Note: Debashis is writing a series of letters to his infant daughter, Anjuli.
This is the first of this series.
How to Get the Personal Out of the Political
in the Workplace
How do you handle the “political” in your work life while maintaining your integrity? It is not always easy to be “personal” with everyone because with differing agendas and different perspectives, a lot of conflict can arise. I like to think that we all have good intentions in what we do. I like to think that we are all open, honest and sincere. However, in situations, this intention of honesty, openness and sincerity, this “personal” part gets reinterpreted by others according their own agenda.
The politics of the workplace is an easy pot in which you can easily allow yourself to get stirred up. When we mix the political with the personal, here is what we typically do: badmouth, crazy-make, assume, justify our own anger and behaviour, make harsh judgements, isolate ourselves, create an “us” and “them” mentality, develop conspiracy theories, look for who’s not doing what, find the ways that we can’t do what we want to do and blame it on others, talk with others to get them to “buy in” to our perception of how things are, and on and on and on.
Sound familiar? This can happen not only at work, but also in so many situations – our family life, personal relationships, and friendships. We expend an inordinate amount of energy, time and emotion in these things, and at the end of it all, nothing is based on reality. It’s only based on our perception and interpretation of events – our own spin on things. As a result, we are somewhat isolated, we have camps, we are suspicious, we lose overall focus, things don’t get done, and most of all, somewhere in there, we don’t feel good.
I can only speak from the perspective of working or volunteering in human services as a social worker. But as I talk with people from other professions, I recognize that politics happens everywhere. And I’ve learned about what gets in the way of getting the job done.
To me, it’s not the politics that is troublesome – it is the personal spin we add to the politics that really messes everything up – causing some intriguing chaos. And from time to time, I have also been a real perpetrator and participant in some political/personal chaos, which creates disharmony in at least some of my work.
My suggestion is to keep the political and the personal separate at work. This is tough because of the constant overlap between the two. But I think that with the following guidelines, it may be possible to do a good job, keep your personal and professional integrity and maintain healthy working relationships with others.
1. First, and foremost, AVOID NASTY SITUATIONS to the best of your ability. Politics is messy. If everyone’s energy is directed at maintaining the politics, then they are probably not doing what they are supposed be doing anyway. So, avoid it by doing your job. During one of my supervision sessions, I talked a lot about other people and how they were impacting the agency. His response was “do your job”.
Me: I’m telling you – this agency sucks.
Him: Do your job.
Me: But there’s so much happening out there that it’s hard to concentrate.
Him: Do your job.
Me: Well, the other supervisor is saying weird things about me, and an intake worker really messed up on this one assessment and…
Him: Do your job.
On the one hand, I felt unsupported and judged that I wasn’t heard by my very own supervisor – who’s supposed to be there for me and my troubles (can you hear the violins squeaking out my sorrow?) On the other hand, (and many years later) I realize that he was trying to minimize my negative contribution as I tried to the politics alive. He just wanted me to do the work. And he wanted to avoid the nasty situations.
2. Next, LISTEN WELL TO OTHERS. Take in the information. Make an attempt to understand the information from the other person’s point of view. Consider the source. Separate fact from fiction, fiction from politics, and politics from personal. Learn about what’s being said. Look at how it impacts on your work. Try to keep the personal out of it. This is work. Remember that hearing someone and listening to them in no way obligates you to agree with them or to take their side. Again, focus on the task at hand.
I recall a situation where someone came to me from another team and began to let me in on all the badness and chaos that was happening on that team. I had previously no clue as to how bad it was. I knew of a few incidents that I wondered about, but didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. So I heard this worker, took in the information. I kept telling myself there are several sides and perspectives to a story. But I did not deny, openly or in my mind, this worker’s perception of what was happening. I looked at how it impacted me. And really it didn’t. But gave me some information to keep in mind if I want to work on that team.
3. BE OPEN AND HONEST ABOUT YOUR INTENTIONS. If you’re going to say or do something, know in your own mind what the reasons and rationale are for what you are about to do and say. Be clear and simple about this intention and also be prepared to articulate it to others if needed. If you know exactly why you want to do something, then you can take responsibility for it and nothing else.
For me, this used to come up a lot. Often, when I do something without thinking about why, I actually choosing not to be accountable for it. And then when I look at what my intention was, I lose some credibility because my intentions don’t always match my behaviour or, my intentions may not have been clear from the start. So, now, in conversations with others and in doing things, I try to be really simple and clear about why it is I am doing what I am doing.
4. This one is tough. DO NOT TALK NEGATIVELY about anyone. In most social agencies, with the stresses of the work and with polarized teams, in order to deal with the frustrations, we talk negatively about one another. I am guilty of this. I get frustrated at the situation and take it out on the person by making a political situation into a personal one. Again, the effort needs to be directed at focusing on the task. This does not mean one needs to be friendly and close with everyone. But I do think that keeping situations light and generally amicable has some benefits.
I have a friend with whom I worked who can do this with great ease. This friend has been referred to as “Teflon” because nothing sticks to him. He is genuinely kind-hearted and always has a smile and is interested in everything you have to say. But, he also knows how to keep perspective and evaluate information so that he does not get “nailed” in the end. So, he never attacks a person, never says anything negative about someone, deals with issues at a political level and just does his work. I don’t see this as manipulative or dishonest or artificial.
I see him as caring for his fellow staff and genuinely warm. I also see him as having very clear boundaries for himself so that he does not get immersed into chaotic politics. And this man is loved by everyone, despite his not taking sides. Remember, there is a difference between negativity and cynicism.
5. Always, always, ALWAYS RESPECT THE DIGNITY AND HUMANITY of the other person in a political situation. Again, this does not mean you have to be friends with them. But being collegial, and friendly is a strength. This is a challenge. We lose respect for someone and take away their dignity when we assign a contentious or political issue to them. Or when we attach labels. Or when we assume they are what they speak. Or when we believe that their behaviour is a true reflection of who they are. In disagreements, we will quickly and almost instinctively form an impression of the other person with whom we have the disagreement. Most usually, this is a negative impression. And we judge them because their perception is different from ours. We take offence because they don’t see it “our way.” And somewhere along the way, we lose respect for them and take away their dignity. Rather, it is far more beneficial (and sane) to keep things at the level of a disagreement and allow for a disagreement to take place. Again, keeping your own intention very clear and making efforts to understand the intention of the other person is key in ensuring that nothing is given or taken in a personal way.
I recall a situation a few years ago when I met a new worker at my agency. Over time, I began to truly dislike her because she was on a different team from mine, she drove a car that worked, and she was overly enthusiastic and bubbling with ideas. She was nice to everyone and she just presented as very sheltered. I was polite to her, but avoided her, not really wanting to know her. And she was on a different team anyway which never did understand the work that my team did. So, I ignored her. But she made attempts to know me and eventually we talked more and I began to learn that she did not come from a sheltered set of circumstances, that her enthusiasm was reflective of her stage in her career and that I was like that too.
Politically speaking, we still did not always see eye to eye at work and we differed in our approaches to working with people. But I grew to respect what she did at work because I focussed on my work. On a personal level, I began to actually tolerate this woman. I still don’t agree completely with her working style and perspective and even her outlook. On the other hand, some time later we were married and have just had our first child. Again, maintain dignity and respect for each person.
6. DO NOT TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY. You may feel nasty about the things that someone said or did. But they were probably not meant to be taken personally. Remember, a system is always larger than you. There are many, many different elements to how a thing works or even to how a conversation moves. When something causes some discomfort, try to understand the rationale or the intention behind what happened and then move forward. Try to appreciate the differences that exist, because they reflect the true diversity and richness of the people around us. This is tough to do, but not impossible. Remember, a conflict or a disagreement is not a reflection of you personally, nor is it a reflection of the other person. A conflict just is. Don’t get personal about it.
This one has been a tough one for me. I actually lose sleep over this kind of thing. I take a political situation and then take it personally. And it’s because of an ego investment. I look at conflicts and problems and immerse my ego into things. In this way, I set myself up horribly. First, I take responsibility for things aren’t even mine. And secondly, by virtue of taking responsibility, I give others the impression that I’ll fix it. So, by investing my own ego into conflicts and problems, I become this self-appointed saviour who simply cannot save the entire conflict. So, if I take my self out of it, and focus on the problem and not take anything personally, I have more to offer the process and more sleep to gain.
7. BE PASSIONATE. All this political stuff I’m talking about can be interpreted as “saving your rear end.” And I think there is some validity to learning about how to negotiate political situations. However, try as hard as you can to not let the politics detract you from your passion and energy for what you do and who you are. This requires a re-examination of why you got into your work in the first place, what kinds of hopes and dreams you had, what you promised yourself in your work. As well, this re-examination requires that you to think about what is getting in the way of your being the best you can be, and how much of your passion is decreased because of you.
If you’re really, really, really responsible, you’ll understand that YOU are responsible for your passion in your work AND your lack of passion, when that happens. Not others. Now, a system, a bureaucracy, other workers and various political agendas certainly can have an effect on your work. But it is really up to you to remain focussed on your work and remind yourself of your passion and your intentions for getting into this in the first place.
I’ve met countless social workers that are burned out, frustrated, resentful, angry, wistful, sad and just struggling to get by. They can be negative, critical and create havoc in the workplace. Heck, I’ve had elements of these things myself. Some of it is certainly influenced by the bureaucracy, funding problems, high levels of accountability, poor public perception, a resentment of government procedures, the pitiful pay and whatever else. But when I sit back and silence my negativity and think back to why I got into this in the first place, I refresh my attitude a bit and move forward. Don’t lose your passion.
8. Recognize that NO ONE IS OUT TO GET YOU. Sometimes, it feels that way. Some days, nothing goes right, you’re blasted for ten things and people look at you weird. And you wonder if someone has it out for you. Just do a little role reversal. You may dislike some folks, wherever you work. You may be worlds apart on various issues, perspectives, philosophies, methods of working, etc. But do you truly wish harm for that person? Probably not.
Same thing applies to you. People generally don’t want to harm you. Recently, I heard through the grapevine that a piece of work I did was heavily criticized by someone else. I was not impressed about this, partly because of the criticism itself, but also because the other staff member had not talked with me. So, I steamed and struggled for about three weeks. And got more angry and anxious and stewed up some neat conspiracy theories (I do this quite well). And then, the other day, I put my ego in check and simply asked to speak to the worker – saying what I had heard, how I had interpreted it and then asked about the worker’s intention. Needless to say, there was an element of criticism about my work, but there was nothing personal about it. Nor was there any intent to harm me. So, trust that no one wants to hurt you and then, if you’re still putting yourself through some paranoia, gently, respectfully ask about it.
9. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY only for yourself. In another piece, I’ll talk about the “spheres of control.” But basically, you have only four things you are responsible for – YOUR feelings, YOUR thoughts, YOUR words, and YOUR behaviour. All of this blends into your intention. And that is what you are responsible for.
So, own up only for your part – what you did, what you said, what you thought and what you felt. Do not take responsibility for an entire situation, its causes or its consequences. Just own your contributions and your perspectives.
10. Lastly, try to KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE. A more spiritual take on this is to remember that in your life, you are given only what you can handle. Work stress is what you make of it. You have total control over what you do with it, how you mediate it, how much you invest into it and what you learn from it. You choose what you can handle and toss the rest away. There are other parts to your life and you may need to invest into these. I think the key word here is BALANCE.