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Monday, July 13, 2009


Canwest News Service July 13, 2009 - Quotes from Heather

The story got terrific play today! It ran in the Ottawa Citizen, Regina Leader-Post, Edmonton Journal, Nanaimo Daily News, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette and the online edition of the National Post.
Check the The Post online story here

Let the work wars begin. Canwest News Service
Byline: Shannon Proudfoot - Source: Canwest News Service

Vicious corporate Darwinism is taking over workplaces as recession pressure sets in, experts say, with people eviscerating each other over everything from missed deadlines to messy office kitchens.

Stress over impending or imagined layoffs, "survivor's guilt" for those who dodge the axe and a panicked need to appear indispensable is mounting, they say, creating dysfunction in all sectors and levels of the corporate hierarchy.

"When times get tough, people get tougher on one another. They start acting more as individuals looking out for their own skins," says Heather MacKenzie, a lawyer and president of The Integrity Group, a Vancouver consulting firm specializing in workplace conflict.

"I use the analogy of Survivor all the time: it's outwit, outplay, outlast." MacKenzie says she worried about her company's prospects during the recession, assuming their services would be a frill quickly discarded by corporate belt-tightening. Instead, she's being flooded with calls for help from toxic work environments, and other conflict-resolution specialists report similar trends.

"I really find this last year that people are treating each other with less kindness in the workplace, with less grace," she says. "The wrongs are being tallied now and there's far less forgiveness."

The spark can be something as simple as people working too closely together with no privacy, she says, but other times there's a "curveball" - such as employees shunning one co-worker because of his or her poor personal hygiene.

Lee-Anne Ragan, president of Rock. Paper. Scissors Inc., a Vancouver-based corporate training and entertainment company, worked with one company that moved into a new space and saw tempers flare over which door people should use to enter the business. Another found disgruntled employees publicly airing their grievances on Facebook.

"Think of it like an elastic band," she says of office conflict in times of economic stress. "If that elastic band is already stretched to its maximum and then someone's asked to do something additional on top of that, it breaks."

Ragan's company, which uses games and improv to address workplace conflict, went into the office grappling with Facebook flaming and conducted employee discussion groups about what was wrong behind the scenes. The sessions were so helpful the executives asked for their own, she says.

Even in the best of times, people tend to do more of what's already not working and retreat to the "fight or flight" portion of their brains when faced with conflict, she says.

"When you combine that with the stakes being so high - we're not having an argument about whether to go to Starbucks or Tim Hortons for coffee, we may be arguing about whether I'm going to get paid next week or not - you put those things together and that's a really potent mix," she says.

MacKenzie says fears over job security are driving some people to deliberately sabotage their co-workers, while others are taking on all the work in an effort to look like superstars, making colleagues resentful in the process.

"I hear more and more this constant sense of suspicion, and people starting to shift to not look at each other as teammates but more as rivals," she says.

Some people assume it's the lower levels of the office food chain duking it out, MacKenzie says, but she's seeing more and more problems with executives and board members.

"I don't think people are getting worse or nastier. I just think people are in survival mode, and when workers or executives enter survival mode, they don't have the time or even the emotional wherewithal to put energy into workplace relationships," she says.

There's "tremendous anxiety" even in workplaces that haven't been downsized, says Nabil Oudeh, president of the Centre for Conflict Resolution International in Ottawa. Where there have been layoffs, those left behind may suffer from "survivor's guilt" or question whether the wrong heads rolled, he says.

"They're the survivors but they feel some of the people who got let go were the 'good ones' and they have kept some people who should not have stayed in the workplace," he says. "They say, 'Why did we let John go? John was so helpful to all of us, but Peter here is deadwood and doesn't do anything.'"

Oudeh says he's been getting more "urgent" calls recently from troubled workplaces that want his help immediately.

At one company, a simple misunderstanding between two executives in a meeting escalated until the members of their two divisions were no longer speaking. Backstabbing and gossip took over, he says, and employees were labelled "turncoats" if they spoke to those on the other team.

The depth of the problem only became clear when company finances revealed each team had hired a different IT firm - each with a six-figure price tag - to solve the same software problem in an effort to make the other group look bad, Oudeh says. It took six months to work through the issues once his company was called in.

"In a culture of uncertainty and fear and anxiety, you become very insular and defensive," he says.

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