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Breaking the Habit

Toxic patterns abound in the workplace — but you can change them

Back Article Jun 19, 2017 By Tania Fowler

As I write this, I am seated by the window on an airplane flying east. Taking off over Sacramento, acres and acres of green and brown agricultural fields come into view. Each block of squared-off land is juxtaposed against another, all cut into varying diagonals and straight lines, forming an intricate pattern of rich farmland. A highway carrying people to and fro snakes its way through this handsome landscape.

Yet, from my car, I couldn’t possibly see these patterns surrounding me. I would be too close to the ground. It’s when we get up in the air that the patterns come into view.

Human behavior is like this too. At the heart of every movie, play or novel is conflict shaped by patterns. From our seats, we can see solutions that the protagonist fails to see — we are up in the air, so to speak — while the protagonist remains on the ground, too close to his or her own problem.

Recently, my son Caleb (who does stand-up and improv) and I facilitated three breakout sessions at a conference for young professionals in Sacramento. The session focused on identifying and interrupting patterns by asking more questions, instead of telling people what to do. By asking more questions, we can give ourselves enough distance from the situation to see the larger picture and identify patterns we need to break.

In the workplace, we often need to interrupt patterns presented by these colleagues: the procrastinator, know-it-all, helpless person, pot-stirrer, stealer, saboteur and ever-present downer.

Caleb and I asked participants to describe a short scenario of a pattern they keep experiencing but aren’t sure how to handle. We pulled a few scenario cards and improvised short and hilarious sketches (thanks to Caleb). One scenario involved a know-it-all who corrects everyone else’s performance but their own. Another involved the helpless coworker who struggles with completing simple instructions. A third scenario focused on an employee who pawns off work to accommodating colleagues.

Afterward, the participants told us what they observed and ways one could have handled the situation more effectively. Their answers were perceptive: We are usually smarter about how to handle someone else’s problem than our own.

From over 100 scenario cards we collected, about one-third had to do with bosses or managers who gave little guidance or were unavailable to their employees. But the other two-thirds had to do with interpersonal issues between employees. Of these, a predominant pattern emerged: A person had been pulled into a dispute between two other warring colleagues. As one participant wrote, “This person comes to me about the other, then the other comes to me about the first person. I feel stuck in the middle.”

I often tell my clients that water finds the weakest point. If a person routinely finds themselves negotiating other people’s disputes, then it’s that person who must identify this pattern before they can interrupt it. They must ask themselves: “What am I doing to invite this kind of conflict?” or, “What is it that others see in me that says, ‘He can take care of this for me?’”

Indeed, what is it that our hapless negotiator does to become the “weak point” to which the bad behavior (or “water”) migrates? To interrupt this pattern, he must help the other parties see that a problem is theirs alone to solve. Instead of getting baited to give advice that the combatants likely won’t listen to anyway, the person should ask: “I assume you already discussed this with the other party, right?” or, “Who is the appropriate person for you to talk about this?” or. “What can you do to solve this problem yourself?”

Once you consistently start asking questions of people who come to you for unreasonable help — like drawing you into personality conflicts or asking you to do their work — they begin to recognize your new pattern.

Finally, if he can’t shake the people with questions then a simple and clear, “I’m sorry, I just can’t help you with this. I hope you can find a solution,” should extricate him from the frustrating pattern.

Building boundaries to interrupt the pattern is what he’s after with this approach. Keep the unwanted water out by building a dam; you accomplish that by doing something completely different than you did before. Once you consistently start asking questions of people who come to you for unreasonable help — like drawing you into personality conflicts or asking you to do their work — they begin to recognize your new pattern.

To change patterns, ask questions that make the other party think about their ownership of an issue. Some of my favorites are:

  • What’s the problem we’re/you’re trying to solve?
  • What have you done to solve this problem?
  • How can you get what you’re looking for and still build trust?
  • What would you tell me to do if I were in your shoes?

If situations keep repeating themselves, then investigate the pattern first. Interrupt that pattern by asking questions that push people in new directions. Do this consistently and notice if and when the frustration wanes. The pattern has likely been interrupted. 

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