Is your office a monkey-free zone?
“What?” you say. Let me explain. If I didn’t laugh, I would cry over some of the stories I have heard about experiences in the corporate world. It amazes me that so many managers go down the wrong path in trying to motivate their employees to behave differently.
My friend relayed a story about how his office decided that there was too much negativity in the work place and they needed to do something about it. Negativity can be contagious, and eliminating workplace negativity would be a positive thing.
Their strategy was to create a rule that if an employee said something negative, they would have to keep a monkey (a children’s stuffed animal) at your desk at all times. The only way you could get rid of the monkey was to wait to hear someone else saying something negative and then give the monkey to them.
I am sure that the intent was to motivate people to be more positive and create more awareness around when employees were being perceived as speaking negatively. And, I am sure this was meant to be funny. However, treating adults like children never brings out the best in them. And making them keep a monkey at their desk is akin to making them wear a dunce hat and sit in a corner. It is bully-like behavior and its purpose is to shame. Shame creates bad feelings. Bad feelings shut down creativity, dampen morale and it shuts down higher order thinking skills (HOTS) which is possibly a much worse consequence than ‘negative’ talk.
One consequence at his workplace was it created what can be facetiously called themonkey effect. It caused a lack of trust and a hesitation to speak openly about issues that could be perceived as negative. When prodded for more information, they began to ask “is this a monkey-free zone?” before being willing to provide input. In meetings to solve problems where it is important to discuss challenges that need addressed, staff were hesitant to discuss their thoughts and opinions for fear of it being perceived as ‘negative’ talk. They didn’t want to be shamed with the monkey.
So, I ask, is your office a monkey-free zone?
What can you do about negativity in the workplace? While there is a long list of things we could talk about, let’s start with the most easily identifiable form which is a complaint. Instead of putting up a sign with a red circle around the word complaints, here are some tips to turn a negative into something more positive, by making someone feel heard, feel empowered and possibly even create positive change.
Listen to complaints with a mindset that there is valuable information in the complaint.
Victim language is a pattern in language which usually indicates that the person feelspowerless to make a change. Complaints are a form of victim language. (Now that you know this, you are going to complain less, now aren’t you?!) This sounds like a bad thing, but there are a lot of benefits and valuable information that can be obtained from listening to complaints.
What are some of the benefits and valuable information you gain from complaints?
Complaints shine a light on something that can be fixed or streamlined to be made better, improving the work environment and possibly morale.
- If one person complains, chances are that there are 10 other people that have the same complaint that won’t speak up. Instead, they will silently withdraw or leave. Listening to the one person that is willing to speak up gives you the opportunity to take action early.
- A complaint tells you what the person is committed to or what the person values. For example, if they are complaining about something that is inefficient and ineffective, you know that they are committed to or value something that is most likely opposite of their complaint – a work environment that is efficient and effective. They may not even be aware that they have these values. It may be unconscious. It gives you an opportunity to understand them better and to acknowledge the values that you are observing to build a better relationship. The more awareness someone has about themselves, the better decisions they tend to make.
Guideposts for listening to complaints
Here are a few guideposts to using your advanced communication skills to make the person feel heard and understood, find the value in the complaint, and give them a path to feeling empowered again.
- Listen to the complaint with non judgmental awareness. What is non judgmental awareness? This means that your tone remains charge-neutral, you do not judge, you do not try to ‘fix’ anything but stay curious and explore further if you want more details. The ability of the mind to observe without adding layers of bias, criticism and unnecessary analysis make the awareness non-judgmental. An example might be watching a leaf drop from a tree in the autumn season. You don’t know where it is going to float to next and you just observe its motion floating and swirling naturally in the air. There are no projections of what will happen in the future because you are only observing what is happening now and nothing else.
- Confirm your understanding. If they said, “I should have gotten a better raise.” Confirm your understanding of what they said. For example, you might say “I hear your frustration. You feel you should have gotten a better raise.”
- Ask if they are just venting, or do they want your help? This is a clarifying question that helps bring awareness to both of you as to whether they just needed an understanding ear to hear them out, or if they really want some help from you. Because if they are just venting, the worst thing you can do is to try to fix or solve the problem. They are not engaging you to solve the problem, they just want to vent. They may not even be aware of this themselves. If they confirm that they are just venting, you might say, “Okay, I want you to vent another two minutes to get it out of your system, but then we move on to happier and fun things. Agreed?” This brings awareness to them that you want to be there for them to vent, but not forever.
- If they aren’t venting and want help, ask yourself, “What are they committed to?” or “What do they value?” This is usually something opposite of what the complaint is about. Once you understand what they are committed to or value, acknowledge that by stating it to them. This is a powerful technique to make a person feel heard and understood. It also helps you to uncover the positive intent of a complaint. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you are committed to good wages” or “It sounds like you value good wages.” They may not even be consciously aware that this is a value they hold in themselves, until you state it. Hearing it from you may be very eye opening.
- Ask an open ended question that empowers and challenges them to make a change. This must be asked with non judgmental awareness as described above in a charge-neutral tone. Avoid yes or no closed ended questions. You might ask, “What do you think is your next best step to earning more money?” Or, “What do you think you would like to do about it?” This step helps move the person out of powerlessness into a sense of empowerment into the possibility of taking an action to initiate a change.
Employee: “We have too many meetings.”
You: “You feel we have too many meetings.”
Employee: “Yes. They are a waste of time.”
You: “Can I clarify – are you just venting? Or do you want me to brainstorm about it with you?”
Employee: “Good question. I hadn’t thought about that. I think I really want to brainstorm ways to improve it. For one, thing I think they could be made so much more productive if we had an agenda.”
You: “I know you are committed to making productive use of meeting time”.
Employee: “Yes, it would be beneficial to everyone.”
You: “What do you think are some things you could do to make them more productive in addition to an agenda?”
Employee: “My boss micromanages me.”
You: “You feel that you are micromanaged”
Employee: “Yes. It drives me crazy, and I can’t do my best work that way.”
You: “I can tell that is frustrates you. Can I clarify – are you just venting? Or do you want to talk about how you might address it with your boss?”
Employee: “I have no idea how to address it.”
You: “I know you are committed to doing your best work and you need more autonomy to do it. What do you think would help you most in addressing it with your boss?”
Employee: “I just don’t know how to bring it up or what to say.”
You: “Would you like to set aside some time to brainstorm things to say and ways to bring it up in a way that is productive?”
Employee: Yes, that would be great. I would like that very much.
There are many things to look at when addressing negativity in the workplace. However, please do make it a monkey-free zone. By shifting your mindset from a complaint is something negative to a complaint is an opportunity to streamline your work environment, gain valuable information and encourage action or change is an excellent start. Using these techniques will make a person feel heard, model a way to communicate when listening to a complaint, as well as support them in moving out of feeling powerless and into feeling empowered to make a change.
Want to go from stressed out to streamlined? Wishing you could spend more time actually doing the work you love? Mia Turpel’s know-how as a business and career coach, speaker, project manager and trainer will help you do just that. Discover how to find Your Best Work in the Your Best Work, Find It, Love it, Live It telecourse. Want to chat with Coach Mia? Contact Coach Mia.