Intentions Matter: The Benefits of Reducing Ambiguity in Working Relationships

In my work on workplace incivility, I ask people to describe the behavior of those who behave badly at work. Sometimes I heard stories of appalling behavior. Much more often I hear people describe their reaction to the other person with very little information about what the other person said or did. An example is in the initial section of a CBC program on nurse bullying. The interviewee described her feelings of being intimidated by others at work. Despite persistent questioning by the interviewer, she could say very little about the behavior of those who were bullying her. In fact, the only behavior she described was that at least one nurse read her case notes. Given that a major reason for writing case notes is for other people to read them, this behavior in itself was not in itself a compelling example of bullying.

Part of the issue here is intention.

The interviewee believed that the other nurse read her case notes with the intention of doing harm. The other nurse was looking for errors in practice or reporting with which she could shame the interviewee or report her to the hospital authorities. Apparently neither of these outcomes occurred. There was no evidence reported that the other nurse actually had these intentions.

Incivility is defined as low intensity unpleasant behavior of ambiguous intent. That means, the person generating the uncivil behavior may not actually intend to offend. In fact, some behavior, such as talking loudly outside of your office door, is offensive because the other person did not thoughtfully consider the impact of this behavior on other people.

Another dimension of this definition is that neutral behaviors, such as reading a case file, can be experienced as rude or intimidating once others perceive intent to harm. The other person’s motive behind an action has important implications for how to interpret the event.

Ambiguity returns to present another challenge. People are not always accurate in interpreting the motives and intentions of other people. People can become confused about their own intentions at times, especially in the context of an emotionally charged relationship.

A fundamental quality of CREW is its capacity to prompt conversations among people about their working relationships. These dialogues have a huge potential for moving towards resolution. If the ill intentions are perceived correctly, the parties have an opportunity to address their underlying conflict. If the ill intentions are perceived incorrectly, they have an opportunity to clear the misunderstanding. Both of these possibilities have great benefits over continuing the ambiguity.

Is incivility in your workplace usually ambiguous or explicit?

What strategies help you to move towards resolution?

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