A friend asked how we can “upend this perpetual-negativity-as-social-glue phenomena” in response to my “Sexy Negative” post, where I explored that very trend. I realized I owe an answer to that, and perhaps a how-to guide to go along with it. In fact, it feels more like a karmic debt I must pay, since I’ve perpetuated negativity to the point of poisoning whole group cultures (at work, at school, in friend circles, god I’ve been gross). I resolved, in that New Years way, that when I moved to Phoenix I wouldn’t take my bad attitude with me, and I haven’t. For me, it’s easier to live with a sense of optimism, gratitude and positivity in a sunny climate. But I digress. I want to tell you about The Initiative, a surreptitious, exploratory movement I started at a job where the office culture was putrid with negativity, paranoia, gossip and mistrust. The Initiative was an experiment in social learning, specifically the power of modeling certain behaviors in an attempt to shift the culture.
We were doing incredibly marvelous things within this workplace, and bringing absolutely none of the external magic into the building. What we had in common was commitment to our cause, and a deep belief in the value of our mission…and that was it. In practice, we had people whispering in the kitchen about getting retribution on colleagues, people who refused to look certain others in the eye or respond to them, people who put others’ ideas down in meetings, people who spoke harshly and abruptly, people who hid out in their offices, dyads who went to lunch to talk trash about how much everything at work sucked, negative cesspools in every direction. My boss, who was on the C-team, and I had been hired within a week of each other and continually shook our heads in wonderment at the bad behavior and toxicity that seemed to seep into each aspect of our organization, save for our external reputation, and the quality of work we were doing in the community. We had been working with a workplace dynamics coaching specialist, taking “anonymous” surveys and having break-out sessions to discuss the results and air our grievances further. We were defining the problem over and over and over, and nothing was changing. In my opinion, our coaches were unskilled and in over their heads with our staff. The same people were passionately arguing the same issues, pointing fingers at the same people, the same people were staying quiet and no one was taking responsibility. We were at an impasse.
It came to a head when a colleague made a cruel, cutting remark about my boss’ family in a group setting, causing her to retreat to her office to shed some private tears. It had gone too far. Shitty attitudes are one thing, personal, public attacks are another. It was abundantly clear that someone was going to have to step the eff up and stop this shit, and I decided it was going to have to be me. Nothing gets me fired up like advocating for someone whom I perceive needs my protection. Why I didn’t pursue a career in law, well, that’s probably for another post.
For a variety of reasons, it’s not always safe or prudent to speak directly and openly about the issues at hand, especially in the workplace where chain of command and politics are in play. I decided I was going to take it underground, inviting a select few of my colleagues to join me in modeling the kind of workplace culture we wanted, with the goal of effecting systemic change. We were going to do the behaviors we wanted to see, treat others how we wanted to be treated, keep it on the level. Taking for granted that negativity must be fed to flourish, my plan was to starve it, until the people involved became their own toxic little islands, eventually desperate to join us on the shimmering shores of fellowship and positivity. And would we send lifeboats? Of course we would! Inclusion, consistency and repetition were to be the keys to the success of the movement.
I started on an individual level. The time was exactly right, several people who were one half of the negative cesspool dyads having moved on, fresh newcomers in their places. I chose a few new people, a few negative people, and at least two people from each department of the office. To the negative people, and the not-new alike, I asked if we could agree that the office culture sucked and nothing was working. Oh absolutely! Then I told them I was proposing an initiative to change the vibe, and invited them to a happy hour to discuss. I invited the new people, telling them that I was starting an initiative to boost morale (because it’s just not fair to scare the new people, and that’s something I’ve done previously and regret). By the time happy hour rolled around, everyone’s curiosity was piqued, and that night, over pretzel fondue and drinks (coffee for me), The Initiative was born.
Now let me cut in here and tell you I have tried this kind of thing before and failed miserably. Like in a fallen-flat-on-my-face-and-caused-suspicion sort of way. Years ago I was hired at a large institution that had just undergone a major reorganization with a new, radically-thinking, unorthodox VP. Many of the staff had been in their roles for over a decade, some closer to two decades. They did not want change, they did not like change and they were determined to dig in their heels in protest. Management hired me because they saw the counseling psychology degree and thought, “oooh, interpersonal abilities, she can do therapy on everyone and get them in line!”, which they essentially told me in the interview. I didn’t run screaming because I was young, dumb and they were offering a lot of money. I showed up, ready to tackle the challenges and lead the wave of positive change and was met with a group of stone-faced, angry, close-to-retirement-don’t-fuck-with-my-comfort colleagues. I tried tapping my younger colleagues, asking if they wanted to band together and embrace the changes, safety in numbers and youthful energy and all that. Absolutely not. And how dare I try to split the staff that way, and assume they weren’t on the same side as the old-timers? Six weeks later, the manager who had hired me was fired, and I was adrift, my single supporter shown the door for his ineffectual methods. I stayed for more than two years, eventually allowing myself to be sucked into the sexy negativity and bitterness, running with the office mean girls, until I couldn’t take it anymore and got myself out of there.
(To be continued Thursday…)