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Inhuman Nature

Last month, I attended a well-check cardiology appointment. Current COVID requirements mandate that each patient stand in line (divided by 6 feet) until their vitals are checked to ensure they are not transporting this vile disease to other cardiac patients. While waiting to be checked in by two young nurses, I felt invisible. They barely acknowledged our presence, so intent were they on their own conversation. I couldn't help but overhear one of the pair gossiping about (what I could only assume) was another colleague. Although I was a respectful Covid 6 feet away, her volume and intonation pierced my ears with the negativity towards a co-worker. The complaint appeared to stem from said nurse having to inventory a supply closet while her colleague (Gracie) apparently sat around eating bon-bons because she was "the pet". The Gracie bashing went on for several minutes in between fever checks. Thankfully my forehead passed muster allowing me to exit their "coffee-clatch".

As I sat in the waiting room, waiting to be called, I found myself feeling sorry for poor Gracie. I wondered if she knew what her colleagues thought about her. Suddenly, a memory buried somewhere between pre-calculus and other traumatic events deep with my temporal lobe, awoke and began to poke me.

I was a young worker, very passionate and determined to protect every single child in Mississippi! Long hours never dissuaded me. Nor did complex cases. I thrived on the adrenaline of the truth-finding! My office mates were close as is often the case in high stress jobs. We supported each other, helping when we could and lifting each other up. We shared the goal of client-centered practice...not ego...not pride...not glory.

Or so I thought.

One day, after completing a difficult sexual abuse case, and receiving kudos from the manager, I warmed in the sincere praise of my colleagues who wished me well. Later that afternoon, I left to meet with the DA liason to go over my notes. I remember walking to my car feeling so happy that our team was strong and supportive. However, just as I opened the car door, I realized that I did not have my ID badge. Returning to my cubicle, I frantically searched for it. Then, I noticed the badge had fallen under the desk, which required me to get down on my knees (I was much younger then) and stretch out my arm to reach it.

When my hand tightened around the plastic square, I heard the voices of two team members as they returned to their own cubicles.

"Angie, Angie, Angie...I am sick of hearing Sharon (the manager) go on about her. She's no better than we are."

The other colleague didn't reply, so the first one continued. "I just hope she doesn't start to believe her own hype."

I pulled myself up to my feet and just looked at them. The quiet one looked mortified and remorseful. But the negativity leader just said, " didn't see you there." After a 10 second stare-off, hurt, betrayed and angry, I walked out of the office and back to my car.

If you have never been hurt by office gossip and innuendo, be glad. Because negativity exists in most offices. Some have small pockets of negativity but others have so much negativity that the mission just gets lost. When negativity is not addressed, more and more staff feed into it. Negativity grows like mold and is just as dangerous. Recognizing and doing your part to address negativity is key to having a vital, functioning office environment.

I have heard the excuse, "But it's human nature to gossip. I mean, its just a way to blow off steam"

Is it? What does that say about humans?

Working with systems, when I come across an office with a strong negative vibe, I have found four types of staff.

The Leader. This does not mean they necessarily have a place of prominence in the agency, but these staff members have developed a following. The leader often demonstrates charisma and vitality, rarely allowing the mask to slip and reveal the need for validation and affirmation. Often the leader has issues of their own "perceived" inadequacies which flare up when another member receives validation. Their negativity is designed to receive validation by interjecting negative thoughts/words about another team member.

The Follower: The follower usually participates in spreading negativity out of "felt" obligation to the leader. I have found that most followers do not stand up to the leader for fear of rejection. Their need to belong to the "tribe" outweighs their own personal feelings about the outcome of the negativity. In my own story, the follower came to me the next day profusely apologizing and pointing out that she did not actually say any of the things. She had no understanding that her silence was tacit agreement. But, she wanted me to like her, because the follower needs to belong to all tribes.

The Lone Wolf: The lone wolf tries to function in a negative work environment by escaping. They are very aware of the negativity going around, but avoids other staff, preferring to work alone. You won't see them eating with others in the break room. They do their work efficiently but have no relationships with other staff. You might think this is the healthy reaction, but being a lone wolf is not the answer. Pitfalls of isolation include increased secondary trauma, resentment and stress. Other team members perceive the lone wolf as "feeling superior" to them, which in turn causes more resentment and negativity.

The Assertive Individual. Finally, the most difficult path to walk, but the one most healthy in a negative environment, is the assertive individual. This staff understands how important mutual support and communication can be to any team. When they hear gossip, they speak up, not in defiance, but in a calm tone, redirecting the innuendo or speculative negative comment. For example, "Well, I can understand why you might think that, but I wonder if we might find the answer is something less salacious." The assertive individual also makes an effort to spread positivity in the agency and invites communication between the team.

Have you been a part of an agency or office that is negative? Negativity can compound stress and burnout faster than just about anything else. Negativity suffocates creativity and production.

Where do you fall in the above four types?

In full disclosure, when I faced the above scenario very early in my career, I retreated. I became the lone wolf for the next two years. Even after the gossip leader quit, I stayed to myself. It wasn't until I matured and learned more about the psychology of systems, that I realized distancing myself from the team out of hurt and a sense of betrayal, only contributed to the negativity in our office. Determined to take responsibility for my part, I went to the supervisor and proposed a team building meeting. The entire meeting would be focused on acknowledging the negativity and communicating our thoughts, feelings, and perceived "slights". More importantly we each had to own our part in the negative environment, proposing new processes to increase communication and support between the staff.

You may think that you are one person in a sea of negativity. But take heart. Just as one drop can make a ripple in the sea, remember that the ripple slowly spreads throughout the entire body of water. And, I daresay, you are not alone in your feelings. But as for you, owning your part is the first step.

Be the ripple.

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