A couple of years ago, I was working on a project with a colleague and we were struggling to get into a groove. My colleague was neither dumb nor lacking organisational knowledge but we never quite hit a hum. It would have been easy to play my stronger hand and sort out a way forward without her contribution – I had more experience. Some of my thoughts about her were less than kind and, if I am honest, it would have felt great to unload and vent with a colleague.
If I had wanted to add my frustration about my colleague to the work dialogue even if she wasn’t privy to it, would it really have mattered?
A growing meanness in workplaces?
Maybe it doesn’t matter when you unload your frustration behind the scenes — perhaps you can be sharp or snide or callous in one breath behind closed doors and equanimous or generous in the next. That said, cutting others down is at best “thin milk”. At worst it is an excuse to consign colleagues to caricature by blowing up their areas for improvement into intractable flaws.
I know that I don’t want to be part of what I fear is a growing meanness and hard edge to some workplaces which may be more pronounced because we are working virtually and have access to more transient forms of communication. I also realise that there is no easy formula for a re-frame. That said, I have found a few ways to try to lean out of spaces where we are inclined to be unkind.
1. Aspire to be good and great
Perhaps my favourite way to snap myself back to who I want to be in a difficult moment is recalling a podcast host who introduced the guest as “good and great”. Be great: be competent and walk up the ladder of ambition as you wish for title, status and awards. But also ponder what it means to be good. Or as David Brooks says it, are you living your resume virtues or your eulogy virtues?
2. Know that restraint will be difficult
Accept that “protecting other people from the full brunt of our frustration — which is almost always driven by underlying fear, insecurities, and anxiety — takes work. We want to give in to the urge to wallow, to do damage, to invite company into our misery.”
“In the long haul, leaders are defined by acts of exclusion or inclusion. Who do you want to be?”
Even a simple commitment to be good or kind takes continuous work. In Hannah Gadsby’s commencement speech from last year (August 2021, University of Tasmania), she pondered who she wanted to be and landed on: “I want to be kind”. But the bit that stayed with me was when she said: “It’s more difficult than what you’d imagine. I almost regret it. It is a lot of work.”
3. Remember the humanity in others
Everyone has the right to struggle with parts or even the whole of their roles. The path to getting better at something is not pretty. I recall Ann Patchett trying to learn to scale a six-foot wall as part of her application to be a police officer. Her best option for a practice wall was in a park and she notes the particular displeasure of trying to get better at something with witnesses. But, that’s what work is. You too have been on the road to getting better at something and likely would have appreciated the support to get there instead of being chopped down.
4. Think about your legacy
Though it feels good in the moment, venting doesn’t help in the short term. In fact, it is like putting gasoline on a fire.
And in the long haul, leaders are defined by acts of exclusion or inclusion. Who do you want to be?
In the heat of the moment it is difficult to stay even-keeled but helping to advance the work is better than throwing invisible daggers. I like this quote by Alasdair Gray (based on a poem by Dennis Lee): “Work as if you were in the early days of a better nation.” Some days are difficult and messy and not everyone brings contributions to the table that are useful every round. But, intend your efforts toward growing better services for the country because we are all in this together.