Office Dynamics: Can’t We Just All Get Oolong?

Today we are exploring dysfunctional team dynamics, while we sip chocolate cake in liquid form. A hot chocolate detox of barely pourable bittersweet ganache with a gigantic marshmallow is in order because the team isn’t getting oolong. Don’t let the marshmallows fool you; this is no lightweight Swiss Miss story. 

Fancy Hot Chocolate
Chocolate Cake Hot Cocoa

Let’s start with a gut check. Please say the names of each member of your team mentally and calculate how much success you hope they have. As much as you want for yourself? Hmmm… How are you feeling about your boss? We probably all have a wee bit of cleaning to do while some teams may require hazmat level intervention due to the toxicity levels of unchecked dysfunction and outright extinction of team cooperation.

If your once cohesive team has split into combative factions and teammates are no longer actively working for each other’s success, then it’s time to clean up the toxic environment.

Becky, there’s no juice cleanse on the market strong enough to detox the amount of ill will in your system.

Offices dynamics are complicated and like a sensitive eco-system, the emotional pond we are swimming in together must be cleaned regularly or the sparkling pool of pure glacier fed water will become La Brea Tar Pits style contaminated. Most commonly, a series of unaddressed issues will covertly upend the delicately balanced environment allowing the thick black muck of viral resentment to spread from person to person. When seemingly minor and mundane issues take on Vesuvian proportions, it’s a sign that you are way past the go-to team cocktails as a cure-all solution and need an intervention.

We all contribute to the strength of the team dynamic; however, we are often blind to our own shortcomings which may manifest as drama from hurt feelings around fear, envy, boredom and the ubiquitous nemesis of entitlement. A bit of introspection should quickly debunk the it’s not me it’s everyone else theory so we may discover our part of the dysfunction. For example, I get particularly feisty when I believe that I’m expected to do someone else’s work. Harboring bitterness demonstrated as cool contempt and withdrawal of emotional and strategic support is my signature brand of muck. Once labeled as a slacker, you’re dead to me is a tidy summary of the situation. Now that I’ve come clean, so can you.

Can’t think of how mucky you are?

Perhaps this will help. In my experience, we all enjoy imagining ourselves as nice people; however, a more candid assessment is that we hide our nasty streak behind a saccharine smile as it’s more culturally acceptable to talk behind co-worker’s backs, undermining team efforts rather than saying something that might hurt another’s feelings to their face. What? Hold please, while I pull the knife out of my back and ponder that insane and psychopathic definition of nice. We are human and therefore susceptible to mucky moments; however, if your proverbial moment has turned into hours, weeks and possibly years of simmering acrimony then this is your chance to cleanse it once and for all.

Now that you have contemplated your own behavior, it will be tempting to enthusiastically launch into an untrained psychological assessment of each member of your team to make yourself feel a little better. Please refrain from this exercise in deflection and focus on your own crown of crap. Put down the poo that you were about to throw at me for pointing out you have some of your own muck to clean and read the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. (There is a Fifth Agreement, if you are an extra credit kind of student, but start with the Four.) This short read will provide new perspective and sage advice regarding how to address your challenging issues or perhaps just remind you of what you already know but are not practicing.

The Cleanse:

The philosophy behind the Four Agreements is brilliant in its simplicity with only four simple but transformational things to remember. It focuses on the one thing that you can change: you. Get ready to face the gunk that you are making, no matter how big or small, and just that minor bit of awareness will slow down the amount of sludge being pumped into the ecosystem of your work environment. This poo-pause will allow for a paradigm shift to begin and opens the door for more honest dialogue so the team can get to the root of the issues contaminating the pool.

The Four Agreements:

  1. Be impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others.
  2. Don’t make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.
  3. Don’t take things personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality.
  4. Always do your best – Under any circumstances, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

Here is how it’s going to go down:

Team reads book and becomes quiet and polite. There is an immediate awareness and nobody wants to be caught being the first to pollute the new impeccable environment. Sometimes this is all it takes; everyone is quickly back on track with a new perspective. However, if you have been letting the drama fester then expect after the initial parley, the pent up resentment will crack through heating your pool into a nasty, spitting, rolling boil.

Things get real. There is a release of emotion when the shit box wrapped in fake politeness explodes and people vent off what is on their minds expressing hurt feelings. If you are lucky, a good amount of mean-mindedness comes to light. It’s not pretty but embrace this part because without the purge, the emotional poison will continue to impede team efforts. Leaders, you can handle this part because thanks to the Four Agreements you understand that other people’s dramatic stories have nothing to do with you.

• The self-proclaimed logical and free-of-petty-emotions types are usually the most trifling sensitive people in the group, so keep a keen eye on them during the venting process. When things get real, don’t be surprised if they hide in the bathroom for a few hours. They don’t yet understand that having feelings is a human issue, inflicting males and females in equal proportion.

Fancy titles and years of experience don’t matter either because we are all thin-skinned sensitive Susan’s under professional facades.

Now you can get back to business.

If apologies are in order, then make amends and move on with your new Agreement for honesty with each other. Not everyone will be ready to admit to the full level of his or her own mucky behavior but the Four Agreements will certainly put them on guard in a new way. In my experience, not everyone has to be 100% committed to it, as long as a few people on the team are practicing at least some of the agreements with regularity they can keep everyone else in check. Very rarely will you encounter somebody completely committed to negativity. This type will have to go into deep cover, be held accountable by a teammate that has had enough manipulation or leave altogether because the positive ecosystem rejects the behavior. Bye, Becky!

You now have a common language around the Agreements that encourages personal accountability and responsibility. You cleaned the muck out of your ecosystem so your team can root for each other again. Well, done! Now you can start your chocolate…I mean, juice-cleanse.

Post Statement: You don’t have to be the official leader of your office to bring about positive changes in your work environment. Making a commitment not to get involved in the gossip circulating like the plague will do much to improve the office dynamic as a start. Letting go of long-held resentments against your teammate(s) will take time because honesty and accountability with yourself may take some practice.

Reference: Four Agreements Book

Chocolate Caramel Cookies
Alfajorcito Cookies

Hot Chocolate Recipe
Semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, cut into small chunks to expedite the melting process. If using bittersweet, then you may want to add a pinch of sugar.
Half-and-half, heated to almost boiling
A dab of butter with spices of your choice (black pepper, cloves, ginger and cinnamon)
Dash of vanilla (optional)
Jumbo marshmallows

Pour the heated cream over the chunks of chocolate and butter and let it sit for a few minutes to start the melting process, then stir until incorporated. Add more heated milk or cream until the consistency is to your taste. Add spices and marshmallow.

Note: The alfajorcito cookies pictured were a gift to Chocolate Cake Mondays. Yes, I could have made these cakelike treats from scratch, but then a whole box of innocent cookies would have gone to waste, a high crime by way of thinking.

Disclaimer: The story and recipe above should not be considered advice as the readers and users of Chocolate Cake Mondays are not clients and CCM is not liable for reader’s reliance on the information herein.