Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Butler Did It?

Revisiting now with a systems-approach to work, we enlist research surrounding the difficult topic of revenge in the workplace, taking us beyond the simple events of misplaced staff pressure relief valves.  The study of employee workplace revenge is prime for any Estate Managers' exercise of systems-thinking, as it dives into the undercurrent of what everyone on their estate wants at the end of the day: justice and acknowledgment.  This quest includes those such as employees, vendors, employers, and, actually, well yes, all human beings falling into all other categories which you may one day meet. That pretty much covers it.

Sit up now and all eyes forward... and avoid to dismiss this notion lightly, as this pink elephant we dare not acknowledge even exists will gleefully tromp through domestically staffed estates just as it does in any other workday world; perhaps even on yours; perhaps even being hand-guided and fed sumptuously by - you, a human being with an extraordinarily predictable reaction to perceived injustices, however consciously or unconsciously absorbed.
The revenge is rarely remarkable,
yet the impetus always is.

There's nothing so newly remarkable here to report:  the worker who begins to arrive late, leave a little early and fudge the time sheet, or uncharacteristically "forgets" to report extra guests having arrived and needing accommodation; a sudden preoccupation with attending to busywork instead of proactively offering help; another five bottles of shampoo purchased during the morning shopping, yet only four making it into the house; or, most disastrous of all, another inside scoop of household confidentiality blabbed to the neighbors - or sold to the tabloids.

In nearly all cases of such behavior, the domestic worker is indelibly labeled as incompetent and/or criminal, employment is immediately terminated, success at eliminating the problem is both assumed and celebrated by the family office, and a new set of contracts and non-disclosure agreements are given to the remaining staff in an attempt to build impenetrable armor around the estate. Again.

Most unfortunate, however, is another opportunity has now been lost to examine the maladies - and the systemic factors which created them. It's a difficult show to watch, but if you wish to bust through the inefficient and ridiculous cycle of blame and repeat, you must, and you must commit your team and family office to tackling the important issues of human resource management, of which building justice is but one, but is still nevertheless - truly big.

Authors Tripp and Bies, professors of management at Washington State and Georgetown University, respectively, in their study of workplace revenge, Getting Even: The Truth about Workplace Revenge - And How to Stop It, tread where few managers dare to go:  inside the minds of common human beings reacting toward common and perceived injustices, "the social and psychological causes of revenge in the workplace... primarily rooted in the sense of injustice." Theirs is not, of course, the first study of peeking beneath an infected, seeping organizational bandage. Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, masterfully brought systems-thinking to the forefront of organizational behavior studies. And one of the best, succinct summaries of systems can be found with just two clicks to

The central concepts in systems thinking are interconnections, feedback, and time delays. Systems thinking encourages managers to identify the larger pattern of interconnections, or causal links, of which problems are a part. Thus, a problem to solve is seen as a symptom of an underlying pattern. Feedback refers to the kind of cause-and-effect relationship found among system elements. Systems thinking proponents identify two types of cause-and-effect relationships, reinforcing and balancing relations.

An example of a reinforcing relationship is when, as staff workload increases, so also does job dissatisfaction, which leads to absenteeism, which in turn leads to even higher workloads. An example of a balancing relation is the short–term solution of rewarding individual high performers on the staff. The effect seems to be that morale improves and absenteeism goes down. The concept of time delays must be factored in, however, for in the long run, individual rewards pit staff members against each other, lowering morale and aggravating the underlying problem, which in this case might be excessive workloads and lack of team development.

Tripp and Bies tie similar ideas through their fifteen years of research into the prevention of workplace revenge, a behavior that often feeds, in our case, the dismissive notions of bad staff when Estate Managers prematurely take focus off of the system and place it onto events and people  themselves. The take-away from the research indicates that household help, like all help, is neither good nor bad, yet, like all organisms, will seek out and produce equilibrium inside the ponds they swim. Seeing the connection - just as importantly with your good staff - is an excellent beginning for stopping problems before they spawn, infecting the entire troupe. The authors state:

Managers must fathom why an employee - and a normal, nice, sane employee at that - would think that revenge might be a great answer to a current problem.  Managers who cannot adopt this perspective will have a much harder time seeing it coming.  And if you can't see it coming, it's harder to stop it.

The authors also speak to the staff and their perceived injustices (notice how the term *perceived* keeps appearing?) which prompted the behavior, providing workable guidelines for placing their slights into context and considering alternative, more gentle and effective responses than a simple reactionary one. The Estate Manager, of course, is in the best position for guiding others toward more reasonable alternatives to what the struggling employee will most certainly view as reasonable behavior, and he/she must not lose this opportunity to act even more reasonably in the best long-term interests of the estate, assuming, of course, that he/she is so enabled to assist. Same goes for the Estate Manager, herself, not to be dismissed as a fully feeling, functioning human being, with the attendant needs of feeling justice, herself, and subject to the same disastrous behaviors as those with different, perhaps less glamorous, job titles.

Tripp and Bies have developed a model explaining the mechanics of revenge, whereby triggers within the workplace environment push wheels into motion. The context of the staff members':

  • access to power, 
  • access to organizational justice resources, and 
  • their own unique personality,  

each play a large role and will affect the choice of revenge, forgiveness, or reconciliation.  This ability to choose from several options represents enormous power held by the staff and should not be weighted lightly; successful estate management requires working with, not against, colleagues and their environment to encourage healthier responses to problems. Understanding that employee behaviors are not always what they seem at first glance is the first step and this book provides valuable, researched evidence into scenarios for what is all too commonly dismissed as isolated incidents at work.

Ultimately, this inspection will allow a healthier space to grow a safe, communicative, professionally enriching and personally satisfying workplace, the type that may then stop investing energy into cleaning up ugly spillage and into where it belonged all along: the mission of the domestic staff team.

Furthermore, this approach will build a foundation for service with a high degree of quiet discretion and calm, of which most domestic employers have come to, quite reasonably, expect. This research by Tripp and Bies, at the very least, goes a long way toward assisting Estate Managers and their staff begin to understand workplace behaviors - and the enormous value of studying and applying systems-thinking.