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[*].
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

[*]
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

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenzosBeDajqKSXvtuQner@ChacyAVwdqlONPsEvygPoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

September Eleventh
Because of the events of September Eleventh, and out of respect for the dead and bereaved, Point Lookout didn't appear this week. I hope we can all find a way through our pain to a place of peace and respect for all. Please take the time that you would have spent reading Point Lookout and use it to move us all a little closer to that goal.
One negative outweighs a world of positivesWhen It Really Counts, Be Positive
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
A diagram of effects illustrating two more loops in the Restructuring-Fear CycleThe Restructuring-Fear Cycle: II
When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, lay off, or make other organizational adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Here's Part II of an exploration of how the fear induced by these changes can lead to the need for further restructuring.
Young chickensToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
Red raspberriesEgo Depletion: An Introduction
Ego depletion is a recently discovered phenomenon that limits our ability to regulate our own behavior. It explains such seemingly unrelated phenomena as marketing campaign effectiveness, toxic conflict contagion, and difficulty losing weight.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTDakBclVXTLEMNcwner@ChacaylsBzXGwemfUqtcoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.