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Can we change workplace culture by the way we talk?

Robert Aurbach

What if we change the language in the workplace?

The Mayo Clinic did a study that has something important to teach us. They quit using the normal pain questions during the taking of vital signs ("How much pain are you in today on a scale of 1 -10?") and replaced it with a question that sought the exact same information. They asked "What is your comfort level today, on a scale of 1-10?" The Clinic recorded statistically significant improvement in clinical outcomes by merely changing the "pain" question.

The study shows the power of the mind over what we experience and raises some interesting possibilities. More and more claims are being made for "psychological harm" at work. The words "bullying" and "harassment" have taken on meanings in Australia that are increasingly broad and vague. Once "labelled" the "victim" of a bullying or harassment incident, the label takes on a reality of its own and things get complicated.

What if we change the language in the workplace, like Mayo Clinic changed the language in its examination rooms? By changing the language can we change the way we think about and handle claims for psychological harm?

"Bullying" seems to include anything that the worker finds disagreeable in interpersonal relations in the workplace. I've seen a bullying complaint lodged over the failure of a supervisor to try to talk a worker out of his or her personal decision to skip a team social function. New legislation throwing the matter to Fair Work Australia, with nothing like a clear definition of "bullying”, will simply allow that body to define the term for us. And history is full of examples of good intentions that have gone horribly wrong by allowing unelected officials to make decisions for us, about matters that affect our basic culture and work environment. The impact of the courts on American society comes quickly to mind as an example.

"Harassment" has become anything that denies or frustrates what the worker wants in the workplace. I've seen harassment claims lodged for failure to get preferred leave approved or to get a change to a preferred shift or work location.

This is not to say that bullying or harassment is trivial or unimportant. The perception of workplace conditions is, and will remain, a strong predicator of the frequency of claiming and the severity of claims. The injury that can be done is real. However, the Mayo Clinic study shows us that when we change the focus from negative to positive, the power of the mind works for recovery instead of against it.

Can we create conditions encouraging a better workplace culture by changing the language? Suppose "bullying" became "interpersonal conflict". Two things happen immediately. First there isn't a perpetrator and a victim. We all realise at some level that interpersonal conflict takes two (at least) and that both sides have choices and options. It's not "your fault", but rather "our problem". The accused can be less defensive. The party with the complaint begins to see this as an issue that can be solved, allowing the parties to move on. Of course this does not absolve management from dealing with the disciplinary issues involved. Some "interpersonal conflicts" are quite horrendous and may justify discipline up to and including termination.

The second thing the change in language allows is therapeutic intervention. Interpersonal conflict is something we can be trained to handle and resolve (See: "Dispute Resolution is Child's Play"). If necessary, a mediator can help the parties reach an agreement that will forge a basis for a new and more humane relationship.

"Harassment "can become "a dispute about workplace conditions or requirements". That places the issue into a framework where negotiation could resolve the dispute to everybody's satisfaction. Once again, there is no "victim" and no "perpetrator", so neither side's position becomes automatically hardened by natural defensiveness. The employee-employer relationship isn't necessarily damaged by the mere act of raising the issue. Room is created for the worker to explain what part of the work environment is not working for them, and perhaps offer a way to satisfy the business needs of the employer in a way that is more comfortable. The employer is given a chance to think about the demands of the workplace in a different way, and either explain business requirements or consider a new approach. Once again, where outside help is needed, mediators skilled in workplace conflict can provide assistance.

Importantly, the change in language can involve management in a change in culture. Workplace negotiations and interpersonal conflicts are familiar things for management to deal with, and not nearly as mysterious and scary as psychological claiming. Workflow can be designed so that conflicts and negotiations are addressed and resolved in the normal course of business, before becoming harmful. A change in language makes that kind of thinking possible.

Case managers, rehabilitation consultants and return to work coordinators can change the language too. The filing of the claim has a tendency to harden the positions on both sides, but that result is not inevitable where there is an opportunity to resolve the issue, presented at an appropriate time. The same is true when psychological issues appear, at the point where a worker with a resolving physical injury begins to manifest psychological issues, based upon their experience with co-workers or supervisors, when they are attempting to return to work.

The way that we talk reflects and influences the way that we think and how we react to the world. The way that we think and react influences, and is influenced by, our culture. Can we begin to improve our responses to psychological issues in the workplace by choosing better words?