Struggling With Workplace Relationships? Focus On You


As if they didn’t have enough things to worry about, many people are struggling with relationships at work.

Did pandemic lockdowns cause them to forget how to interact with other humans?

Did months of Zoom fatigue produce an army of communal misfits?

Has the surge of activist-driven causes simply encouraged people to be easily offended?

Whatever is going on, the workplace—like everywhere else in public life—is affected (infected?) by intolerance of human differences.

Devora Zack offers some profound (and sometimes funny) guidance on how to navigate the workplace relationship terrain. Rather than try to “fix” other people, she says, we should invest our energy in focusing on our own reactions and perceptions.

Her book is The Cactus and Snowflake at Work: How the Logical and Sensitive Can Thrive Side by Side.

Rodger Dean Duncan: We live in an age of virtue signaling, cancel culture, ghosting,

and many other forms of shaming and intimidation. What effect does all this have on workplace relationships?

Devora Zack: There is tremendous judgment out there. One result is a workplace that emphasizes exclusion over inclusion. We deplete our energy by thinking we know what’s best for others rather than focusing on how to be the best version of ourselves. Many of us get caught up in being “right.” What if we replaced this stance with celebrating differences? Our interactions would shift and lighten.

One of my favorite quotes is: “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.” (Philo of Alexandria). Recognizing that everyone has battles paves the pathway to compassion and kindness.

By the way, when you think you know everything about a situation or person, you are always wrong. This revelation replaces judgment with humility.

Duncan: You draw a distinction between Thinkers (who lead with the head) and Feelers (who lead with the heart). How can people gain clarity about their own inclinations, and what should they do with that insight?

Zack: The concept of Thinkers and Feelers is rooted in Carl Jung’s personality typology. I’ve renamed them Cacti and Snowflakes for more visceral, playful imagery. In broad strokes, Cacti value logic whereas Snowflakes value sensitivity. While Cacti (Thinkers) tend to be analytical and direct. Snowflakes (Feelers) tend to be empathetic and diplomatic.

Keep in mind that many factors formulate who we are. This T/F spectrum distinguishes just one slice of personality. Plus, there are gradations of how strongly we affiliate with one component or another. Most people identify to varying degrees with both.

Duncan: What seems to be at the root of people’s tendency to stereotype others, and what’s the harm in that stereotyping?

Zack: Stereotyping is often correlated with inaccurate preconceptions. Typically, the foundation stems from projecting our own sensibilities on those different from us.

We each experience reality in unique ways. Interpretations of experiences is not one size fits all. Consider this example: While a blustery wind gust could alter the path of a winter snowflake, it could very well go unnoticed by a sturdy cactus. The result? The proverbial cactus could mutter that the snowflake is overreaching. The snowflake may simultaneously proclaim the cactus is insensitive. What’s really going on? While wind is a major event for an airborne snowflake, it is what I call an NE (non-event) for the deeply rooted cactus. As far as the cactus is concerned, nothing even occurred.

This plays out regularly among humans. A coworker ignores you in an elevator? How rude! Or … was she merely focused on an upcoming presentation and didn’t process whoever else happened to be on the elevator? You experienced an event—being dissed! To your coworker there was no event at all, nothing happened.

This ties into an acronym that I’ve found to be quite useful: NAY. It stands for “Not About You.” Many of us take daily interactions very personally. The vast majority of the time what’s going on is Not About You. This is incredibly freeing.

Duncan: What can people do if they sincerely wish to challenge their own stereotypes of others?

Zack: First, cultivate a platform of self-acceptance. Next, remind yourself that people have fundamentally different ways of experiencing the world. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of labeling others as somehow defective. Instead, how about approaching others from a stance of curiosity? Bigger differences present greater opportunities to learn and expand.

Duncan: To avoid falling into the stereotyping trap in the first place, how can people sharpen their observational acuity?

Zack: Test drive a system I call the Big Two. Part One: pay attention. Heighten your focus on those with whom you engage. Typically, we are alarmingly distracted. It’s truly incredible how much we can learn simply by paying attention. One place to start is focusing on and reflecting back on the types of words others use. I call this developing your Language Dexterity.

As a starter kit, home in on the words “think” and “feel.” You can learn much about others’ preferences starting with these two words. Cacti tend to favor think (I think that’s a good idea), whereas Snowflakes say feel with a higher frequency (I feel like that’s a good idea).

Part Two of the Big Two is often overlooked: Ask. Ask about others’ preferences, motivators, preferred communication styles, and interests. Branch out, based on their responses and emphasis.

Duncan: You recommend replacing the Golden Rule with the Platinum Rule. Tell us about that.

Zack: The Golden Rule proclaims, “Treat others how you want to be treated.” Seems reasonable? Let’s dig a little deeper. This widely lauded treatise assumes we all want to be treated identically. This is a flawed premise. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, our efforts to show respect often are experienced as disrespectful by those on the opposite end of the personality spectrum.

Let’s say you’re a Snowflake and in a position to provide feedback on the job. If you prescribe to the Golden Rule, you would dispense your words gently, soften the blow of any correctional feedback, and tie the theme of feelings into the conversation.

This method would work well for fellow Snowflakes. However, what if your recipient comes from the Cactus side of the tracks? They prefer feedback that “tells it like it is” and “gives it to them straight.” They would describe the Snowflake style of feedback as sugarcoating the situation which, more likely than not, gets on their last nerve.

The Snowflake experiences harshly worded feedback as disrespectful. The Cactus experiences soft feedback as disrespectful.

We mentioned earlier the Big Two as a system to determine others’ preferences. The complimentary skillset is what I call Flexing Your Style. That means meeting others where they are—reflecting back on what works for them in terms of language and behaviors. Alert! Don’t expect others to change their patterns to meet you where you are. Most people aren’t that skilled.

Duncan: You quote Friedrich Nietzsche as saying, “Those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music.” How does that perspective apply to building relationships with people who “seem” to be markedly different from ourselves?

Zack: Nietzsche’s metaphor provides us with a visceral reminder that when others’ actions strike us as inexplicable, they could be reacting to an aspect of reality that we do not process. A knee-jerk reaction is that they are wrong somehow or off-kilter. Imagine the impact on our relationships if instead, we responded to differences with gratitude, even excitement.

After all, if someone else perceives the world differently from you, what a wonderful resource to have on a team.

Duncan: You define self-talk as an internal audio loop, similar to an inner monologue. How can people use self-talk to help improve their relationships?

Zack: Self-talk is our inner communication with ourselves. The best way to form strong relationships is to begin by working on ourselves. When you get down to it, there are just three areas over which we have direct control: our thoughts, words, and actions.

We cannot alter others’ personalities. Wishing we could is futile. Negate dead-end self-talk by swinging your attention back to your own perceptions and behaviors. Release the resolve to “fix” others. Decide others have plenty to teach us. The greater the divide between our styles the more we can gain.

Duncan: You wisely recommend replacing judgment with curiosity and compassion. Give us an example of what that might “look and sound like” in observable behavior.

Zack: While thoughts and feelings are both important and valuable, neither is the equivalent of facts. It’s helpful to remind ourselves of that on a regular basis.

Take responsibility for your inner and outer communication. Focus on what seems to matter to others, where they direct their energy, and their motivators.

Practicing the techniques we discussed will enable you to replace irritation with fascination. And remember to tap into your sense of humor! Tensions will melt away and rapport will soar.

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