Prevent Secret Workplace Conflicts So You Can Love Your Job
Deep inside our minds we know there’s no such person named They, but this knowledge alone doesn’t prevent us from acting and speaking as if there is:
- Now They are trying to say that…
- They don’t care about…
- They are really starting to get on my nerves.
Why Do We Do This?
Collective nouns and pronouns are useful, sometimes necessary linguistic shortcuts we take to describe general characteristics of a group of persons, and as a means to convey from where particular sets of values, ideas or creations originate.
Conversations flow much better if we tell someone the name of our favorite band instead of naming each artist individually and then describing how much we like the music they make together.
Aware of their usefulness in many cases, some of us reflexively use collective nouns and pronouns outside of what is best for our own sense of well-being, and beyond what is fair for the individuals who happen to be linked to the groups we are referencing.
Guilty by Association
This regular pattern of thought may prevent us from establishing good relationships with specific individuals, because we may assume they hold the same beliefs and attitudes we ascribe to the rest of their group.
This attitude builds a wall between ourselves and others, and makes establishing good relationships challenging since we approach these individuals with an existing set of assumptions.
Our own sense of well-being plummets when we are upset with an entire group due to the actions of a few members, because at an emotional level we are angry at all of them as if each one had wronged us individually, and personally.
Examples of Everyday Use
Here are a few collective nouns you may find yourself using regularly. Although by definition these refer to collections of people, you may hear yourself discussing these entities as if you were talking about individuals.
- [Insert name of large, ubiquitous corporation]
Let’s Drink in This Example: Free Beer Fridays
Here’s an example of some emotional consequences that come from primarily thinking of individuals as the collective.
You receive an email from your company’s culture committee that Free Beer Fridays are coming to an end. There are a dozen people on the culture committee, and each time you see or think of any one of them you feel some bitterness because this person was responsible for taking away your free beer that you looked forward to each week.
You may feel as if each member of the culture committee made this decision against you.
Rather than being angry at whoever may have been the driver of this decision, you are angry at all twelve members collectively and simultaneously. You might find yourself venting to your co-workers, saying, “They took away my free beer!”
Some time later you discover the culture committee was responsible only for delivering the message about Free Beer Fridays coming to a halt, and not the decision itself.
You find out that the directive actually came from one of your company executives. Now you are angry at Corporate because They are the ones responsible for ruining the only thing you had to look forward to at work each Friday.
Consequently, each time you see a member of Corporate you secretly cringe, and feel so much angst inside of you toward them because they suck so much.
What you may not get to discover is that only one corporate executive was responsible for making the decision to end Free Beer Friday, and that is your company’s legal advisor. It is at her discretion to make sure that your company is in compliance with local laws to protect it from liability.
She recently discovered a law on the books that states it is not permissible for an organization to provide free alcoholic beverages in the presence of minors.
Since your company employs people under 21 years of age, it is her responsibility to ensure the company is in compliance with that law. She then gave a directive to the head of the culture committee to cease Free Beer Fridays immediately.
By this time you would have exhausted a lot of emotional resources by generating anger toward the culture committee and toward corporate.
If this was your story, and your personal investigation led you this much closer to the root cause of your Free Beer Fridays’ demise, you could now find yourself getting angry at government or whichever party was responsible for getting that law passed in the first place.
But what if you later discover that the individuals who pushed that old law through legislation have long been deceased?
You’re mad at dead people.
The Disadvantages of Seeing Individuals as ‘They’
We get angry at faceless entities more quickly than we get angry at individuals.
The individuals we harbor resentment toward because they happen to belong to a collective They may not have anything to do with the perceived injustice we care about so much.
You could discover that They might even agree with your cause if you were to hear each person’s story individually.
This is obviously impractical, yet generating negative emotional energy toward individuals you know very little about personally is unnecessarily exhausting. At the end of the day your well-being is affected the most.
It’s too easy to get angry at people who have never interacted with us on a truly personal level (or on any level at all). They may manifest in your life as your family, your employer, an opposing political party, or the other drivers you share the road with.
One thing that is consistent though; as long as you allow a ‘They’ to be a large part of your cognitive landscape, ‘They’ will always manage to piss you off and bring you down.
So what if we told you that ‘They’ doesn’t exist?
Choose to see members of a team, group or other collective as individuals.
Be aware of how often you, your friends or co-workers use collective language in everyday conversation, especially when it is employed to express frustration, angst or disgust.
Consider whether you have observed each individual member display the behavior you find so abhorrent, or if it’s simply the actions of one or two members of the group leading you to think this way.
Consider the possibility that your current perception of a group might not be your own, but one that was given to you by someone else, e.g. a veteran employee.
As you begin to view more people as people, and less as a They, your overall attitude will also shift in a more positive direction. Effortlessly.
Still not convinced?
If you still believe that discussing people collectively is a fair way to judge individuals, just remember that you are also a member of someone else’s They.