Friday, August 11, 2006

Workplace culture: Avoiding conflict

I tend to refer to the general vibe, priorities, and m.o. of a given workplace as its culture. Just like any other group can have a particular set of values, language, and methodology, so can the people at a construction site, in a fast-food restaurant, or in an office setting.

I've been working since I was about fifteen-years-old and have found myself in very hostile environments, as well as very apathetic ones. Sometimes, they were in the same place (cultures change or vary according to one's position within them).

Right now, I've got something of a mad-on for the avoid-conflict-at-all-costs workplace culture. Like most cultural elements, it's the kind of thing that trickles down from management. Management defines the priorities and reinforces the values of the culture.

One of my first experiences in a no-conflict culture was when I'd just started a job and noticed that an I.T. associate and the I.T. manager were often bickering with one another. Over time, each of them, separately, would come to me and tell me something about their pissivity with the other. I was still new, so I remained on the periphery and kept mental notes.

Among those notes was the fact that the I.T. associate called the I.T. manager outside-of-her-name, to other associates in the office. Another was the fact that the manager didn't get anywhere near the support that her subordinate did, from the other managers (including the vice-president). At one point, I even heard the associate say he was going to get the manager FIRED... and he said this right in front of another manager.

When I say, "right in front of," I mean it. She, the other manager, was standing within about two or three feet of him, when he said this. If he was saying it to anyone, he was saying it to her, but it was loud enough for me to hear it very clearly.

He was basically making a proclamation... and no one reacted to it any more than they would have to him saying "the sky is blue."

Fast-forward a bit and I found myself in the vice-president's office. She made a point of figuratively patting me on the back from staying out of the previously-mentioned conflict (of which she was clearly aware). Yet, she wasn't doing anything AT ALL to resolve it or to promote resolution amongst the involved parties.

I couldn't help but notice that the vice-president was white, the manager who heard "the proclamation" was white, and that the I.T. associate was white, while the I.T. manager was Asian.

Fast-forward a lil bit more and the Asian woman was more or less pushed into resigning (a bad move on her part, I'd say) and the associate remained on-board for years to-come.

During that time, I frequently found myself in conflict with this associate and others like him, but this culture being the way that it is, no one does a damned thing about these problems... until they embarrass the right person around the wrong people.

In other words, "the associate" was never fired, despite being about as unfriendly and unhelpful as one can be. Hell, there haven't even been many discussions about his behavior because, y'see, that's too much like conflict and conflict is to be avoided AT ALL COSTS.

Find yourself involved in a conflict and you'll be guilty, simply by association, it seems. Actually solving the problem by digging up and discovering the roots of it?

Out of the question.

I've spent enough of my life raging against the machine. I'm sure I'll do so, again, at some point in the future. But an employee shouldn't have to fight so hard for basic levels of logic and respect.

And those that are brave enough to do so ought to do so with the aid of senior management, not in-spite of them.


Luke Cage said...

Geez West. This post hits TOO damn close to home. I went through something very similar to this during my Creative Services job at Ernst & Young from the early to mid-90's man. Its much too long to get into, but that last line about those being brave enough (which I think I am) to stand up against the establishment, especially when they present their case in a very professional manner should do so with aid from the suits. But what do you do when the suits have no intention of attempting to comply with your request to look into it, or keep an eye on it. What then? That's tragic because no one, should have to work in such a hostile environment. Good post brah.

West said...

re: "But what do you do when the suits have no intention of attempting to comply with your request to look into it, or keep an eye on it. What then?"

To be honest, the way I've adapted to this reality is by co-opting their speech patterns and language (short of the point of loss-of-self) AND becoming much more selective about the battles I choose to fight.

When I fight a battle, I do what I can to retain a serene exterior (despite whatever may be going on in my head or heart).

More than anything, I'm learning to let the lower-level stuff sliiiide off my back a bit more easily. In some ways, it's probably good for me, but in other ways, it just feels like I'm punk'g out.

Sometimes, though, there's nothing good about fighting the good fight.

(I died a lil bit, inside, while typing that last line.)

It all comes down to one's workplace support system (and cya-ability).

chele said...

Workplace support system? Is that some kind of foreign language?

I've worked in the corporate world my entire adult life and I have yet to find a workplace support system.

When I was young and fiesty I would be very vocal about my concerns. Or in one extreme case I packed up my desk at lunch and walked out the door. Now that I have a mortgage and two kids I'm not so quick to walk. I'll make my concerns known once to the person who can do something ... if nothing is done than I decide whether it's in my best interest to suffer in silence or to bounce.

West said...

Without such a system in-place, we may as well be yelling into a hole in the ground.

The guy I told you about, earlier, is good for doing the bare minimum, if that... and even then, it's done with the attitude that you've somehow done him a disservice just by asking.

Of course, those in the right positions see nothing but teeth and gums, from him, but it's all flash and no substance. Anyone who bothers to pay enough attention can easily see that he's pure-t donkey niche.

Remnants of U said...

The politics of corporate America, it is a difficult came to navigate at times. And then there are the struggles within that we have about giving up a little bit of "self."

And it seems that when management is apathetic; avoids conflict; or allows toxic people to continue their antics it makes the job more difficult.

I have been in most of those situations, as well as part of a class action suit in a company that I still worked for (boy is that tricky.) LOL

So I said all that to say I hope that you find peace in the best manner for you.

West said...

Thanks, Remnants.
Each job is different, but, in a lot of ways, each one is the same.