Create a culture of care and respect in the workplace

Most advice columns offer tried and true practices, and they are soothing to us, but they also limit our options, and often render us complacent. Mary is about possibility; I approach the questions I receive and the answers I deliver as inventions. My theory is that all of life is a story we tell, which in some ways makes everything very easy. If you don’t like what is happening you can always rewrite the story. So in this column I pay attention to the narrative elements of the question, and I pen answers that create new spaces to walk into. I hope to give readers the experience of coming upon an undiscovered room in a house they have long inhabited and thought they knew every inch of.

Dear Mary,

I would like there to be a culture of caring and mutual respect in my workplace. When it gets really busy and some people in management get stressed, tempers flare and they resort to name calling, ie. “why don’t you understand how this is done? You are stupid” (and that is an example of a rather mild interaction). How is it possible to reframe this situation to something like “You don’t understand? Let me help you.” How is it done?


Dear Beverly,

I applaud you for being willing to tackle such a widespread condition. Stress pairs nicely with the notion that a business must grow and exceed its prior results. A very common reaction to feeling unable to cope is to blame your neighbor or you colleague, or indeed, any man, woman, or child standing in your line of view. Blaming is also a cultural norm, so it is probable that this is a way of acting that people in your business find normal, and like a rising tide, it floats all boats regardless of the will or direction of any individual craft.

Short of overthrowing our economic system in favor of slowing down growth, I would suggest you undertake a gradual culture shift:

1. Rename the blamer

Gather a small team of like-minded people, perhaps three or four, and speak of your vision of a best-place-to-work, where there is caring and mutual respect. Agree to intercede, when stress levels are escalating, by asking the blamer “Is there anything I can do to help?” Acknowledge that the blamer is under stress and not acting like his real self.

2. Enroll others in your vision

Concurrently, ask at a staff meeting for a show of hands as to how many people share your dream that your company could be a best-place-to-work. Say what that means to you. All this is much easier to do if you are in a position of authority, but it is also perfectly possible to lead the culture shift from any position in the company.

People may try to trivialize what you are doing by making jokes. Simply laugh good-naturedly and keep moving the conversation along. Ask for suggestions on how to mobilize the new culture.

3. Manage the new conversation for possibility

Meet with your original group of three or four for lunch once a week and have an obviously good time. Talk about possibility; talk about wonderful events and things you love about life. Pretty soon one or another of the staff, as in Harry Met Sally, will want some of what you’re having, and your team will expand. Be sure you are being an ambassador for possibility, which means you will not complain about how hard this is, or how certain people just don’t get it.

Make staff meetings festive, signaling “we love to be together.” Institute acknowledgement of some kind for contributory behavior and make sure that you and your team can find an act of the habitual blamer that you can celebrate for its generosity or kindness. Be specific about what you found positive. Start using humor in a constructive direction, like awarding frog-into-prince statues or a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or a story of Beauty’s Beast in bliss.

Keep asking people in the workplace if they notice a change.

4. Invite communication and expression

Solicit suggestions from everyone about what might make the workplace more pleasant or more enlivening for them, so that they feel heard and see that they have a hand in changing things. Then, if you have regular staff meetings, the dialogue will begin to open up between you and them and possibility will spread beyond you.

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