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Are you the star or the dog of your workplace? – How to act responsibly in any work community

As we spend nearly one third of the active time in our lives at work, the atmosphere at the workplace is by no means insignificant. A functional work community is productive and efficient but also increases the wellbeing of its employees. Even though the management of an organisation is in charge of enabling success, occupational wellbeing is built through responsible behaviour which is the responsibility of each one of us.

The work of an occupational psychologist is interesting because one gets to learn about various working communities and peek behind the scenes. Organisations may differ in terms of layout and industry but, on the other hand, the relationships at workplaces are often quite similar.

Then again, working communities may greatly differ when it comes to the behaviour they tolerate from their members. Some groups are used to using rough humour as a way of relieving stress. Most workplaces, however, are more reserved in their behaviour and expression of emotions.

Workplace rules cannot be taken for granted

Let’s start with the basics. I have helped a number of working communities create general “rules” for their workplace. Nearly all of the sets of rules I have seen include saying hello, thanking people, taking others into consideration, inclusion (e.g. asking people to have lunch together) and listening to other people. Unfortunately, these basic rules of behaviour are sometimes forgotten.

Have you ever been to a meeting where everyone is silent when asked for comments and opinions and then starts to debate and complain afterwards on the corridors or in the break room? This is what I call irresponsible workplace behaviour. Another example of ill-advised behaviour is rejecting all suggestions but never proposing alternative actions or solutions. Responsibility includes committing to and complying with the decisions and not engaging in active or passive resistance that hinders the work community’s wellbeing.

Praise people behind their backs

Corridors and small groups often also stir gossip, rumours and talking behind people’s backs. These are extremely harmful habits that consume time and energy that could be spent working. Responsible action means checking your facts and trying to stick to topics that are necessary and constructive. I like Ben Furman’s concept of ‘praising people behind their backs’. That is what we should do instead of trashing people when they are not around. Honest, respectable people also speak up about misconduct directly with the people involved, whereas cowards hold their tongues. When it comes to feedback, we all want to be better, but if we do not know what we are doing wrong, we cannot fix our actions. Polite and respectful feedback is always a gift to its recipient and a demonstration of truly responsible behaviour from its giver.

Are you a good judge of character?

Too often, we consider ourselves excellent judges of character or think we know what other people are thinking, feeling or needing. We interpret each other’s words, silences, gestures and facial expressions, draw conclusions and may even be offended without any real reason. Responsible behaviour means finding out what the other person meant if something is unclear or bothers you. If another person’s actions or words irritate or insult you, it is important to address the issue with said person fairly and directly instead of whispering to other people behind their back or wallowing in your sentiments that will only grow larger in your head.

Colleagues becoming friends is a wonderful thing, but even if you do not particularly like your colleague, you can still appreciate them as a good worker. Each person should be able to work with each person, even if they have nothing else in common. It is always important to be able to distinguish between things and people. Personal chemistry may cause problems every now and then, but most conflicts stem from contradictory processes, roles and operations or misunderstandings. A responsible employee knows the difference between situational and practical irritations and personal flaws and aims for solutions instead of blame. On the other hand, they also know to separate their work from their own personality and are not offended when discussing work details.

Finally, I must repeat that workplaces are for working. The best type of responsibility is carrying out your work to be best of your abilities and helping the entire work community reach its mutual goals. You can be that SOMEONE at the workplace.

A responsible worker:

  1. Is polite and takes other people into consideration
  2. Expresses their opinions, is focused on finding solutions and committed to mutual decisions
  3. Gives and receives feedback in a constructive manner
  4. Settles unresolved issues and is able to distinguish between things and people
  5. Focuses on high-quality work and their share of mutual matters.

*) The ‘star or dog’ refers to the four categories of the Boston Consulting Group’s matrix.

The text was written by Maaret Punto, Ms. Sc. (Econ.), M.A. (Psych.), Chief Occupational Psychologist at Mehiläinen’s Working Life Services.