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Are Your Workplace Relationships Turning to Mush?

What stories do people tell about each other in your workplace?  Are they stories that improve or undermine their relationships?  Do they fill people with hope or with despair about how you’re working together? 

The truth is, your brain loves creating stories.  When you see or experience something it’s not possible to know the whole picture of what or why it happened, so your brain fills in the missing pieces with stories to help you make sense of what others are doing or saying.   And in doing so you create your social reality.  But how accurate are the stories you’re telling?

“Unfortunately the stories we make up about each other at work tend to be worse than the reality because we’re hardwired to pay more attention to threats to our status,” explained Professor Gervase Bushe from Simon Fraser University when I interviewed him recently. “And then we become committed to these stories because future acts of sense-making are based on past acts of sense-making.”

For example, someone might say or do something that you’re not happy with, but rather than saying something to them you’ll make up a story to make sense of their actions.  This story then becomes your truth and a filter for how you interpret any future interactions with the other person.  In fact, Gervase’s studies suggest that that eighty percent of the conflicts in workplaces come down to this ‘interpersonal mush’, and the normal process of sense-making. 

How can you stay out of interpersonal mush?

Gervase suggests how much is fantasy and how much is reality within organizations depends on how much straight talking and transparency there is about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. While you may want to get along with everyone, and so avoid conversations that might embarrass others or create awkwardness, this doesn’t build trust or safety if you’re having negative conversations about others behind their backs or treating them in line with your false assumptions.

Rather, Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School suggests that having psychological safety allows you to speak up, offer different perspectives, and have honest conversations about mistakes or concerns. Not surprisingly,  Google found psychological safety to be the number one factor in their high performing teams.  It helps creates the trust and respect that fuels successful collaboration.

And when you replace blame and judgment with curiosity you’re more likely to engage, connect, collaborate and value the strengths of the other person.  Gervase has found that one way to do this is through an  appreciative inquiry mindset that allows you to see the best and the potential in other people and your organization as a whole.

Gervase suggested three ways you can be more successful in your collaboration with others.

  • Adopt an appreciative mindset – this allows you to see the possibility in people and organizations, and can be an effective and powerful way to co-create successful relationships and change.  Rather than a deficit mindset that focuses on problems, whose to blame and what you want less of, with an appreciative mindset you focus on what you want more of, where it already exists, and finding ways to amplify it.  Ask yourself when is this working well?  What do you need to need to get more of that outcome?
  • Be a generative leader –most leaders think it’s their role to come up with a vision or a plan to solve problems, so it can be difficult to say to you don’t have the answers. However, studies show that is more important that you know what questions to be asking and to be able to gather together relevant stakeholders in conversations to answer them, find the people with the motivation and energy to take action, and then quickly figure out together what’s working and how it can be built upon.
  • Ask generative questions – you can increase the power of your appreciative mindset when your opening question covers the following four elements. They are: surprising and novel; touch people’s heart and spirit; build genuine relationships; and they help people to look at reality a little differently.

What can you do to avoid interpersonal mush?

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