I was an outsider asked to take a closer look.
The group with whom I was working was highly skilled and deeply committed to what they were doing. These were the type of people on which most organizations would stake their future.
As I moved in their world, it became apparent that over time, assumptions had crept in that limited them from being all they could be. Camaraderie was replaced by civility. Once open communication was now shared in selective groupings, separate from the whole. Rather than going to the source to check perceptions, misbeliefs found fertile ground in which to root and grow. Conversations that should have taken place between individuals were shared with third parties rather than directed to the person with whom those discussions needed to be conducted.
Sounds like any typical workplace.
And true to human nature, it is. But despite what we have come to accept as normal, the product of these behaviors does have harmful impact. None of this is to suggest that the people in this situation were anything but the best. It was just that circumstances over time had led to distorted orientations. In a few cases some people had coped by raising hyper sensitized, omni-directional antennae that unfortunately reinforced misperceptions. They had seen what they had expected to see or in truth, what they unwittingly programmed themselves to see.
When misperceptions and assumptions go unchallenged, distortions become magnified. Relationships become guarded. Contributions operate under the shadow of self-protection rather than openness.
In an effort to eliminate these shadows, it is important to examine certain attitudes and behaviors that contribute to the surrounding culture. Specifically we need to determine in what way our work culture is invitational? In other words what attitudes and actions are operational which cause others to feel that their contributions matter? What behaviors promote input, encourage feelings of receptivity, and demonstrate genuine respect?
We also need to examine what workplace attitudes and actions are non-invitational. To do this, it is important to be curious rather than judgmental. Even if some blame could be justifiably assigned, it is usually counter-productive. Because this world is defined by villains and victims, people get stuck in positions from which they will not move. Their perspectives and labeling are determined by limited information, which is consistent with their point of view.
A blaming orientation allows people to avoid personal responsibility as well as it keeps the offense narrative alive. As long as people are oriented to offense, they will be unwilling to fully commit to a new future. (The villain, victim, hero conflict triangle is a complex subject needing exploration far beyond the purposes of this article).
Sometimes non-invitational messaging is structural. Doors are closed when they need not be. Desks form a barricade or reinforce a message of power and subservience. Supervisory labyrinths make it clear that only a few are granted navigational markers to make it to a place where their voice may be heard.
This examination of invitational and non-invitational attitudes and behaviors informs practice and ensures that messaging is consistent with what is stated as the desired culture. Unfortunately people are unaware that the work environment celebrated in corporate brochures is often violated in corporate practice. This disconnect frequently occurs by oversight not intention.
That said, the exercise as outlined so far is insufficient for lasting and substantive change. While enhanced or hindered by structures, fundamentally our culture is a by-product of the relationships within the workplace. It is the quality of the relationships that will determine morale and job satisfaction. That means that we must all take personal responsibility for our role rather than waiting on individuals or circumstances to bring about needed change.
If this is true, then we shift from being an observer and recorder of the culture to becoming a participant and shaper of the culture. This necessitates the tougher but most important work of asking specific individuals to reflect on the ways their personal behavior is invitational? What practices actively create or promote engagement?
In what ways could that behavior be amplified in productive ways that add value to others and to themselves?
Probably most important is the obvious next category – in what ways is their behavior non-invitational?
Do they remain behind the desk when speaking with someone or do they shift the location of their chair to create a message that invites engagement? Is their early response when presented with an issue a quick-to-the-lips, “No” or the promise of a more in depth consideration of your request, “Let me get back to you on that”? Is their debating, challenging conversation style which is energizing to them, destructive to others?
Never forget – memories of the reception people experience remain long after any specific answers that may be given in an exchange. It is possible that a person’s request can’t be honored but if people feel they have experienced authentic receptivity and are provided with a fair rationale for a decision when that is possible, they are much more willing to accept a decision that didn’t go as they had hoped.
Ultimately the question of how we present ourselves is not a behavior reserved for the workplace. We would do well to ask ourselves the same question as a parent and as a friend, “How invitational do others perceive me to be?”
Invitationally speaking, perhaps it is time to ask, “What messages are others receiving and what am I prepared to do about that?
by Rob Inrig
Copyright © 2011 www.RobInrig.com. All Rights Reserved.
I welcome your feedback as well as your observations about communication – stories where things went well and when they didn’t because of a failure to truly understand what was happening. Submissions are made with the understanding that they may be freely and without obligation be used in any future publications by Rob Inrig.