I have always been intrigued by human behaviour, particularly within workplaces. By nature, I am drawn to studying it – I need to make sense of what I see.
An example I have studied for several years are the almost covert networks of employees seemingly intent upon actively sharing bad news stories about their workplace. In many cases I could see that the stories were either incorrect, illogical interpretations or pessimistic predictions. Further to this, the impact on the individuals involved appeared to be quite negative. Over time, my question became;
“Why do people do this, when it just seems to make them feel bad?”
What is driving this apparent ‘cognitive dissonance’?
In part, I believe this is a common theme:
But why connect and share the bad news?
Over the past 5 years I have studied internationally, with access to many recently published academics working in psychology, neuroscience and wellbeing. In an effort to answer that question, I have discussed my observations with many of them using a Toy Story analogy.
At some point it struck me;
the analogy was far more powerful than I had first thought ...
The story I use considers the ‘mutant toys’ who live under the bed of Sid Phillips, the sociopathic 11 year old neighbour. They are a group of damaged, disfigured, seemingly discarded toys who have banded together to hide in the shadows.
Increasingly, the parallels made sense:
This final point added much to my thinking ...
These networks also seek to recruit; either from other mistreated staff or new hires entering an organisation, testing their faith in the company, manager etc. They can be very persuasive; sharing stories of others mistreatment or hollow promises.
In psychological terms, these ‘toys under the bed’ are suffering – in some cases demonstrating clear symptoms of learned helplessness. Given the links between this, stress, illness and depression my attitude shifted from frustration to concern.
In many cases, these staff are seen as just too hard to fix and are left alone (the parallel continues). The price for this is very high.
At an individual level, these staff are likely to be:
Ignoring these staff is not an option. They once had ‘healthier’ beliefs that aligned with their desire to be in the organisation – hopefully, a part of what got them hired in the first place … Until their version of ‘Sid Phillips’ came along. Some people have the strength or resilience to deal with that, others choose to leave but there are those who feel they can do neither of those things.
These people need to be identified, understood and helped to regain trust that they matter and that they have something to contribute. It may be a very difficult process, perhaps in some cases futile.
I see this as duty of care.
Look after your toys.
Before I start - there are a few things you should know about me ... Firstly, I like coffee. Good coffee. And I will typically consume a minimum of 3 double-shot hits a day. The second thing to know is that I make it a personal challenge to 'connect' with customer service staff, particularly when I know I will see them again. So, on with my story ...
Earlier this year I attended a week-long strengths coaching training course in Sydney, delivered by the GALLUP organisation. At every break we were provided an impressive array of treats, sweets and beverages - but I will always trade that for a quick dash to the nearest coffee house for my mandatory high-octane brew. Fortunately, although we were located on the 18th floor, there was a 'hole-in-the-wall' coffee house directly across the street. This became my 'local'; game on!
On the first couple of visits I accidentally wore my name tag, boldly strung around my neck on a thick string lanyard. This name tag not only announced me not only as "Garry Davis" ... it then went on to spell out my 'Top 5 strengths':
Individualization | Analytical | Relator | Learner | Deliberative
Some might have found this a little embarrassing, but recall my second objective. I now had a way to connect. By day 3 I was laughingly known to the lady as "tag man", although I had now remembered to take off the lanyard. When she asked my name for the order, clearly feeling that she should have remembered; I asked hers. For the remainder of the week our conversation continued to build with each visit.
My final coffee visit was at the morning break on the Friday, as we were scheduled to finish our training at lunch. I walked up to the window and she asked how I was. "Sensational!” I replied. She seemed almost shocked (which of course, is always my motive for such a response).
"Why?” she asked.
"Because I choose to be", I told her.
She looked a little puzzled before responding "It's not that easy, is it?”
But my next comment really seemed to hit her. "Yes, it is - the choice is yours" I said.
I love exchanges like this. But this one was to have a powerful twist.
My change included a 50 cent piece. Here's the third thing about me - I collect special edition 50 cent pieces. Ever since I saw my first Captain Cook coin in 1970, I have been drawn to them.
Habitually, I glanced at the tail side to find that it was a 2010 Australia Day coin and realised that I had never taken notice of the inscription accompanying the unique design.
It seemed to be the perfect coincidence. I held the coin for her to see and asked her to read what it said. Her face lit up.
I completed my course and left Sydney but the experience remained in my mind for some time, prompting me to search for the coffee shop address to send her the coin but the only address I found was not convincing.
Six months later I attended another course in the same area. I made sure I took the coin and visited her. I reminded her about the exchange and she did remember; so did one of the other staff there, who had been looking on when it occurred.
Celebrate What's Great
It felt great for me to ‘close’ the story and I hope it reinforces the message for her that we can all choose where to put our attention and how things impact us.
50 cents well spent, in my opinion.