If It Wasn’t For the People, Work Would Be Great

Understanding How to Play Nice in the Business Sandbox

Remember back to your days of childhood. Life was simple and your only worries were how to keep your favorite toy away from your little sister and get out of eating your veggies at dinner or taking a bath each night.

One of your favorite activities was playing in the sandbox at the park. You loved the feel of the sand between your fingers and filling up your dump truck and driving it through the sand. When Bobby and Susie were there, the three of you created the most amazing construction site, full of pathways and piles of sand. But then Timmy would arrive and you’d all groan. Timmy never wanted to play construction site. No, he wanted to play pirate and bury all of your toys. It took hours to find them all again! He’d stomp on all your sand piles and proclaim he was the pirate captain of the sandbox. He’d whine that nobody wanted to play with him, until you were forced to play pirate. You hated those days.
But even worse was when Amy would show up with her bossy friends. They would always insist on playing princess and building castles and forcing you or Bobby to “rescue them”. They never listened and always took your shovel and bucket without asking.
Now imagine that sandbox scenario in your workplace. Quite a crazy picture. But I bet you can clearly visualize which coworker would fill each role. Who is the bossy Amy or the whiny Timmy?
We played with kids of all personalities in the sandbox, many who didn’t play nice. Now we work with adults that often do the same. And maybe, you might begrudgingly admit, that person is sometimes you.
Now remember that parent or teacher that always helped settle things in the sandbox. The person that convinced you to talk things out with Amy and try to put yourself in Timmy’s shoes for a minute. The adult that could see beyond the sandbox’s four walls and envision the bigger picture of learning to get along. And you would never admit they were right, but maybe rescuing the princess every now and then wasn’t so bad after all
In the business sandbox, I’m your voice of reason, the objective observer ready to help the employees, teams and leaders in your workplace learn to work better together.
As you read through the first installment of my three “People Primer” articles, my goal is to share with you some needed and helpful information, tools and resources to allow you and your coworkers to start down the path of working better together.
You may think, what is the importance of working better together in the business sandbox? Can’t we all just agree to disagree and still get the job done? Maybe, but when we truly strive to “play nicer” at work, we create more effective, trusting and cohesive teams that experience less unhealthy conflict, weakened psychological safety, disengaged employees and regrettable turnover. Doesn’t that sound like a much happier sandbox?
We often make the mistake of thinking everyone thinks like us. I quickly discovered how wrong I was. In my early days of management I was drowning in work, trying to stay afloat and in desperate need of more help.
Suddenly, my team began to grow from one to many. Hurray! I had help. Mentally, I had hired “hands” to help, but I soon discovered that attached to those hands were people. People with experiences and capabilities that they expressed through their desires, opinions, needs, and very capable brains. Sometimes my teammates and I did not see eye to eye and some of them engaged in unhealthy ways of subtle conflict, personal competition for resources or recognition, and distrust.
Over the course of your career, you have probably realized, just as I did, that as a human working with humans, you’ll frequently mutter, “Ugh, work is great, but the people, not so much!”
Do you struggle at work and wonder why you seem to struggle more than others? Are you frustrated that your co-workers react so differently to the same “things”? Why is Kaitlyn so aware of her intentions, while Brian seems clueless to the impact his choices have on others? What makes Jerry so defensive and Marquel so laid back? And how do I figure out which version of Grant is going to show up for work each day? Ultimately, your biggest question is: How do I get along with so many different people without losing myself (and my mind) in the process?
Through this series of articles we’ll explore what we can do to work better together with our boss, peers, direct reports and even customers. Let’s start by taking a deeper look at making sense of the humans around us and working to understand their (and our) behavior. Because “people are the most consequential and dangerous forces on earth and wouldn’t it be useful to know about the nature of human nature?” The Science of Personality Podcast

Four Perspectives on Human Behavior: What Makes Our Co-workers Tick

As we strive to make sense of how our co-workers impact us at work, let’s first jump back to Psychology 101 and re-educate ourselves on human behavior and the whys and hows of what people do by exploring a “who’s who” of the business sandbox.

The Behaviorist Perspective- Sandbox Stimuli
As you meander through life, if you have come to believe that you are controlled by your environment and what you have learned from your environment, then you have adopted the Behaviorist PerspectiveBehaviorists believe that all behavior results from a particular stimulus. It is your task to try and understand which combination or sequence of stimuli cause a certain response.
Let’s explore this perspective with a real-world example. Jenny-Beth (not her real name), one of my direct reports, was our resident Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the days she arrived at work put together, with her hair and make-up done, she would behave in a collaborative, team oriented mood all day. But on the days she came in with no make-up, donning disheveled clothing and hair, she was a beast to be around.
What caused the stark difference in Jenny-Beth’s appearance and behavior? The answer was her personal life (environment) and her response to it. On the days she got into a heated conversation or verbal fight with her mom or sister early in the morning, she became delayed and/or adopted a “screw it” attitude. While her co-workers were not concerned about Jenny- Beth’s hair or make-up, they were concerned about her poor behavior and attitude at work.
If you are familiar with Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, then you are familiar with the classical conditioning a.k.a. “learning by association” process of the behaviorist perspective. Dr. Pavlov proved this process by conditioning his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by repeatedly sounding the bell and immediately providing them food.
The operant conditioning process by where we learn from the consequences of our behavior can be illustrated by the example of Jenny-Beth. Jenny-Beth learned that her behavior (lack of make-up and coiffed hair AND negative behavior toward team mates) was a consequence (operant conditioning) of her contentious exchanges with her sister or mom (classical conditioning).
With a better understanding of the reasons for Jenny-Beth’s appearance and behavior, what were the best ways to deal with it? Through a series of guided discussions with her that fueled her own self-discovery she altered the environment (talking to mom or sister) in which she exposed herself in the morning so that she could come to work in a positive mental and emotional state of mind and contribute in a productive way to our team and her broader-range colleagues. Thankfully, it was a very positive and welcome change for both Jenny-Beth and our team.
The Cognitive Perspective- Sizing Up the Sandbox
We spend our entire lives trying to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. It’s not enough to understand stimulus and response, we need to understand how the mind processes and uses available information.

For instance, if I am driving in my car, hear a siren and look for the
source, my thoughts and actions will vary based upon several factors:

  • I see a policeman behind me- Am I being pulled over?
  • I see a first responder headed towards me- Should I move over?
  • I see a first responder heading away from me

In the above example there is a stimulus and period of time between my response. The Cognitive Perspective is concerned with understanding what happens between the stimulus and our response and specifically how we use our attention, memory, perception, and cognition in the “stimulus to response” process.

As humans we are curious and have a need to create meaning in what we see and
experience. Every moment of the day we are exposed to hundreds, even thousands, of stimuli, which our brain’s processing power must respond to. Every trivial stimulus can be linked to millions of direct or indirect causes and consequences. How can we handle this if we forget why we walked into a room?

The adaptive response is for the brain to “simplify, omit, generalize and generally use shortcuts” using stereotypes, schemas, and heuristics. We create our own mental model to explain how the world works and how relationships come to exist between various things we experience. We intuitively explore our perception about our own acts and their consequences. Quite simply, our mental models facilitate our ability to make sense and meaning of the world around us.

Sandbox Setbacks- Simple Isn’t Always Right
Heuristics are types of mental shortcuts that enable us to make decisions in a speedy manner with minimal effort, freeing up our mental resources.
Using these types of short cuts as navigational tools to speed through our world is fraught with peril. Our cognition, which shapes our emotions and behavior can be so fast and automatic that we aren’t even aware of it, yet the influence and impact is critical when we get it wrong.
Our perceptions are inaccurate due to biases, errors, oversimplification and faulty reasoning within heuristics. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the first to study and identify several types of heuristics, paved the way for continued identification of many different types of heuristics including these reported by Psychology Today.
  • The anchoring heuristic, or anchoring bias, occurs when someone relies more heavily on the first piece of information learned when making a choice, even if it’s not the most relevant. In such cases, anchoring is likely to steer individuals wrong.
  • The availability heuristic describes the mental shortcut in which someone estimates whether something is likely to occur based on how readily examples come to mind. People tend to overestimate the probability of plane crashes, homicides, and shark attacks, for instance, because examples of such events are easily remembered.
  • People who make use of the representativeness heuristic categorize objects (or other people) based on how similar they are to known entities—assuming someone described as “quiet” is more likely to be a librarian than a politician, for instance.
  • Satisficing is a decision-making heuristic in which the first option that satisfies certain criteria is selected, even if other, better options may exist.
Context informs how we process information. Remember Jenny-Beth? Instances of very tense morning interactions with her mother or sister led to Jenny-Beth coming into the office in wrinkled clothing, without her hair and make-up done, and in a surly mood. Given that context, if Jenny-Beth arrives at the office one morning looking messy, what are her colleagues thinking, feeling and yes, fearing?
They are thinking Jenny-Beth must have had a fight with her mother or sister AND that she’s going to be less than pleasant to be around for the rest of the day. This is a perfect example of the anchoring, availability, and satisficing heuristics in action.
Sandbox Sidebar

How well do you know you?

  1. Think about your last success in the workplace. Why is it that you were
  2. Think about your last disappointment or failure in the
    workplace. Why were you unsuccessful?
  3. Think about the success of a colleague. To what do you attribute their success?
  4. Think about a recent failing of a colleague. Do you attribute the failing to a
    negative aspect of that individual?

Examine your responses:

In #1 Did you attribute your success to an internal characteristic about you? “I am smart, I work hard, I mobilized the team.”

In #2 Did you attribute your failure to some “thing” or force outside of you? “I didn’t have enough time, the team didn’t deliver, I didn’t have enough material resources or the right information.”

In #3 Did you attribute a colleague’s success to a cause or force outside of them? “They were favored, someone else really did all the work, they
got lucky.”

In #4 Did you attribute your colleague’s failure to a character deficit? “They were lazy, stupid, or got ahead of themselves.”

The above examples reflect the Fundamental Attribution Error where we tend to attribute our and other’s behaviors and/or results of those behaviors to internal factors such as personality or character vs. external forces.

Examples 1 and 2 reflect our own self-serving bias where we attribute positive outcomes to our character and our losses to external forces. Psychologists cite low self-esteem as the cause of the self-serving bias.

Examples 3 and 4 reflect attributing someone else’s success to luck or a force outside of themselves and conversely their failings to negative internal traits.

The Psychodynamic Perspective – The Subconscious Sandbox
The Psychodynamic Perspective takes us back to the familiar concepts of id, ego and super ego. This perspective views human behaviors as an outcome of all the drives or forces within
a person, especially subconscious, and the structures of personality. Sigmund Freud, considered the father of the psychodynamic perspective theorized that our feelings, motives, and decisions are actually influenced in a powerful way by our
past experiences, particularly in childhood, that are stored in our
subconscious. Our behavior is then pre- determined by factors
over which we have no control.
Sandbox Sidebar

Are you trespassing in your co-workers’ heads?

  1. Almost never
  2. Occassionally
  3. Half the time
  4. Frequently
  5. Almost always

Using a scale of 1-5 answer the following:

  1. Do you identify the intent of co-worker’s actions and use this to interact with
  2. Do you identify the reasons your co-workers do certain things in certain ways?
  3. Do you identify your co-workers subconscious motives?
  4. Do you help others to identify the motives and intent of your co-workers?
Heed My Advice

If you answered anything but almost never, you’re mucking around in your colleagues’ heads. Many have tried it and failed. Don’t do it, it’s ugly. I’ve even seen errant texts that were accidentally sent to the very person being psychoanalyzed which lead to verbal attacks, derailed relationships and in one situation a lawsuit which the employer eventually lost.

The Humanistic Perspective- The World is my Sandbox
The Humanistic Perspective looks at the individual in a wholistic way rather than as a sum of instincts, drives and habits shaped by rewards and punishments. This perspective emphasizes that we are motivated to achieve personal growth and are capable of achieving this through free-will and self-awareness. Self-actualization is the focus. We need to remove obstacles for people instead of trying to shape or influence behavior from the outside.
If we are capable of shaping our world and growing in positive directions why is there so much strife and suffering around us? An extensive cause is a lack of unconditional love and acceptance. Our world judges us and from that we learn to judge and reject ourselves.
Self-Determination Theory
According to psychology’s self-determination theorywe are motivated to grow and change and be fulfilled when three innate and universal psychological needs are met:
  • Competence: When we gain mastery of tasks and learn different
    skills, we are more likely to take actions that will help us achieve
    our goals.
  • Autonomy: We need to feel in control of our behaviors, goals, and
  • Connection: Our need to have close, gratifying relationships and be liked.
The ways we choose to exercise our need to have and maintain control, become better or demonstrate our abilities and connect with our colleagues will vary due to personality, neuroscience or a combination of both. Check out the next “People Primer” article to learn more on this topic.
Sandbox Sidebar

Are you destined for greatness?

  1. Almost never
  2. Occassionally
  3. Half the time
  4. Frequently
  5. Almost always

Do you feel that you have control over your life?

Are you highly self-motivated?

Do you engage in actions that will bring you closer to your goals?

Do you accept credit for both your successes and your failures?

People who are high in self-determination will rate themselves a 4 or 5. Improving
self-awareness, decision-making skills, self-regulation and goal- setting abilities can
encourage the growth of stronger self-determination.

Working Together in the Business Sandbox
In her book, The Human TeamJeanet Wade, author and expert EOS®
Implementor, shares her experiences and observations surrounding six
facets of human needs, which she refers to as the “6 Cs”:
  • Clarity: Without clarity, human beings are confused. People on teams must understand the purpose or vision of the team/organization, their role in it, and the outcomes/goals.
  • Connection: People need to know that they belong on the team and in the organization. When feeling disconnected they become depressed, unenthused, dysfunctional, etc.
  • Contribution: Successful outcomes from people on teams comes from how they work together and leverage their natural abilities and skills. When not contributing, people can distract or detract from the team.
  • Challenge: People need to be challenged to continuously improve and achieve new levels of job mastery. Coaching on targeted results, new skills, and areas of improvement can minimize complacency on the team and retain top talent.
  • Consideration: The need to be heard, acknowledged, and appreciated drives people on teams to have high trust and be vulnerable with one another, creating a more unified and successful team. When humans are not considered, they feel disregarded and can quickly become nonproductive.
  • Confidence: Confidence leads to new capability and commitment, and is the best route to meaningful ideas and innovation. When your team stands in a place of confidence and bravery there is less fear, apprehension and doubt. Your organization can go forward, pivot faster, and nurture new levels of results.

So is nature or nurture in the workplace more important? Jeanet tells us we must first attend to people’s needs so we can then nurture them to be their best. When needs go unmet, people engage in dispiriting, damaging, even financially disastrous behavior. If managers and leaders attend to the 6 C’s they can create stronger teams and business powerhouses.
Are You Ready to Work Better Together in the Business Sandbox?

Now that you’ve learned more about what makes your co-workers tick and gained some initial awareness of your own sandbox behaviors, what will you do next? Are you ready to take the next step in learning how to play better together with others in the business sandbox? Small actions can make for big outcomes and working better together begins with each and every one of us.

Keep an eye out for part 2 of my “People Primer” series, titled “Brain and
Personality: What Makes Humans “Human” at Work” where we will explore
how our brain and personality foster workplace behaviors. I can’t wait to
share more insights with you about improving your workplace environment.

If you’d like to learn more about how I can help your employees, teams and
leaders work better together, I would love to hear from you. Email me at
kbaker@vividperformancegroup.com or schedule a consultation today.

I am here to help!