I work in an office with about 15 colleagues. Our job is to support the teachers, administrators, and students in the 21 schools in our district. We have all been classroom teachers at some point in the past, but this is a very different challenge. As teachers, we may have had our own spaces – a room with a door that we could close, full of students that we spent a year with and knew well. As district personnel, we work mainly with adults and almost all of us are in one big office. This office is set up in pods with several desks grouped together, separated from other pods by short partitions. There is no privacy.
This set-up could work very well for team-work and collaboration. Or it could be a disaster of gossipy, inconsiderate coworkers who are crammed together in small spaces and don’t get along. It could encourage people to be in other’s business, to scrutinize more carefully than one might with people better spaced apart, to make others feel unwelcome, belittled, harrassed. I suppose in some ways, we are like a class of students needing to work together, and depending on the tone and expectations set by the classroom leader to establish a productive and accepting workplace.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that leader. A year ago we had several positions filled and the new combination of people has not worked out as well as the previous combination. We have whispering, long walks outside around the building, 2 or 3 hour lunches, daily personal errands to run, and complaints to the superintendent and assistant superintendent. We are just close enough to get to know each other’s craziness, and to be irritated by it.
Now, of course, I do not contribute to this volatile and poisonous environment, but I am affected by it. It recently came out that one of the principals in our district no longer wanted to work with me and another colleague because she had been told that we told the superintendent that she is not doing her job, nor is she capable of doing a good job. This obviously came from within the office, but it is difficult to understand why one of our colleagues would say this to an administrator. I’m not sure why it would be reported if it were true, but in this case, it absolutely was not true.
I was immediately angry to find this out, but instead of trying to figure out who was at fault, I decided that I needed to stop any negativity at work. So, I added an extra challenge to my many for 2014. In addition to the 10,000 steps, finishing a book each day, sticking to a budget, and completing a writing challenge, now I would no longer say negative things. Simple enough, right? I mean, all of the craziness wasn’t my fault to begin with.
It wasn’t until I accepted this challenge to not speak negatively that I realized how angry I was at work. I was suddenly conscious of a mind full of poisonous thoughts. As soon as I received an email, or heard someone say something, a deragatory comment popped in my head. Fortunately, I was watching every thought that I allowed to leave my mouth, so I was successful with my challenge, but I was also horrified to realize the extent of my bad attitude.
Somehow, over the past year, I had evolved into a version of the very people I did not want to work with. The kind of people who agressively criticize others, who talk behind people’s back, who spend more time judging than working. While I did not do much of what I was accused of, there is no way that the venom that I now noticed swirling through my brain wasn’t affecting my daily behavior.
But the good news is that when you don’t feed the monster, it can’t survive. It started with a vow not to say negative things out loud. Then as I realized I was thinking negatively, I worked on not fixating on those thoughts. That sort of naturally led to not even thinking them.
While I can’t say that my thoughts are completely pure now, I don’t have the same dread of going to work. I don’t spend my time thinking about the faults of my colleagues. I am more productive and maybe even happier. I still hope to get to a better work environment, but for now, this situation is no longer turning me into someone I can’t respect.