Several years ago, in the middle of a consulting project, the administrative assistant to the executive with whom I was working made the following comment to me. “You know none of us are happy with how things are going right now. We all hope your project will change this.”
Her situation was not unusual. Feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and fear are normal reactions to situations where the social rules in an office are vague or confusing, rather than clear and explicit.
In the situation described above the source of fear was one of the executive team members daily made the rounds of the administrative assistants of each member of the team. His purpose was to dig for information that would give him leverage with the executive team. He used his position of authority to force this circle of women to speak personally about what they saw happening on the floor with the other executives. The assistant who spoke to me told me she felt quite vulnerable in telling me what they were experiencing.
I knew what she felt because of an experience I had early in my career. In this circumstance, my supervisor had taken upon himself to correct every flaw in my performance. It was an intimidating experience. Many sleepless nights resulted as I would lay awake through the night wondering how he was going to attack me the next morning.
We all enter into our work experience with some sense of inadequacy. We take a new job. We wonder if we are up to the challenge. We wonder about the people with whom we’ll work.
There are two sides to this coin. There are our internal feelings of inadequacy. And there is the external situation of the work environment.
The internal side revolves around our self-perception and the confidence that we have in ourselves to manage challenging, chaotic situations. The external side centers in how the organization is structured to create a hospitable environment for employees to do their best work. Are they protected from abuse from superiors or other employees? Are they free to speak their minds, share their ideas without fear of retribution? While it is personally experienced, this is not primarily about how one individual treats another. This is about the social structure of a company.
The Circle of Impact model provides a helpful guide to understanding how to build a socially secure environment for people to work. We look to the three dimensions of leadership – ideas, relationships and organizational structure – to craft an environment of respect and trust that can resolve issues of insecurity, inadequacy, and fear.
Let’s begin with the Ideas dimension. If you are now working in a high stress, insecure setting, can you describe what the guiding values of the office are? Does the company have a clearly stated set of values which can be used to determine whether the company’s beliefs are aligned with its practices?
As you consider this question, recognize that values are not just words, but ways of understanding the attitudes and behaviors of people. If disrespect is practiced in your office, then it is because the word respect is just a word with little understanding of its value.
One of the clear measures of the health of a company is seen in how people relate to one another. It is not one of those extra things that would be nice to have someday. It is a prime indicator of the trustworthiness of the company, its products, and services. It is illustrated in the comment that a union official made in a meeting when I asked what the company was like before the company had gone through a crisis of trust. “We were a family. We did things together. We cared about each other.” His words reflected a set of values that once were aligned well in the company but were no longer.
It is not just in the office that relationships matter. Our relationships with customers and vendors matter as well. We all know this. We desire healthy relationships in every aspect of our life and work. Yet, too frequently this is not our experience. The problem is partly the missing alignment of values and relationships. It is also found within the structure of the business.
When I speak of structure, I’m referring to two types of structure. One is the organizational structure. The other is the social structure.
Many organizations are poorly designed for healthy relationships. In fact, it seems that they have gone out of their way to make it hard for people to feel secure in their role. The pressure to perform. The extra work assigned without consideration for additional compensation or commitments outside the office. The ugliness of office politics when people are set against one another. Along with the gossip about people’s personal lives or the latest conspiracy about unspoken problems in the company. If these behaviors are the default social environment of the organization, then they have become embedded in the organization structure.
Aligning Organizational and Social Structure
In the administrative assistant’s situation, the social rules that would guide the interaction between executives and assistants were not clear. In this kind of situation, there are assumptions about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior that are not well articulated. As a result, people who are in a more vulnerable position will feel fear and insecurity like this woman did.
The company was in a transition having recently gone through a crisis related to executive behavior. This executive’s behavior was symptomatic of the problems the company had experienced for some time. The structural point is not that a business needs a set of rules to know when people are misbehaving. It is rather for the purpose of elevating the freedom of employees to know that their best work is welcomed. Fear based management hurts everyone as it weakens the ability of an organization to adapt to change.
For many years, my office was in a house with a group of psychotherapists. Our office environment was like spending every day with a group of peer mentors. Through our conversations, I came to see that organizational problems are in many respects individual human problems on a larger scale. If there is fear in a company, then it is because fear has become a tool to manage the company. If respect and trust are the hallmark values of the company, it is because the leadership of the company has intentionally worked through their own issues to be creators of a healthy functioning organizational structure.
3 Steps to Take When the Workplace Turns Toxic
If your work situation is filled with insecurity, inadequacy, and fear, what must you do?
If you are an employee, you first must acknowledge what you are feeling. Recognize it for what it is. In doing so, it may mean that you have to see that your time with the company may not be permanent. Fear grows when we feel that we have limited choices. Recognizing the situation is a first step towards being a person of confidence in an unsettling situation.
The second step is to find someone, whether within the company or outside, with whom you can talk about your experience. When we have no one with whom to share our experience, our perception becomes fragmented. Having a counselor, a mentor or a wise friend to confide in can help you identify how to address the individual situations that are threatening.
Thirdly, maintain an active network of relationships with people who are aware that you are always interested in new job opportunities. New positions in better places to work are often a product of our network of friends and mentors who are looking out for our best interest.
For the owner, executive or manager in an organization where insecurity, inadequacy, and fear are present, you too acknowledge this situation as unhealthy for the organization. Treat this as a transition point leading towards an alignment of the three dimensions of leadership.
The first question to ask if insecurity, inadequacy, and fear are dominant experiences for people.
Then, ask the question of the three dimensions of ideas, relationships, and structure, which is the critical need at this moment. Whichever you choose, address it through the other two dimensions.
The reality is that if there is a culture of fear in your organization, then it is embedded in the structure of the company. Therefore we begin by being clear about the values that foster a healthy environment and we do this by involving people in creating the kind of place where they want to work.