Managing Strained Relationships as a Fundamental Vocational Skill

This morning I’m talking with nursing students. The conference is in Newfoundland, on the Eastern edge of North America, providing a bit of a testament that strained working relationships reach every corner of the working world.

Dorothy Dalton has been writing an insightful and thoughtful series on women as workplace bullies.

I like the point that an essential competence in the working world is managing your working relationships. I admit to being dubious about the value of defining strained relationships as bully v. victim. The narrative places all the responsibility for the relationship on the bully, leaving the victim to pathetically await rescue from third parties. It’s a powerless position. I prefer a narrative that prepares individuals for a work world fraught with peril. Many supervisors lack the skills or moral fortitude to act appropriately.

I see the power to change to be in the workgroup, rather than in HR or any other external agent. People can’t be saved but they can certainly benefit from guidance in developing a better working culture.

The capacity to work in an ideally fair and respectful work environment is simply not enough. One fundamental capacity is knowing how to respond to incivility and abuse. Another is knowing how to sustain fulfilling working relationships. Both benefit from a team effort. University programs and job placement/internship/practicum programs rarely do a good job of promoting these capacities. And university faculty do a patchy job of modeling appropriate workplace behavior.

Firing or humiliating all the bullies is not the road to success.

Building a positive workplace culture requires the support of senior management but only the sincere efforts of team members can bring it into being. A lot of power is with the people at the end of the day.

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