Professional Empathy: Walls, Barriers & No Tresspassing Signs

Wall: a continuous structure that encloses or divides an area; generally permanent.
Barrier: a fence or other obstacle that prevents movement or access; a circumstance or obstacle that keeps people or things apart or prevents communication or progress.
Trespass: to enter an owner’s property without permission; make unfair claims or take advantage of something; commit an offense against another person. Tresspassing: the act of intrusion on said property or personal space.
I have observed all of these in the workplace.  Just this week as I was meeting with a young woman who works for a client, we talked about how it feels to share your turf – whether work responsibilities or office space – with another person.  Things can be going along swimmingly, even harmoniously, when one person goes too far in the eyes of the other – taking over a project, using their dominant personality to get their way, acting as if they are your boss when they are not, etc.

In the workplace of today, teamwork is common, even mandatory, and generally accepted as best practice in a dynamic work environment.   That being said, the spirit of individualism is alive and well and can lead to moments of tension or awkwardness.  Striking the proper balance between teamwork and individual expression can be difficult.

You have probably experienced individualism push back against teamwork both ways – on the giving and receiving ends.  When someone steps into your work territory your hackles go up.  When you offer help to someone (or even more just do a coworker’s task without prior discussion) you are very surprised (even shocked) when they are not happy about it.

Why in the world would someone not want your input, ideas, creativity, and possibly even genius thoughts to be brought to the table?  There are several possible reasons.  They:

  1. Have their own ideas about the task or project.
  2. Don’t want to appear incompetent or as if they need help.  They are concerned about perceptions of their boss or peers.
  3. Are a little bit insecure.
  4. Know their role, have been doing it for a while and are comfortable with the established boundaries.

These same points can be used to measure your reaction as well.  Maybe you are able to see the big picture better than others.  You may understand and appreciate the advantages of hearing, seeing, and experiencing others’ ideas.  Even if this is so, it can still feel strange and awkward when you sense a trespasser.  If this is something you can identify with, use that to help generate or hone a sense of professional empathy.  If someone bristles at your help, then think about why you would bristle at someone else’s help and proceed with caution.

Beware!  When you are helping someone in your organization and you are entering someone else’s territory without permission (or even with permission – vocally or by omission) you may not get the appreciation you think you deserve and you may leave behind a bad taste.

Yes, walls need to be broken down sometimes.  Yes, problems need to be solved creatively. And, yes, collaboration is a good thing.  But tread softly the first time.  Be sensitive to others being hurt or offended.

Ensure that you are working toward a common goal and not just pushing your agenda. I will leave you with these suggested steps in the collaborative process:

  1. Assess the situation.  Be aware of the personalities involved, especially those who have more competitive personalities.
  2. Secure permission to be involved.
  3. Be flexible while being a part of the process and solution.
  4. Allow time for discussion, feedback, and debriefing.

 

Brenda Haughney   –  President

 

“There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.” – Ronald Reagan

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