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Making a difference:
from hassle to harmony in the office

By Jonathan Haigh.
Published in Executive Secretary, December 1994


It is usually fairly easy to spot an office where there is a lack of harmony. There are, after all, a large number of symptoms. Cliques, gossip, rows, buck-passing, back-stabbing, rumour- mongering, blame, tears, shouting; these are just a few of the possible indications that all is not running entirely smoothly. And don't be misled by anyone telling you that "that's how it is in offices", because it doesn't have to be that way.
The trouble is, it's not always easy to do something about a disharmonious office. People tend not to welcome change in any shape, but where there is the possibility that they may have to change themselves, even take on some new attitudes, then there will be considerable resistance. They think things like, "Even if I change, nobody else will, so it won't make any difference. It's easier keeping things the way they are."
The other problem with trying to change is that an office does not exist in isolation and has to deal with the outside world. And the people outside the immediate office may have vested interests in keeping things the way they are.
So how can we change those attitudes, overcome the vested interests and end up with an effective, harmonious team? How can we make a difference? The obvious answer is to send everyone on a "teambuilding" course. But in some ways this raises more questions than answers, because there are dozens of different approaches to teambuilding, from abandoning executives in their pyjamas with a penknife and no money half way up a Welsh mountain and telling them to find their own way back to the office, to building tower blocks from Lego. There are those approaches which concentrate on the individual team roles; and those that concentrate on the tasks that the team does. Which one is best for you? Well, it depends.
It depends on the nature of the office. What sort of work is being done there? Is it highly structured, with clearly defined individual roles and easily understood processes? Or is it free form and fluid, solving unstructured problems? An example of the first might be a bought ledger department in a large company and the second could be a small strategic marketing department. The point is that the requirements for harmony will be very different from office to office.
However, having said that, there are some fundamental aspects of working together which need to be addressed, whatever the group. Get these right and the group/team/office has the tools to develop appropriate structures, routines and working practices which will lead to effective contribution as well as harmony.
That is important: you need both harmony and effective contribution. An office where everyone got on well and there was no tension but nobody ever actually did anything is fairly useless. On the other hand, somewhere where things get done, but at the expense of personal relations, is not only volatile and therefore liable to self-destruct, but is also very likely to be more productive if there is greater harmony.
The key skill that needs to be developed is communication.
What is the nature of communication when it is working well? What should we be aspiring to? What gets in the way of good communication? These are the questions which need to be addressed.
In a harmonious office, the communications will be open and assertive and the members of the group will trust and respect one another. Let's examine these aspects in more detail.
Take openness first. There are two sides to this. The first and most obvious thing to think about is whether communication channels are open at all. Does everyone know what is going on and what is expected of them? Do people speak out when something needs to be said? What happens to suggestions? Is there some mechanism for reporting what is happening? These are fundamental questions which have to be answered before the quality of the communication itself can be examined. In terms of the familiar "mushroom" model of management (keep 'em in the dark and feed 'em manure), we are talking here about first throwing some light upon the situation.
The other important thing to note about communication channels is that they need to be open in all directions. Many an organisation has channels that work very well down through the hierarchy (indeed, some information flows in that direction are a veritable torrent) but very little moves upwards or from peer to peer. When communication is only one way, it is only half as effective and in such cases, considerable work may be needed to change the culture of the organisation and to get managers, in particular, into the habit of listening.
But let's assume that the channels are open. Are the communications themselves open? There are many things which get in the way of open communication, including: prejudice, preconceptions, cultural differences, inattention and hidden agendas. The first three are closely related and are the source of a great many misunderstandings.
When we make assumptions about a person or what they are saying, we are following a normal human tendency to try and make things fit our personal model of the world. So we draw all sorts of conclusions, which may or may not be appropriate, without any hard evidence. The trouble comes when we let those conclusions rule the way we interact with that person in later transactions. To give a very simple example, just because a quietish person has nothing to say on one particular topic, we cannot infer that they will have nothing to contribute on another. But they may need to be encouraged to speak.
Cultural differences, too, can be significant in getting in the way of good communications. Apart from the language question - different cultures will put different values and levels of significance to certain words - there is also the question of body language. Non-verbal communication accounts for a very high proportion of the total message transmitted in any exchange, and different cultures attach different meanings to the same gestures. They also have different concepts of "personal space" - the British need more than most, which leads to the phenomenon in diplomatic circles of our embassy staff (allegedly) always ending up against the wall at receptions, having been continuously backing away from people from other countries. This makes them appear 'stand-offish', whereas it is in fact merely reflecting a cultural difference. The openness needed to deal with this is to not take things at face value and to accept that people are individuals - and therefore will react differently to a given set of circumstances.
Inattention takes many forms and is one of the major barriers to harmonious communications. In effect, it is sending the message that what the other person is saying is not worth listening to. And, if the speaker is sensitive, it can also devalue the person as well as the message. Elements of the message will be lost in two ways: the content will not necessarily be heard properly (as in the famous "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance" eventually becoming "send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance"); and secondly, it is likely to cause animosity between the speaker and the listener, which means that the message is muddied by the added emotional content. Listening attentively is a skill that needs be practised and learnt for people at all levels in an organisation.
Where there is something else going on in a transaction other than the business in hand, it is sometimes referred to as the hidden agenda, or, in drama terms, the subtext. The hidden agenda may not necessarily be negative (consider two people flirting as they discuss the monthly reports), but it will nearly always affect the quality of the communication.
People need to be aware of the possibility of hidden agendas, so they can take into account that, for example, someone who is angry or upset is not necessarily upset with them. This involves a high level of tolerance and not a little self-confidence - which brings us on to assertiveness.
Assertiveness is another step on from being open. It is being clear what you want to achieve in any transaction and stating clearly what that is. It is an essential component of negotiation and valuable in any situation. It means avoiding the many "games" that people play, especially in difficult situations.
Non-assertive behaviour usually results from fear. Some of the more familiar of these include: fear of being rejected; fear of not being liked; fear of being wrong; fear of failing. These result in two main types of behaviour, both of which will not increase the level of harmony. Aggressive behaviour is typically marked by a lack of flexibility, more noise, bullying tactics and a general lack of appreciation for the other person's point of view - "I'm not interested what you think, for ****'s sake just do it!" At the other extreme, people are too flexible, and let the other person dictate the agenda. This might seem better than aggression, but what tends to happen is that resentment builds up, which can lead to difficulties later: an emotional "explosion", chronic moaning and complaining, lack of co-operation; these are the sorts of problem which can be generated.
Learning to be assertive can be a lengthy process for some people, as non-assertive habits are usually well-ingrained. Many books and courses have been written on the subject and it is outside the scope of this article to cover it in any great detail. There are some basic ideas though which will help in many situations.
For a start, it is useful to separate the content (what is being talked about) from the process (the subtext, how the person is feeling) and to bring the process elements out into the open - "I feel reluctant to raise this because I'm worried that you will be angry, but .....". It also helps not to exaggerate or deal in absolutes: "You always ....." or "It's completely ruined.....", for example. We need to ask ourselves whether these statements are literally true, and if not, adjust what we say accordingly. The other, simple, idea which is very important is to get clear on what it is we want out of the transaction. It is difficult to ask for something, if we don't know what it is!
Lack of assertiveness, as well as being about fear, also shows itself as lack of respect - either for ourselves or the other person involved. And this is the final area that I want to consider.
Harmony, good communications and assertive behaviour all stem from an attitude of respect. Respect for others does not involve being obsequious or servile, it is just accepting that they have certain rights to be the way they are and act the way they do. It is very closely bound up with the idea of trust - it is much easier to respect someone you trust and at the same time, it is easier to trust someone you respect.
This sounds like something of a Catch-22 situation. How do you break into that trust/respect loop? Because if you can, then you can start building the conditions for harmony. People who respect each other are less likely to be prejudiced, more likely to be attentive, not to let hidden agendas worry them and more likely to have the confidence to be assertive.
To make a start in building trust and respect is the biggest step. What it involves is one or more people deciding that they want to do it and taking the risk of trying it. In a way, it is like breaking a deadlock in a negotiation. Somebody has to budge from an entrenched position, or start looking at things in a new way, positive rather than negative. It means giving up dichotomous thinking, that is dividing people and situations into rigid divisions - good/bad, right/wrong, black/white and so on - or into limiting categories - no good at figures, a "moderator", a "technician". The point about this way of thinking is that it gives no room for people to change or grow - which they will if they are trusted and encouraged.
Starting the process of trust and respect may require the help of someone outside the organisation. It is often easier for outsiders to see dispassionately what is happening and to suggest ways forward. To give an extreme example, look what happened recently in the Arab- Israeli conflict: it took a Norwegian to get the peace process under way, and it started with getting the two sides to take up a new position of risking trust.
People in discordant offices who want to take the risk of being more trusting, more open and improving their communications, face one final obstacle which was alluded to at the beginning. It is much harder to achieve in isolation. If the people in an office work together on getting their own world better, but find that they are constantly coming up against the same old problems when they deal with the rest of the organisation, they may become disillusioned and start to revert to their old ways. On the other hand, if the process of trust and openness has really taken root, then perhaps the message will start to be propagated outwards.
And that really will start to make a difference.

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