How The Stories We Tell Shape Workplace Culture
At work as in life, all of us find ourselves enmeshed in scenarios that have the power to annoy us or set us off. Having our ideas ignored is one of them. When this happens, especially repeatedly, it can trigger a strong emotional response that undermines our best intentions and reinforces stock ideas we may have bought into over time.
In a moment of emotional heat, our triggered response is designed by our brain to make us feel better. But such reactions are often predicated on oversimplifications that reduce the actions and intentions of others to clichés. We know these clichés all too well. Men don’t listen to women. The hierarchy is tone deaf. The younger generation doesn’t read. Baby boomers are all about themselves. And so on and so forth.
As I noted last week, the stories that we tell ourselves when we are triggered have the potential to keep us dug in and limit our ability to frame an effective response. So let’s look a bit more closely at how this process actually works.
First, the trigger kicks off an emotional reaction that blindsides us. We may feel a rush of adrenaline, a sinking in the pit of our stomach, a recoil of distaste, a latent rage, or a snide recognition “of course.” Or we may simply feel confused.
Our impulse is often to lash out. But if we’re in a work situation, we know what this could cost us, so we typically try to stuff our feelings and move on.
This doesn’t usually succeed in placating our stirred-up emotions, however. So at the first opportunity, we may grab a sympathetic colleague and begin to snipe, complain, commiserate or even make jokes. This is why so much time at work gets consumed in gripe sessions and unproductive gossip. People need an outlet. But succumbing to this impulse to vent makes us part of the problem. Our triggered responses help actually to shape a toxic work culture, setting us against each other and wasting everybody’s time.
This is true even if we suffer in silence and the sniping is done in our heads. We may not be openly venting, but if the stories we tell ourselves are negative or focused on past events–– he always does this, she’s made it clear she doesn’t understand–– we’re still contributing to a toxic work environment..
Stories are a means humans use for putting whatever happens to us into context. This might seem like a positive impulse; after all, what’s wrong with trying to gain some perspective? But backward-looking narratives based on past experience often have the effect of assigning blame to others by comparing something that just happened to something in the past.
Given that they make us feel better, we may not stop to question whether these narratives are in fact accurate or whether they are even useful. The fact is, stories based on past experience rarely serve us well. And they are especially damaging when they operate across divides, such as, of course, gender (“men can’t…, women just refuse to…”), but also race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and age (“they always… they seem incapable of…”).
And because our go-to stories rely on generalizations and stereotypes, they end up reinforcing any biases we may harbor and creating an “us versus them” frame of mind. This makes it more difficult for us to see others in their rich particularity, which is essential for building relationships across boundaries and differences.
Narratives also usually emphasize our own innocence (“I never even got a chance to…”). So they tend to reinforce feelings of being aggrieved, even victimized–– an increasing hazard for men as well as women.
The simple truth is that we can’t control other people, so our best path is to acknowledge the emotional and mental impact that triggers have on us. This necessary first step can enable us to then consciously choose a better response–– to tell ourselves a different narrative-- one that enhances our dignity and serves everyone’s best interests.