Throwing a paperweight through the office window or sabotaging a co-worker’s brownbag lunch are not the exclusive domain of the immature.
They’re common ways to express office angst, experts say.
Thanks to corporate downsizing and demands for increased productivity, Americans work in more stressful environments than a decade ago. When pressure mounts, employees fall back on childhood methods of coping with stress:
The parent-pleasing child becomes the people-pleasing manager who would rather make workers content than increase efficiency. The recess bully becomes the power-tripping CEO who favors intimidation over communication. The class clown becomes the secretary who orders a belly dancer for an office birthday.
“The workplace is as emotionally intense as the family, so it’s only logical that we become the same people at work we were as children,” said Seattle author Brian DesRoches.
Employees become persecutors, martyrs, gossips or whistleblowers - one-dimensional personas learned from parents and siblings, said DesRoches, who was in Spokane this week to tout his new book, “Your Boss is Not Your Mother.”
DesRoches, a consultant and psychologist, said no office is immune to betrayal and retribution. Although we only hear about the most extreme cases - shooting sprees of disgruntled postal workers, for example - violence and sabotage are common, he said.
“We never hear about the ‘black sheep’ of the family, and we never talk about grandma’s alcoholism at Thanksgiving dinner. Why would we talk about an unhealthy office environment?” DesRoches asked.
Several people wandered into the lecture area of Auntie’s Bookstore for a reading by DesRoches Thursday night. Although no one would divulge his or her name, everyone had horror stories.
“When my boss was fired, the stress level was amazing. Coworkers created triangles of alli ance and everyone gossiped,” said Larry, a family therapist.
Larry’s coping mechanism was to become the “superachiever,” a lesson he learned as the oldest of four children. Soon he became burned out from assuming other workers’ responsibilities.
Other experts agree that recognizing patterns is the first step to improving office relations, but self-scrutiny is often painful because it dredges up childhood embarrassments.
Employees must examine their own behavior to determine how they fit into the “office family,” said Linda Seppa Salisbury in a telephone interview.
“The more self-awareness we have, the more we can have humor about our roles. Humor is crucial,” said Seppa Salisbury, Spokane Community Colleges professor in the Speech Communications Department.
Seppa Salisbury has learned that everyone - from waiters to chairmen of the board - reverts to prepubescent coping mechanisms, which often indicate birth order.
In fact, she can predict with 80 percent accuracy the birth order of her students and clients.
“The middle and youngest children like to play; sometimes they feel jealousy toward the responsible oldest child who gets all accolades. The only child is often a workaholic and doesn’t take time out to play,” she said.