(Continued from Tuesday)
The Initiative was going to work this time, I decided. The organization was small, the mission statement clear (and don’t get me started on the drama and trauma caused by lack of a clear mission statement in the workplace), and the work worth doing, the cause worth believing in. I looked around the table and told my colleagues, “together, we represent thirty-five percent of the office. If we want to make changes, we have the numbers to support them.” We all looked at each other, realizing suddenly that we did indeed represent a rather critical mass, and in that moment I felt a flicker of hope that maybe things could be different. I asked the group if we could agree that we had defined the problems at work down to the tiniest nuance, and that process had become its own problem. Yes. I asked the group if they wanted to try an experiment with me to see if we could influence others in the office with the hope of changing the culture. Yes. I laid out my simple plan: keep it positive, don’t feed the negative, keep it on the level.
Keeping it positive would mean meeting each colleague each day, in each interaction with a smile, a hello, a friendly word. Each. Colleague. Even the ones we all kind of hated for their bad behavior. Even the ones who refused to make eye contact or answer. It meant doing small, good behaviors repeatedly. Good morning! Have a good night! Holding the door. Keeping it positive meant light conversation, sharing stories with each other about the great work we were doing in the community, complimenting and thanking each other, and publicly recognizing good behavior. For example, when a difficult colleague did a small helpful thing that impacted me, I wrote an office recognition and appreciation note, which were read at the weekly all-staff meeting.
Don’t feed the negative had to be practiced in order to be maintained. We committed to walking away from negative conversations, keeping our comments productive and challenging negativity with proposed solutions. We promised to call each other out if we witnessed each other slipping back into old habits, and vowed not to have gossip sessions. We all bought into the idea that if none of us fed into the negative energy, it would eventually starve. But that meant we were all responsible for not poisoning the vibe, and had to watch ourselves closely. When in doubt, or when faced with an out-of-hand situation, we agreed to focus on maintaining a standard of excellence in our individual work products, and to simply tunnel into our workloads if the social going got tough.
Keeping it on the level became a sort of motto, which meant staying above the below and below the above. We weren’t going to invest ourselves in management’s dynamics, nor would we involve ourselves with the dysfunctional. In other words, we would stick to The Initiative, no matter what hostility or negativity got thrown our way. Someone starts in on a complaint litany early Tuesday morning? Say, “oh man, that sucks”, and walk away. You said good morning to someone and they met you with silence? Glide on by. Don’t agree with something someone on the management team said in a meeting? Respectfully challenge them or get back to your desk and focus on your work. Do not stop by someone else’s spot to vent about it. Keep it on the level. Everyone deserves to have a workspace uncluttered with the grievances of others. Don’t be the person airing the grievances. Ask for help, manage the situation or move on. Keep it on the level.
We agreed to try The Initiative, effective immediately. A crucial factor to gaining momentum in the first fragile days and weeks would be narrowing our focus to our own behaviors without pausing to consider others’s reactions. We would keep it on the level, keep it positive and starve the negativity. We would have these goals in mind, all day, and remind each other as needed. Our organization was too good to be destroyed by its staff’s bad attitude and inability to get along, and that was our purpose.
And it worked! Within a few weeks, we began to notice that people were friendlier to each other. The whispered conversations in the common areas had ceased, and people were spending more time working quietly at their desks. The Initiative group members worked to infiltrate their respective department meetings with upbeat attitudes, productive suggestions, and headed straight back to their desks after (since the “meeting after the meeting”, usually to vent and gossip is always a danger). No more “meaningful” eye-contact or smirking in group situations. We kept it on the level, showing up with a smile, working away at our desks, and generally projecting positive energy.
The proof was in the final meeting we had with our workplace dynamics coach, where all but one person on the staff agreed heartily, earnestly to squash the bad vibes of the past and commit to working together, to be more open, more honest, more respectful of each other. We agreed all around that there was simply too much work to be done to spend any time perpetuating negativity or endlessly defining problems. We had retreated to our workspaces and were getting shit done, and rather enjoying the pleasantries exchanged with each other in passing. Our last toxic cesspool had become an island, floundering about for negative purchase. This colleague found no footholds for his arguments and barbed comments, just a smooth, level surface we had built together, the better on which to do our work. It wasn’t long before our toxic colleague grabbed the hands we were reaching out and joined us.