I should probably start with when I first noticed it.
It was when she said “please”.
The context was simple: “Would you please take care of the customer at the desk?”
But she didn’t mean “please.” It was not a request. It was a command.
I’m not completely stupid. I understand that it was meant to make the command more palatable. But make no mistake – it was a command.
Later, when I was the one in charge, I noticed the effect this “politeness” had on my co-workers. When I’d make a request – “Are you able to do this task?” – they’d stop. Conflicting emotions crossed their faces. They sputtered about what they were doing. This continued until I added: “No is an acceptable answer.”
And I saw relief. Over and over again, relief that they could actually say they were too busy, that they were occupied with another task, that they were actually at lunch – whatever the circumstance might be.
We talk a lot about toxic personal relationships.
We almost never talk about the often-subtle toxic work relationships, even though these are the relationships that dominate most of our lives.
If we talk about them at all, it’s talking about cartoonish caricatures like Douglas Reynholm or Rowan’s character on Viva La Dirt League.
But these caricatures hide the real and far more subtle toxic relationship structures in the workplace.
The same dynamics that we are more aware of in our relationships also show up in our professional and work relationships, and they’re just as damaging. Perhaps moreso, because they’re cloaked in corporate jargon and leadership speak.
Another example: A co-worker – let’s call them John – isn’t doing the work he’s supposed to do. As a result, customers aren’t taken care of unless another person leaves their work and does John’s job as well. When this is brought up to management, the response is that “we are all a team, and teamwork is important here.”
Nobody can argue with that, right? Teamwork is important. Some of the most fulfilling times at my day job are when several co-workers and I team up to accomplish a difficult task, each of us doing the parts that we’re best at. But take that too far, and suddenly you’ve got a toxic environment that is hard to dispel.
Yet another: When a supplier messed up an order, Sally took the time to let them know how to do it properly so that they’d get what they wanted and it would be easier for Sally and her team. Another co-worker standing nearby overheard the conversation and said “But we could have done more to fix their order.”
Think about that for a minute. They made a mistake, so we should have anticipated the mistake and fixed it first? That kind of anticipatory enabling behavior screams codependency.
A final example: Sam hangs up the phone. “I really wanted to tell them we could do that job,” he says, “but we simply don’t have the time today. I wanted to be nice to them and take the assignment.”
It’s that last phrase that’s so damaging. If you take on more than you’re capable of – as a person or as a business – then you’re not being nice. You will end up making mistakes or doing a poor job on everyone’s work – or even worse, contributing to your own burnout.
In all of these examples it’s really really easy for either honest well-meaning sentiment or corporate catchphrases to try to silence objections.
And it’s really, really toxic if you do.
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