Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 48;   November 28, 2007: Social Safety Margins

Social Safety Margins

by

As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?

We once had time at work for social graces — smiling hello, asking about each other's kids, or the lunchtime game of bridge. Maybe someday we will again, after we re-learn how important the social graces are. Until then we'll probably keep trying to do too much, putting our relationships at risk.

Smiling children. Nobody knows how to smile like kids do.

Smiling children. Nobody knows how to smile like kids do. Smiling at work is one of the more important social graces. Although smiling is better than not smiling, some smiles work better than others. A smile that's obviously fake can do more harm than not smiling at all. Fortunately, since people are notoriously bad at detecting fake smiles, most of our fake smiles aren't identified as such — at least, not consciously. Of these four smiles, which ones look most genuine to you?

You can test your ability to detect fake smiles at a page on the BBC Web site: Human Body and Mind. I scored a 75%, and I felt pretty good about it, until I realized that answering randomly, by flipping a coin, I would have averaged a score of 50%. So I think I must admit my results confirmed that people (or at least this one people) aren't very good at detecting fake smiles.

But we can manage the risk if we know where the danger lies. Here are some structures and situations that are frequently problematic.

More than seven
We're especially vulnerable when we supervise more than seven or so, or when we lead or belong to a team of more than seven, or when we're dealing with more than seven ongoing issues. Seven seems to be the magic number [Miller 1956].
High interruption rates
For me, interruptions when I'm still making progress are very frustrating. I usually make progress for up to 20 or 30 minutes before I get stale. Learn what your sustainable interruption rate is.
Intervals of chaos
Immediately after receiving bad news, or immediately after recognizing trouble, we're vulnerable. This is the interval of chaos — we don't yet see the way through it, and generally, our reserves are low.

Certainly there are more of these situations, which are almost perfectly designed to deplete our emotional reserves. They leave little to spare for absorbing incidental "bumps" from others, or for taking care to avoid incidentally bumping others.

Make a catalog of your own "danger zones." When you notice that you're in a danger zone — which takes some practice — take three steps:

Breathe
Focusing on breathing slows you down. Speed is usually the enemy in the danger zone.
Let others know they count
Let people know that they're important. Make a special effort to be warm and open. We're all different — you might not be as warm as the next person. But be warm for you, whatever that is. Say hello, ask how people are, and make conversation.
Lighten the load
Immediately after receiving
bad news, or immediately
after recognizing trouble,
we're vulnerable
Do what you can to lighten your load and the load you place on others. Defer some efforts if you can, or avoid taking on new ones. Build up a social safety margin.

We probably got into this fix — too much to do and not enough time — because of a shortcoming in our accounting systems, which are very good at measuring the cost of salaries, benefits, and so on. And they aren't so good at measuring the organizational costs of broken relationships, delayed projects, anger, or turnover. To decision makers, the accounting system clearly shows that high workloads are more productive. The reality is much less clear.

Lasting change probably requires that decision makers have tools that measure the true costs of high workloads. Until then, what we do about this is a choice: we can treat each other with care and respect, or we can do something else. Go to top Top  Next issue: Annoyance to Asset  Next Issue

[Miller 1956]
See the classic paper by George A. Miller: The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information, 1956. Available on the Web at psychclassics.yorku.ca/Miller Back

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See also Emotions at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
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When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.

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