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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

November 1999, No. 1, Sect. 2

In the closing segment of his workplace violence series, the Stress Doc completes his ten prevention-intervention structures and strategies. The final four capture the critical importance of: a) sustained team and individual conflict consultation, b) genuine union-management collaboration, c) combating job boredom and providing new learning curves and d) insuring that employees do not become 24/7 pod people.

Going Postal and Beyond: Part IIIc Reducing the Risk of Workplace Violence >From Critical Intervention & Collaboration to Professional Variety & Personal Balance

The previous "Reducing the Risk of Workplace Violence" segment focused on the sixth of ten violence reduction methods, "The Disarming Art of a 'Practicing Safe Stress' Workshop." Key objectives included: a) creating a safe atmosphere, b) acknowledging stress and common conflict issues, c) creatively expressing anxieties and anger, d) poking fun at antagonists and good-natured laughing at stressors and at self, d) generating goals and problem-solving action plans and e) experiencing and evolving emotional bonding and beginning team building. Specific strategic interventions to achieve the above goals included: 1) Stimulate Rapid Engagement, 2) Make Leadership Presence Felt, 3) Transform Creatively Charged Issues and Emotions, 4) Uncover the Real Agendas, 5) Grapple Constructively with Group Prioritized Grievances, 6) Orchestrate Collaborative Conflict and Challenging Consensus, and 7) Establish Follow-up Schedule and Priorities.

7. Sustain Critical Intervention with Teams and Individuals. Alas, at times a "Practicing Safe Stress" Program is necessary but not sufficient for transforming a hazardous workplace environment. The workshop must become a springboard for a subsequent organizational development and team building process. Sometimes, a dysfunctional team or department must begin the healing and revitalization with small group intervention, along with individual coaching. This intense process may have to be sustained over weeks and months.

Let me illustrate. A year ago I received a call from an anxious Human Resources Specialist involved with civilians working with the Navy. Two women in the department had made harassment charges against two males -- one a contractor, the other the department manager. The contractor was accused of using sexually inappropriate language and telling off-color jokes despite repeated requests to edit his repertoire. The manager was charged with verbal abuse and tolerating the sexually offensive behavior. In light of the not so distant Tailhook Fiasco, Human Resources responded aggressively to the complaints. After a fairly speedy investigation, both the contractor and manager were docked days and pay; both had official reprimands in their personnel records. For this HQ organizational culture, these were not trivial sanctions.

There was a short briefing with the Human Resources Specialist (who was leaving for another position, hence her added anxiety and urgency to rap things up. This may have contributed to a somewhat truncated investigation.) Then followed a meeting with all seven department personnel, the HR and Employee Assistance Program Specialists and the Division Deputy to whom the department manager reported. Before long it was clear that the departmental problems went beyond two "shoot from the lip," sometimes crude males who had been demonstrating a pattern of periodic unprofessionalism and physically nonviolent harassing behavior.

Historical Dysfunction

Over the course of four years, this "family" had spawned many dysfunctional permutations. In the early stages of this imbroglio, both female employees were more disturbed by the manager's lack of recognition for their work and his not acknowledging or implementing their ideas than by sexually oriented matters. And both were rightfully upset with the manager's volatile temper.

Problems in the shop were not just hierarchical. With one of the women and another male employee, with whom no formal charges of harassment had been brought, communications had virtually ceased three years before over promotional fairness and jealousy issues. This fellow also hardly spoke with the other female employee, as he rightly saw her as an emotional provocateur and, when anxious or upset an unreliable work performer. This woman was extremely sensitive, at times unsure about her competence, and she would often lash out with angry barbs when feeling attacked. And the manager was more adept at technical than interpersonal issues. An analytical type with poor control of his aggressive impulses, his coping mode when frustrated ranged from avoidance of issues to intellectual "scarcsam" and put downs to, eventually, furious eruption.

A year before the formal charges, the addition of a couple of contractors proved to be the gnawing virus that would crash the system. These contractors, especially one in particular, were more rough and tumble "field" types than HQ bureaucrats. This office antagonist too often littered the workspace with inappropriate sexual jokes, comments and subtle digs. This same individual was also a natural leader with vital knowledge regarding the department mission; not surprisingly, an unspoken rivalry reared between this contractor and the department manager. In this state of interactional entanglement, with escalating tensions, someone had to blow the whistle. Sexual harassment was the most tangible and circumscribed offense without the parties having to acknowledge the depth and breadth of the systemic and personality dysfunction.

Critical intervention

Intervention required a series of small group meetings to get people to come out of the closet; to talk about the long festering problems, not just the more recent sanctionable behavior. I also met individually with each of the players. The focal areas: 1) anger management and communication skills were priority topics with the department manager; so too meeting strategies and group facilitation techniques. Perhaps not surprisingly, the group had stopped scheduling team meetings. Also, not feeling supported by his upper management, this manager had stopped communicating on a regular basis with his superiors. (Being in a different physical location from his superiors also added to the isolation-hiding out syndrome.)

Actually, two years before the investigation this manager had finally admitted to himself the degree of office dysfunction. He asked upper management to bring in a conflict consultant for the department. The organization as a whole was beginning Covey Training. The manager was told to hold off with a consultant and see if this new training would improve morale in the office. Needless to say, large scale Covey Training with this dysfunctional unit trying to heal itself was too little, too late. 2) grief, harassment and anger management sessions were held with the contractor who saw himself as "the tip of the iceberg" scapegoat for this already impaired department. He worked through much anger and worked hard on curbing his aggressive and offensive joking style. Planned and spur of the moment meetings between the department manager and contractor aired and cleared some of the rivalrous tension. These dialogues reinforced the chain of command while acknowledging the value of formal and informal leadership. 3) the emotionally volatile woman reluctantly accepted a referral to the EAP. This step, along with my individual coaching and constructive confrontation in newly scheduled team meetings, began to help control her hurt and hostility. 4) the other woman complainant, who had been acting second in command in the office, in an individual session came clean. While loving the challenge and the prestige of the unique departmental project, the lack of project resources and the long-standing tension between her and the department manager had taken a toll. She'd been feeling burnt out for many months. Not too long after, with encouragement that she wasn't abandoning ship, she transferred to another department. 5) the other male employee, not charged in the investigation, though angry and withdrawn through much of his assignment, was also helped to move on. A clearing the air session with me, him and the department manager, along with some informal career coaching, enabled him to get real. He acknowledged seeing no more learning curves or career path opportunities by remaining in this project and appreciated my giving him "permission" to explore other waters. He too transferred out, though not before some reparative discussions with each of the women. And finally, 6) in a meeting with the department manager and the Division Deputy, I strongly encouraged the establishment of regular feedback sessions with the department manager, at least in the early stages of this intervention process. A working alliance and trust had to be rebuilt.

In summary, let's highlight critical intervention-violence prevention concepts and strategies: a) Set rapid limits on harassing or overly aggressive behavior, yet b) Study the organizational context in which the dysfunctional behavior is flourishing, c) Often the problem is larger than one or two "loose cannons." There's something rotten in the system, d) Bring in an objective "intimate outsider," a critical incident/conflict resolution expert, who can facilitate a mix of intense group catharsis and team building along with conflict mediation and individual coaching sessions, e) Enable individuals to face the realities of their work relations and their work environments: to grieve "lost dreams" regarding mission and career path, to become self aware of their work performance, stress levels and personal-interpersonal coping and communication patterns and, finally, to overcome an outdated sense of loyalty to the group. Embracing these steps will likely free up energy for self-exploring and for pondering career path options, f) Management must maintain some meaningful contact even with 'high functioning" units. And upper levels must be in the loop enough to know when a department is under considerable stress, before the group and individuals start self-destructing big time, and g) Don't ask a broad training initiative, whether over the course of several hours or days, to address seemingly intractable problems years in the making. Serious, intensive and early conflict mediation is necessary to forestall the need for critical intervention.

8. Forge Management-Union Collaboration. A vital ingredient of the health or dysfunction of the workplace climate is the degree of genuine collaboration and conflict-resolving trust between management and union. Clearly, we are talking about union leadership that represents its constituency and is not simply an appendage of upper management. Sadly, this working relationship can be compromised so quickly.

Two small examples come to mind: 1) "good old boy" upper management in a federal agency division trying to cover for a manager engaged in sexually harassing behavior; much of the hard-earned union-management gains were put in jeopardy. A female manager, a driving force for improving relations with the unions, basically opts to transfer to another federal agency to protest the cover-up. A conflict resolution and team building process also comes to an abrupt halt. Tension and grievance procedures that had been subsiding start rearing their ugly head once again, and 2) in a city agency, upper management fills an important position before conferring with their union "partners." The union was angry because management knew the individual selected was perceived as antiunion. And union officials rightly fear their membership will view them as official stooges or rubber stamps for unilateral decision-making. Talk about a trustbuster that invariably generates an antagonistic, "us vs. them" atmosphere.

Let's not only have discouraging examples. During my consultation work with a Mid-Atlantic US Postal Service Processing & Distribution Plant, the Plant Manager and Safety Officer in conjunction with a variety of union leaders set up a monthly matrix problem-solving group. No middle and upper managers were present (besides the two just mentioned). There were 20-30 front-line employees and first-line supervisors from various work sections. Tenure was for three months; so there was a regular infusion of new issues and ideas as people rotated on and off. The Plant Manager wanted to hear directly from the folks in the trenches -- "the good, the bad, and the ugly." In a 6,000 employee plant with three shifts, this small "town meeting" was a partial antidote to bureaucratic layers and sloth. The session identified trouble spots and stress carriers (e.g., some security personnel at the x-ray checkpoint with a bit too much authoritarian attitudes). The meetings quickly redirected resources to problem-solving obstacles and often made small but significant strides toward strengthening productivity and morale. Minutes of these meetings were circulated on the workfloor.

9. Encourage Job Diversity and Rotation. While some like a highly familiar and predictable work routine, for others this is a formula for frustration, restlessness and a sense of stagnation. In fact, on several occasions at USPS I witnessed how numbing repetition contributed to the insensitive and mean-spirited razzing and hazing of colleagues. This harassment dynamic was also aggravated in a variety of work settings when people felt their skills were underutilized and underappreciated. These contexts are not unlike siblings fighting for lack of parental attention or, as likely, displacing anger with the authority onto their peers.

I've dubbed the sense of stagnation "The Bjorn Bored Syndrome," named for Bjorn Borg's dramatic '80s burnout on the pro tennis circuit: When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery! As the Stress Doc says: "Fireproof your life with variety."

People value having some input in job redesign. Encourage new training and/or job rotation. I've seen government employees' lives and careers rejuvenated or, at least, the reversal of a burnout spiral, with a special assignment outside the main office. (Clearly being detailed should not be a way of banishing a problem employee. This just spreads the "virus.") Sometimes just being able to devote a few hours a week in another department down the hall makes a difference. Finally, experiment with "team leader" positions if no new supervisory slots are opening up.

Keep challenging and providing opportunities for people to expand their skills, knowledge and sense of competence. Management will reap a tangible return in productivity and morale when sowing those Organizational IRAs: Ince ntives, Rewards & Recognition and Advancement Opportunities.

10. Don't Let Employees Live at Work. Part I of this series highlighted the danger of allowing excessive overtime. An example involving postal employees was provided. Lack of sleep, fatigue and chronic exhaustion increase stress levels and accidents while diminishing frustration tolerance and civility. People are definitely more on edge, if not "on the edge."

The equivalent in the high tech, IT industry are the computer programmers who literally stay at work around the clock. (Wasn't a danger signs exposed by the recent Atlanta tragedy that day trading companies were catering lunches in-house so people wouldn't leave their work stations at all? This is not a stressbuster!) In my contractual training for a job/career transition program for Fairfax County, No. Virginia (the "software-cybervalley" of the East) I encounter these ex-working wounded cybergrunts after they've been downsized. These folks are both burnt out and burnt up. Many are immigrants, non-US citizens with an incredibly high level of motivation to succeed. And naturally, there's often anxiety around proving they belong or can fit in. They have given blood, sweat and tears to the company and suddenly -- for whatever fiscal or fickle reason -- they are let go. Some do not have strong family or social roots in the states. To paraphrase a South American activist whose name escapes me: To treat people like a sliced orange, to suck them dry, then to spit out the pits and carelessly throw away the rind…is an insult to humanity. Eventually, depersonalizing people in this manner, turning then into automatons, keeping them chained, even if it is with golden handcuffs, then kicking them out the door will backfire…As we have tragically seen.

While organizations can do much to insure a safer work environment, individuals must also take responsibility for their mind-body equilibrium and well-being. And a study of ATT executives, back in the '80s, during the turbulent breakup of Ma Bell, points the way. The researchers found a number of execs were having a hard time physically and emotionally during this trying sea change; others seemed to weather the storm overall quite well. There were four factors that distinguished these resilient individuals. I call these dimensions "The Four 'C's of Psychological Hardiness": 1) Commitment. While invested in the company's reorganization, the hardy executives were also committed to and nurtured by family, friends, religious practice, recreation and hobbies. They achieved some balance. They didn't just have a work life…They had a life! 2) Control. The psychologically hardy had a realistic and less rigid need for control; they were able to let go temporarily of turf and status to reassess shifting organizational players and overt and covert rules and boundaries. Not only did these hardy executives create a valuable vantage point for surveying the overall changes, but their patience and flexibility were often rewarded with solid positions. 3) Change. How did they develop this adaptive sense of control? Flexible and visionary executives did not harbor false hopes or illusions about the future. They quickly grieved their sense of loss and were ready to exploit the unknown. Having loosened their mental grip, they could step back and get a different and often bigger picture. This allowed them to see change as a stepping stone, not a stumbling block. 4) Conditioning. Finally, the most psychologically hardy individuals engaged in regular physical exercise, which enhances mental sharpness and endurance as well as releasing hormones called Endorphins, the body's natural pain killers and mood relaxers. These folks truly understood the importance of generating objectives and action plans (like a daily three mile jog) when all around seems uncertain. They forged mind-body synergy over symptoms.

In conclusion, the final four workplace violence reduction strategies and structures have been detailed: 7) Sustain Critical Intervention with Teams and Individuals, 8) Forge Management-Union Collaboration, 9) Encourage Job Diversity and Rotation and 10) Don't Let Employees Live at Work. When these are combined with the other strategic and structural interventions outlined in Parts IIIa and IIIb*, management and employees will be giving each other a real fighting chance to combat and curb the scourge of workplace harassment and violence. Now that's a mission for the Millennium and a trailblazing path to help all…Practice Safe Stress!

* The First Six Workplace Violence Reducing Structures and Strategies: 1) Clear Management Policy Plus Independent and Confidential Climate 2) Stress Management by Wandering Around 3) EAP Presence: Visible and Confidential 4) Quick and Decisive Intervention 5) Allow for Grievance and Grieving 6) The Disarming Art of a "Practicing Safe Stress" Workshop

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

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