This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Facilitation & Evaluation at The Latimer Group.
It is always disappointing when something looks whole and attractive on the surface, but is revealed to have real foundational flaws.
I’ve been going to a physical therapy office for the last couple months and every time I come home, I share with my family what a great atmosphere there is. The employees really seem to care about the clients and know and like each other well. It is a nice balance of serious work and playful levity – two key elements we’re all looking for in good work culture right now.
But I was there at 6:30 in the morning the other day with just one therapist and another client. The assistant hadn’t shown up yet and it was becoming problematic. The therapist was unable to do certain things, like access the calendar to schedule appointments, and was visibly bothered that the assistant was running late. He started joking with us, two clients, about how, at his old job, if you showed up late, you just wouldn’t have a job anymore. Then he took a more understanding route and wondered if there might be traffic holding the assistant up. This went on for at least five minutes while we were chatting, doing our exercises, and stretching.
Based on what I had seen and assumed about their team culture, I expected that, when the assistant showed up, the therapist would do one or more of the following: (1) tease him about his lateness, (2) show his care and ask what happened, and/or (3) acknowledge that the lateness has caused inconvenience. Because I enjoy studying human interactions, I was curious to see which came first.
When the assistant walked in, I discovered there was an option I hadn’t considered. Silence. The therapist said “Hello” and nothing more. No playful ribbing, no demonstrated concern, no mention of the lateness at all. No discussion in front of us, and no side conversation out of earshot.
This bothered me – a lot – mostly because it cracked the beautiful vision I had created of their culture and relationships. Why did the therapist joke and wonder aloud with clients, but not with his colleague? That mini-transgression violated the bond I thought they had.
There are times when it is uncomfortable to address an issue – small or large – with our colleagues, or our leaders, or our clients, or our friends and family. Discomfort makes silence an attractive route. It’s easier. It’s less messy. We know how to navigate it. But our relationships are built on trust, which requires open dialogue and a degree of candor and vulnerability.
Now, I am not advocating for calling each other out for every little misstep. But if there is something that bothers us enough to mention it to clients (which really is another issue) or anyone else, then we owe it to our colleagues to address it with them. Otherwise, it may fester and create real resentment.
We need to approach these conversations with even more awareness – self-awareness, audience awareness, situational awareness. Sometimes humor can serve as a helpful neutralizer, but we need to apply extra sensitivity right now, knowing that people are experiencing more disruption than normal.
What always helps is stepping back to think carefully about what we are trying to achieve, how the other person may be feeling, how we want them to feel, and what the most important points are to get us to that place. Like any endeavor, it gets easier, and we get better with practice. And the effort we put into open, honest conversation is an investment in our relationships and network, and builds the foundation of a healthy, collaborative culture.
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