Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 48;   November 28, 2007:

Social Safety Margins

by

As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?

We once had time at work for social graces — smiling hello, asking about each other's kids, or the lunchtime game of bridge. Maybe someday we will again, after we re-learn how important the social graces are. Until then we'll probably keep trying to do too much, putting our relationships at risk.

Smiling children. Nobody knows how to smile like kids do.

Smiling children. Nobody knows how to smile like kids do. Smiling at work is one of the more important social graces. Although smiling is better than not smiling, some smiles work better than others. A smile that's obviously fake can do more harm than not smiling at all. Fortunately, since people are notoriously bad at detecting fake smiles, most of our fake smiles aren't identified as such — at least, not consciously. Of these four smiles, which ones look most genuine to you?

You can test your ability to detect fake smiles at a page on the BBC Web site: Human Body and Mind. I scored a 75%, and I felt pretty good about it, until I realized that answering randomly, by flipping a coin, I would have averaged a score of 50%. So I think I must admit my results confirmed that people (or at least this one people) aren't very good at detecting fake smiles.

But we can manage the risk if we know where the danger lies. Here are some structures and situations that are frequently problematic.

More than seven
We're especially vulnerable when we supervise more than seven or so, or when we lead or belong to a team of more than seven, or when we're dealing with more than seven ongoing issues. Seven seems to be the magic number. [Miller 1956]
High interruption rates
For me, interruptions when I'm still making progress are very frustrating. I usually make progress for up to 20 or 30 minutes before I get stale. Learn what your sustainable interruption rate is.
Intervals of chaos
Immediately after receiving bad news, or immediately after recognizing trouble, we're vulnerable. This is the interval of chaos — we don't yet see the way through it, and generally, our reserves are low.

Certainly there are more of these situations, which are almost perfectly designed to deplete our emotional reserves. They leave little to spare for absorbing incidental "bumps" from others, or for taking care to avoid incidentally bumping others.

Make a catalog of your own "danger zones." When you notice that you're in a danger zone — which takes some practice — take three steps:

Breathe
Focusing on breathing slows you down. Speed is usually the enemy in the danger zone.
Let others know they count
Let people know that they're important. Make a special effort to be warm and open. We're all different — you might not be as warm as the next person. But be warm for you, whatever that is. Say hello, ask how people are, and make conversation.
Lighten the load
Immediately after receiving
bad news, or immediately
after recognizing trouble,
we're vulnerable
Do what you can to lighten your load and the load you place on others. Defer some efforts if you can, or avoid taking on new ones. Build up a social safety margin.

We probably got into this fix — too much to do and not enough time — because of a shortcoming in our accounting systems, which are very good at measuring the cost of salaries, benefits, and so on. And they aren't so good at measuring the organizational costs of broken relationships, delayed projects, anger, or turnover. To decision makers, the accounting system clearly shows that high workloads are more productive. The reality is much less clear.

Lasting change probably requires that decision makers have tools that measure the true costs of high workloads. Until then, what we do about this is a choice: we can treat each other with care and respect, or we can do something else. Go to top Top  Next issue: Annoyance to Asset  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Miller 1956]
George A. Miller. "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information," Psychological Review 63:2 (1956), 81-97. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, New YorkGood Change, Bad Change: II
When we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong: we favor things that would harm us, and shun things that would help. When we do get it wrong, we're sometimes misled by social factors.
Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satelliteHandling Heat: II
Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
Sen. Robert Packwood, Republican of OregonPatterns of Conflict Escalation: I
Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic conflict following recognizable patterns.
Heart with mindHeart with Mind
We say people have "heart" when they continue to pursue a goal despite obstacles that would discourage almost everyone. We say that people are stubborn when they continue to pursue a goal that we regard as unachievable. What are our choices when achieving the goal is difficult?

See also Emotions at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.