What’s the climate in your workplace? I don’t mean the temperature. Like most employers, your budget-conscious management probably turned the furnace off in 2008, leaving you and your co-workers to huddle around garbage cans and warm your hands on the heat generated by burning last week’s memos.
No, the climate to which I refer is the emotional climate, the same factor that Sue Shellenbarger explores in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, titled “When Negativity Hits Your Office.”
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine how negativity could possibly creep into today’s workspaces. No one worries about job security, because nobody has it. No one complains about raises, because no one gets them. In fact, today’s economy is so bad that if you have any kind of job at all, no matter how miserable, you have to suppress your joy for fear of alienating your unemployed friends, neighbors, children and pets.
But trust Shellenbarger to root out negativity, even if it has to come from her own work experience. “At a previous employer years ago,” she writes, “the prevailing employee attitude was ceaseless, simmering resentment and cynicism over ever-rising workloads and a lack of recognition to us for shouldering the burden.”
Wow! Add bonehead managers, flimsy benefits and stale chips in the snack machine, and she’s describing your job!
This brings us to the point where Shellenbarger and I part company. To me, if you are not resentful and cynical in the midst of a workplace horror show that would frighten Stephen King, how else are you going to survive? I say to let that simmering resentment boil over. It’s the only way I know to keep from going mental. Or in your case, even more mental.
To make her case, Shellenbarger references Kathy Savitt, the CEO of Lockerz, who, despite being somewhat challenged when it comes to spelling, “deliberately tries to instill respect and optimism in her employees.” This is quite an accomplishment, especially in tough economic times. I don’t know what CEO Savitt finds to be so darn optimistic about. The most positive thought I can generate for my co-workers is: “Sure, it’s bad, but don’t worry. We’re all going to die sooner or later.”
Savitt also “prohibits a toxic office-meeting pattern she calls ‘stump-a-chump’ — when a CEO tosses out a question and one brave employee hazards an answer, only to get harsh critiques from others who didn’t have the courage to offer their own ideas.”
Understanding exactly what’s wrong with a good game of stump-a chump stumps me. Anyone who speaks up in a meeting is a chump who deserves to be stumped and stomped. She or he is the same nudnik who kept raising his or her hand in high school, hollering, “I know the answer! Choose me! Choose me!” In other words, the kind of person who makes the rest of us look bad, as we sit in the back of the conference room and hide behind our laptops.
“How Dad’s Yelling Can Spawn an Office Tyrant,” another article in the Shellenbarger oeuvre, tells the story of Lars Dalgaard — a boss so “brutally blunt” with his direct reports that he was “pulled aside” by a coach and “told to be more considerate.” Dalgaard became so darn considerate that he has not only changed his ways, but he has also “instituted a ‘no-jerks’ policy at his company, banning similar behavior by others.”
While it would be nice to consider the results of a no-jerks policy, one wonders who would enforce it. Certainly not the jerks in HR. Plus, let’s consider what could happen if more companies institute these no-jerks policies. It would force all the jerks to apply for jobs at your company, where jerks are welcome and then promoted.
Shellenbarger concludes that you can improve the emotional health of a workplace if you “team up to meet with a supervisor who fosters cynicism and point out how the behavior damages morale.”
It sounds like a terrible idea to me, but do it if you must. Either way, you’ll not have to worry about negativity emanating from your supervisors. If they don’t see the light and instantly transform themselves into a bunch of Little Mary Sunshines, they’ll fire you on the spot. At the risk of being negative, I’d suggest that before you instigate a confrontation, you pack up your office. It makes it so much easier to get out of the building after you’ve been canned, and of that I am positive.
Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.