about themselves to uphold control. Lack of an identity means that they can continue to manipulate and control your thoughts and emotions. They repeat valid points or comments made about their behavior trying to cancel it out. Accusing you of the same actions dims the light on their behavior. Also, you may find them copying what you do or good ideas that you may have. What they are doing is bullying and harassing you.

There are many reasons people stay in toxic settings or jobs.  I accepted grief from work as a part of the job. It’s always best to remove yourself from any situation that is causing emotional, mental or physical discomfort. In the case of employment, sometimes it’s not financially possible. Seek help from a practitioner or someone that you trust to help through your difficult time.

Removing yourself from toxic environments is a smart decision but hard task. You aren’t morally obligated to endure unwanted grief. Walking away is never easy, especially, when it’s a job or committed bond.  It’s those rare moments of glimmering hope that keep us in emotional bondage. In monthly meetings, our department was constantly praised for being the face of the organization in the community and for us to “keep up the good work.” Unfortunately, when it came down to showing respect and value that motivation and appreciation never substantiated into anything rewarding.

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