Back-channel chatter can have helpful and harmful consequences, writes psychotherapist Naomi Shragai
Readers agree that open plan offices present a challenge
Work travel is an increasingly important aspect of the globalised economy. While much attention is paid to the costs and logistics of business travel, little is paid to its effects on close relationships.
Although such travel is not necessarily detrimental to family life, problems can arise when spouses and children feel abandoned. Dealing with the potential resulting guilt, loneliness or resentment is a challenge that parents manage in both creative and destructive ways.
Adjusting when returning home can be problematic as pent-up feelings may be released, good and bad. Being greeted with hugs from excited children feels exhilarating, but arguments arising from brewing resentments between partners can spoil an anticipated blissful reunion. Readjusting from hotels and digital communication to the intimacy of family life can leave travellers feeling emotionally out of balance.
One mother of three, who travels on average three weeks a month, says that in order to survive the time apart from her children she finds it easier not to think about them. “I miss them terribly, but at the same time my way of coping is to pretend almost that they are not there,” she says. “It’s like they are living in a parallel universe, but not one that I’m in at the moment.”
Her husband’s recent redundancy has made her family life even more stressful and she finds that travel provides a much needed escape. “When things are so awful, it is nice to be on another continent and to pretend that none of this is happening. It’s like your own little world that belongs to you where you’re not a mother, and you are not necessarily an employee, you’re just this person that goes and sees people.”
Psychological manoeuvres to cope with work stresses can be harmful
There are many ways of dealing with extreme stress at work: chatting around the water cooler with colleagues or sharing the odd drink after hours often does the trick.
The mind, however, also has its own unconscious methods of shutting out aspects of work that can otherwise lead to intolerable anxiety. This helps distance oneself from overwhelmingly bad feelings, such as jealousy, insecurity and anger. However, these coping methods can create more problems than they solve because to varying degrees they all depend on a distortion of reality.
These defence mechanisms might take an optimistic form, with someone rationalising that a situation is not as bad as it actually is. At the other end of the continuum are more destructive responses, such as denying the existence of a problem. Another common coping method is blaming others for problems rather than admitting to responsibility that could leave one feeling guilty or bad about oneself.
Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York business consultancy, says these are unconscious choices, determined by an individual’s psychology and the nature of the stress: “A problem with these defences is that ultimately they break down. They can’t last for ever and the longer they persist, the worse the consequences may be for the individual – because time is passing them by and opportunities for change may be lost.”
An example comes from a founding chief executive who is charismatic and effective in attracting business, but is unable to deal with the stress of making critical decisions about his staff. As a result he has a bloated team of high-paid people who do very little. He is in denial, not of the dire straits that his company is in, but of his role in its impending collapse. He does not see that his inability to make tough personnel decisions and ultimately hand over control to a new CEO is crippling the company. Instead, he projects the problems on to his antagonised board of directors and rids himself of responsibility.
“No great genius has ever existed without a touch of madness,” said Aristotle, and it is a point worth making that mental illness should not be regarded only as a problem. Indeed, our working lives would be much less rich and interesting without the varied talents that people with mental health problems bring to work.
Even psychopaths, it seems, can utilise their charm and manipulation to great effect. Narcissistic managers are good at driving a business forward, whereas paranoid personalities might notice potential threats. As Mary-Clare Race and Adrian Furnham, both psychologists, rightly suggest in Mental Illness at Work, “it is where the disorder is very strong that problems arise”.
For too long, organisations have denied the presence of mental illness at work and as a result business has suffered – morale, productivity, attendance and staff retention are all affected. This denial also contributes to a climate in which those who suffer from mental illnesses dare not reveal themselves for fear of damaging their career .
One would have then to applaud any attempt at demystifying this highly stigmatised issue, and this book is a laudable attempt. It aims to make managers more mental health-literate, and succeeds in offering a comprehensive and well researched manual for understanding, recognising and responding to mental illnesses at work, including the ones most prevalent: depression, anxiety, burnout and addictions.
Mental Illness at Work is dense in content, and packed with practical information. To help people returning to work, for example, the authors suggest “a change in workload or an introduction of a more flexible working pattern”. Breaking their work up into small tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed is also recommended.
People with a disposition towards extreme paranoia see betrayal and disapproval everywhere. Believing that people are out to get them, they frequently misinterpret situations, seeing hidden meanings and potential threats in ambiguous circumstances. Consumed by their own fears, they fail to read the motivations and intentions of others.
Paranoia exists on a continuum from deluded thinking and pathological behaviour at one end, to reasonable vigilance at the other. Within businesses, paranoia at the destructive extreme among influential personnel can create a climate of fear and blame in an organisation, while those who have a healthy dose of suspicion can help to anticipate potential threats to a company. The deciding factor in placing oneself centrally in the continuum is how much one is able to keep a foot in reality and to manage anxiety and uncertainty.
While some individuals may have a predisposition towards paranoia, organisations can also set the stage for people’s feelings of persecution to spread through a company when they fail to manage staff anxiety at crisis points or at times of uncertainty.
Naomi Landau, director of Mental Health and Management Training Services in London, describes how paranoia can become epidemic when people’s vulnerabilities are not properly managed in work environments.
She explains: “If people feel anxious or inadequate at any level in an organisation, they may immediately try to get rid of these unwelcome feelings by projecting them on to other people – identifying and consequently treating others as rubbish or useless.
“The person under attack will then feel persecuted, which makes them more anxious and likely to retaliate, in which case conflicts and cliques form.” She adds that those who feel persecuted are also likely to underperform – which means the person or group that has been attacking or bullying then feels justified in their attacks.
Given the highly competitive nature of business, top executives may be right to think that some people in their organisations are out to unseat them. But if they become hijacked by paranoid thoughts, and act on them rather than thinking them through, they are in danger of creating a culture of blame and distrust which can seriously limit the staff’s creative performance.
An executive coach told me of an example from a large global organisation, where the chief executive defended himself against his paranoid thoughts by becoming extremely controlling and by micromanaging the board. One of his directors interpreted this behaviour as confirmation that the CEO was against him, and as a result his performance suffered, he could not contain his feelings and endlessly moaned to colleagues.
A failure to address conflicts at work is one of the main reasons executives lose respect in a team. Failing to act because of a fear of conflict is often why decisions are postponed, problems are allowed to fester, and how serious realities are ignored. The desire to be liked and not thought of badly can be so strong as to paralyse thinking and stop one from expressing dissenting opinions which can in turn inhibit a company’s growth.
Although there may be good reasons for people to avoid disputes in the office, these anxieties can also be irrational and exaggerated because they are confused with early experiences in which they might have been hurt when conflicts occurred in their families. This is how small disagreements at work come to feel like enormous conflicts as the capacity to discriminate between past and present is diminished.
An example comes from a university graduate in IT whose fear was rooted in his relationship with his mother, in which closeness depended on agreeing with her, and differing opinions were frequently met with a dismissive response or rejection.
At work, he followed this pattern of handing over his authority to secure his position with others rather than risk potential fallouts with colleagues and managers. Although appearing a good team player by never disagreeing, the cost to him was high – by withholding his opinions he stopped listening to his own internal voice and became full of self-doubt, leaving him increasingly dependent on others’ views. Eventually he lost all critical ability, while the company missed out on his unique ideas and talents.
It is one of the most shameful feelings to admit – the twinge of joy experienced when a colleague fails. Although you would prefer to be the person who celebrates your colleague’s success, you are not, you are envious. The guilt for having such ungenerous and negative thoughts leaves you feeling even worse.
Envy, one of the most excruciating feelings, is not just desiring what your colleague has achieved, it is wanting to destroy what he has because his success has come to feel like your misfortune. Rather than trying to understand how he achieved his position and how you could improve in this regard by healthy competition, you are convinced that the unfairness of the situation justifies a retaliation.
This can explain why good ideas are trashed at meetings, why malicious gossip is spread and why extremely competitive work environments underperform or even fail. Indeed, while envy is usually thought of as an individual problem, when hidden and not managed it can damage a company’s operational and financial performance.
Individually, it damages the person himself, as one film producer discovered. He explains how his feelings of envy eventually spoilt his capacity to take pleasure in his own success.
“It is a horrible feeling when you see someone release a film and you are willing it to do badly, it can make you feel very disgusted about yourself. You feel deep down that it is wrong – it doesn’t really enhance your success,” he says.
When people close their front door in the morning and think they have left their families behind them for a simpler life at work, they are often mistaken. Our families, particularly our earliest relationships, live inside our minds and find their way into all our subsequent relationships, including those in the workplace.
It is in our earliest relationships that we learn how to form alliances, to survive conflict, resolve arguments and be included in groups and avoid exclusion – all interpersonal skills essential to managing office life. When families have failed in teaching these skills, work relationships – and potentially people’s careers – can suffer.
Even in the absence of such failings, most of us are willing to admit that despite our best efforts, we become more like our parents over time. Yet we fail to consider how we unknowingly recreate our past family dramas in the office.
Ironically, the skills we learn in order to survive our dysfunctional families often become the key to our success. This was the case for a theatrical agent who found that looking after actors and fighting their corner was as natural as breathing. She was the eldest of three siblings in a family where the father was alcoholic and the mother was absent, leaving her responsible for her two younger brothers.
“I actually can’t remember her [my mother],” she says. “I can remember this glamorous woman who would pop in and out occasionally. Our parents were nowhere to be seen and not interested really.
“I got a job as a secretary to an agent when I was 18. The moment I started dealing with these extraordinary people – actors – they were so needy, well, there was no other job in the world for me. Because I completely replicated my family and just looked after them.
“So, the older drunk actor, that would be my dad, and there would be some glamorous woman who would be distant and aloof. What I got known for is looking after very difficult women – I was brilliant with them.”
Rational and objective: that is how business people like to see themselves, believing there is no room for emotion in their decision making. Yet whenever human beings find themselves in the grip of intense feelings, such as greed or fear, it is these, rather than rational thoughts, that influence the choices they make.
Whatever we think, emotions always play a part in our decisions. Understanding this can help businesspeople make better choices and achieve better results – particularly in the uncertain world of financial markets.
Feelings can be a useful guide to making decisions. Optimism, for example, is necessary, but too much can mean crucial realities are ignored. Desire to succeed can be so powerful as to repress the risks involved. Fear is appropriate when caution is called for, and excitement is necessary to motivate staff and move business on.
It is how such feelings are managed that ultimately determines if one is hijacked by them or uses them as a guide. In the former case, the result may be financial loss, paralysis or burnout, whereas the latter can help in making more reasoned choices.
For one middle-aged man with more than 25 years’ experience in trading for an international bank, it was an overwhelming desire to be seen as the “top guy” and to gain the acknowledgment of being right, rather than the financial rewards, that drove his decisions on the trading floor. This resulted in his failing to think through certain crucial management and trading decisions, which ultimately led to a substantial financial loss.
He explains: “I wanted to take the existing revenue stream and push the platform to the next level. I upped the risk profile and got it massively wrong. I blinded myself because I was eager – it’s a huge ego boost when you’re in that position that people have to come to you.