You know this bit of slapstick comedy: A guy carrying a long plank on his shoulder spins around and without realizing it, whacks another guy in the head. Sometimes the second guy ducks, only to be hit later.
And you probably know this more realistic, much less funny scenario too: High school students with enormous, overloaded backpacks are travelling on a New York City subway train. A few of the kids are beautifully apologetic when their loads accidentally graze other passengers, but others just rush through the car, apparently oblivious of whether they nudge or strike someone in passing.
And then there’s one kid whose facial expression betrays the fact that he knows that he’s made contact, but he just blunders on anyway. It’s hard to tell from casual observation whether he doesn’t know what to say, or if he’s just not bothering. You can see subway riders falling back a bit to create extra clearance as he barrels through, with one or two of them even calling out in frustration or surprise after being whacked by his book bag.
What Kind of Load Do You Carry?
Now consider how like a subway car the workplace can be, filled with analogous and potentially damaging behaviors: Employees all carry stuff with them to work — whether their “backpacks” are loaded with personal or work-related freight. There are folks who practically bowl each other over on their way to accomplishing their own goals and objectives; colleagues who bump others off course through insensitivity or a lack of awareness; and peers who blatantly or circumspectly collide, knocking someone aside in order to clear a path to their own success.
If you don’t want to be seen by those around you as the silly guy with the plank, or the obnoxious kid ramming into people on the subway, there are three positive behaviors to practice: self-awareness, self-disclosure, and self-management.
Self-awareness requires a consciousness about your intentions and your mental state. First, there is the desire to avoid harming others and to pass smoothly through the corridor — the understanding that there is a standard of appropriate behavior and that you plan to subscribe to it. Second is knowing that when you’re in an unbalanced or overloaded state, you’re more likely to carom into others if you’re jolted and less likely to gauge distances accurately because you’ve under-slept or are being distracted by too many assignments or other pressures.
Self-disclosure is the equivalent of using a directional signal while driving a car — it lets others know where you’re headed and whether you’re more at risk for collision than usual. There have been occasional mornings when I’ve mentioned to a colleague that I’m not at my very best — not so that they’ll let me off the hook for inappropriate behavior, but so that it’s clear that I’m aware of my shortcomings and hope that we’ll both try to ease the passage and be more conscious of avoiding any negative impact.
Self-management comes in to play because even once you’ve disclosed that you’re tilting a bit, you need to recognize that you’re still responsible for your own baggage — and further, that you look for ways to lighten your load or ease your own burdens in ways that will diminish the risk to others — and even to yourself — over time.
Careful, Buddy, That’s Me You’re Knocking Into!
It’s appropriate — and often important for the benefit of the group — to give a bit of feedback before you move cautiously away from someone who’s off kilter, unaware, or otherwise a danger to themselves or to others. To the reasonable person, accepting cautionary feedback or even a direct complaint means getting information that will help them manage themselves better in the future.
Giving the feedback in a neutral, helpful way and not as an attack or an accusation is as important in the workplace as it is on the subway. If you find that your comment is not enough to modify the behavior, it may be necessary to contact the authorities for assistance, the same as in the subway.
And of course, if the feedback is given to you, a quick apology followed by a change in positioning is the only appropriate response.
Onward and upward,