Move over, tobacco warnings - there’s a new issue in town. In October, the US Surgeon General issued a 30-page report titled, “Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being.” In it, he talks about the impact workplace stress and toxic culture have on mental health, physical health, and productivity.

If you’ve been paying attention, this issue should be nothing new. The Covid-19 pandemic threw into sharp focus how workplace culture and stress can have a serious effect on the quality of life, health, and mental health of workers across the globe. The ‘Great Resignation’ and “quiet quitting” are just offshoots of a widespread problem that, according to the report, includes “low pay, poor opportunities for advancement, and toxic workplace culture.”

The Connection Problem In Workplace Culture

Here at Barometer XP, we know how important culture is to the health of both a business and its employees. It’s why our company focuses on how to build strong teams and foster positive interpersonal dynamics through play.

However, something we see as a big part of having a toxic workplace and bad company culture goes beyond a micro-managing boss or an impossible schedule. According to the Washington Post article titled: “Bosses should fix toxic workplaces, surgeon general says. Here’s how,” one of the five ‘essentials’ that the Surgeon General recommends for “workplaces to ensure employee mental health and well-being” is connection and community, and that is where the whole system falls down.

Since the Industrial Revolution, workplaces have been designed to focus on productivity and efficiency, from the 1920s assembly line to today’s frantic drive to check off the almighty to-do list. Workplaces across industries have become siloed and less interactive, a tendency that the pandemic only highlighted when remote work became widely mandatory.

Because modern workplaces are siloed and efficiency-driven, they’ve engineered out the part of working that is most fulfilling - the opportunity to be collaborative and creative. Work is more satisfying when workers and employees feel that they are contributing to a group effort, building social and emotional bonds with their teammates while working towards a common goal. The feeling of being on a team, part of a community, drives both motivation and engagement, with the result that you get employees who genuinely care about each other and the project. This is where you find people going out of their way to help each other and going the extra mile on their work, which is not something you get when people are just counting down the clock and checking boxes.

What To Do About A Culture With Poor Connection

If you’ve lost employees in the Great Resignation, or find your current employees “quietly quitting,” your culture may be a significant part of the problem. This, in turn, can be fueled by the way your company and work are organized. To combat it, take a look at your projects and workflows with a new eye, and try to see where opportunities exist to increase collaboration and make people feel like they’re on a team.

No matter what steps you take to improve your company culture, remember, this isn’t a one-time deal. As the Washington Post article says, “Employers should look at such changes as an ongoing culture shift, not single steps that can be checked off and forgotten.” We’re talking about a systemic change in the way work is organized and workplace culture is developed - one that moves past the Industrial Revolution and into the Information Age.

If you’re not sure where your company and workplace culture stand, check out the Barometer XP website for our Pressure Matrix - a quick, 3-minute quiz that shows you the pressure points currently facing your own team.

Do you ever wonder how different your life would be if you’d taken a slightly different path?

A potentially pivotal moment that dramatically changes the course of your life is sometimes referred to as a “sliding doors moment.” The name comes from a late 90s movie called Sliding Doors that depicts two different life paths based on whether a woman just makes it onto or just misses it onto a subway train. Her career, her romantic life, even her mortality all hinge on this one event.

Usually we think of “sliding doors moments” as big, dramatic decisions over which we have little control.

But smaller, more mundane moments can have a huge impact on life outcome as well. Thankfully, there’s a useful technique that can increase our chances of choosing the better outcome: pause-notice-choose.

The Pause - Notice - Choose Technique

Pause-notice-choose is a technique that helps us recognize how much control or agency we have in different situations, understand which details we should pay attention to, and make more informed decisions about how to act in the moment. It consists of three distinct steps:

  • Pause = Taking a breath and committing to taking stock of the situation.

  • Notice = Observing the situation, including how you feel/think/act, and how others are feeling/thinking/acting in the moment. What’s most important? What’s at stake? What’s the best outcome of this situation?

  • Choose = Deciding how you want to respond based on your desired outcome or highest priority.

Let’s look at an example.

You're having a hectic day at work when a colleague (we’ll call him Bill) comes by your office to ask you a question about a project you are both working on. However, you are busy working on something that has to be turned in before lunch….and it’s already 11:15. How do you respond?

Possible Response Path #1

Your reflexive response might be to hold up one hand and say in a flat tone, “Sorry, can’t right now,” while not looking up at Bill. You are in the zone and don’t want to be disturbed, plus you know Bill well, so you don’t think this chilly response will offend Bill. Unfortunately, Bill took your actions as you being dismissive, and interprets them as dumping your responsibility for the joint project onto him.

Because you didn’t pause to look up, you failed to notice that your colleague was in total distress: face flushed, hands jittery, acting very concerned. You also failed to notice that you had been feeling stressed all morning, and that this panic may have been clouding your judgment.

Your failure to pause and notice led you to choose a less empathetic response. And now the outcome of the situation is worse than it had been before. Bill is mad at you, and you’ll need to find time to repair that relationship and help him with the joint project. Not only that, the tension with Bill is yet another mental worry added to your already frazzled plate, making it even harder to concentrate on the immediate deadline in front of you.

All this collateral damage from responding reflexively instead of taking a moment to pause, notice, choose.

Possible Response Path #2

Sure, you are feeling rushed, but you and Bill have a great working relationship, and you are as accountable for the outcome of the shared project as he is. You pause for a moment to finish the sentence you’re reading, look up Bill, and take a deep breath. You notice that he is clearly in distress, and recognize that him coming to you for help must mean his concerns are serious.

These observations tell you that you need to help Bill - your relationship with a close work friend and the outcome of this shared project are at stake. You choose to tell Bill to come in and sit down. You do tell him that you are under a tight time crunch, though, so you only have 10 minutes right now. Otherwise, you could continue the conversation after your lunchtime deadline.

Because your response indicated empathy and concern for Bill’s needs, he immediately feels a bit better, and agrees to come back at 1:00. You’ve saved your bacon on a major project, and will have no trouble meeting your lunchtime deadline. You’re also proud to know that you strengthened your ties with Bill by showing your responsiveness to his panic; you know that Bill would have done the same for you (in fact, now that you think about it, he has been a vital support for you many times in the past).

Make Sliding Door Moments Work for You

We can’t determine which moments in our everyday lives are potential sliding door moments, which is why it’s so important to practice using Pause - Notice - Choose. The more we develop the habit of deliberately, thoughtfully responding to minor events in our lives, the better our outcomes will be. This is certainly easier said than done, which is why I use the word “practice.”

As much as we try to be thoughtful and empathetic to those around us, we all live in our own heads. It can be fatally easy to only consider our immediate concerns when reacting in a situation. We can all do better.

I encourage you to practice using pause-notice-choose. Think about a recent situation when you perhaps didn’t make the best choice in your response. What could you have noticed? How might this have changed your actions? What might the alternative outcome have been?

Pause - Notice - Choose is a powerful tool that can redirect the direction of our lives, moment to moment. Remember pause-notice-choose when you’re interacting with your colleagues today.

Why is it so freakin’ difficult to communicate and collaborate with other people?

We’re social animals. Communicating and collaborating is in our DNA: our brains LITERALLY evolved to do this. Not only do we like being around other people, but our survival depends on us working together and helping one another accomplish big things.

One defining characteristic of us humans: we like simplicity. We want things to be linear and predictable. But linear and predictable aren’t compatible with our large brains that are constantly wrestling with thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, decisions (both rational and irrational), likes, and dislikes.

And when you put multiple people together, each with their own complex network of thoughts and feelings, and well, you get a tangled mess.

But there IS a way to navigate this mess, you just have to think like a heist movie villain.

Invisible Booby Traps

In every famous heist movie, there’s a scene in which the thief reaches his final destination – think a museum gallery, a bank vault, a jewelry store’s fanciest showroom – the home of the sought-after treasure. There it is, in plain sight, in a glass case atop a pedestal, perfectly lit to emphasize its enormous value.

It looks as if he can just walk up and grab it. But the thief knows it’s not that simple.

At this point in the scene, the thief pulls out a special flashlight that illuminates a web of laser trip wires, the final hurdle to navigate before claiming the prize. Just one tiny slip of a hand or loose shoelace could cross one of these wires, triggering the alarm system and ruining the whole plan.

Movie thieves know that there are invisible obstacles standing in the way of their success, and that reaching their goal depends on their ability to cleverly and nimbly navigate these obstacles.

Us everyday people with jobs that don’t involve elaborate heists? Not so much. We don’t have the same trope-tested roadmap. We can’t just pull out a flashlight to instantly see all the obstacles.

We navigate many, if not more, invisible traps all the time when we communicate with other people. Let’s examine the traps in our work interactions.

Interpersonal Trip Wires

Interpersonal dynamics don't set off actual alarms (though it might be helpful if they did, to alter us as soon as we’ve tripped a wire). They do cause real harm to culture and work outcomes. These invisible trip wires are the main sources of tension and gossip in the workplace, and impede relationships and trust.

Here are some of my own personal “trip wires''.

  • I work very hard to be punctual, and get irritated when people are even a little late. If I don’t catch myself, I might jump to some very unkind, and wildly inaccurate assumptions about what’s behind the lateness, and take it personally as an insult to me.

  • In order for me to fully process information, I need to see it visually, either in writing or as a diagram or graphic of some sort. If someone is trying to communicate something important that I need to remember and they don’t have a visual, or I’m not able to make notes, I get annoyed that I’m expected to retain that information.

These are pretty innocuous examples, but both have been the source of tension at different points in my life.

Fortunately, both trip wires are easy to avoid with clear communication and understanding. So I make my preferences known to people I work with, so we can create a process that meets not only my style, but everyone’s styles, and avoid future misunderstanding.

Interpersonal “Boost Wires”

There are also invisible interpersonal forces for good out there, which I call boost wires. These are preferences and tendencies that activate collaboration and creativity, and boost relationships. Imagine if the heist thief had a superpower that allowed him to walk on top of the lasers, like a balance beam! When a boost wire is activated, the experience of collaboration and the quality of the final products go from good to great.

One of my personal boost wires is brainstorming. If I’m working with someone else who likes to bounce ideas around in a not-so-structured way, my creative juices get flowing and I get very excited and motivated. My teammates at Barometer XP also thrive from creative brainstorming, so we build in time to our meetings for this kind of collaborative thinking. And we all love it.

Bringing the Wires Into the Light

The key to avoiding trip wires and activating boost wires is to bring them into the light. In our case, the “flashlight” we’ll use is a combination of self-awareness and clear, strategic communication.

Knowing your own wires, and communicating them with others, are the critical first steps to smoother, less stressful interactions with others. Take a moment and think about:

  • What are your trip wires? (pet peeves, bad habits, emotional triggers, etc.)

  • What are your boost wires? (things that get you very excited, motivators, superpowers)

Shared experiences, like games, are an excellent way to put these invisible traps front and center and figure out how to navigate them.

If you’re ready to start finding your trip wires, join us for a free Barometer XP demo session. In 60-minutes, you’ll get to play a few of our signature games in a safe, lighthearted, and confidential environment so you can experience the transformation that comes from embracing play as a way to explore interpersonal dynamics!