Q: I'm a department head at a medium-sized but lucrative business. The work is exciting, challenging and important. The drawback is the environment. The owners micromanage to the point of creating a stressful, unnecessarily competitive and confrontational atmosphere. Instead of cooperation where everyone works together for the good of the company, individuals butt heads regularly and accuse each other of more things than I can describe. Our meetings turn into verbal attacks on every person who dares to make a suggestion or comment of any kind, no matter what the person is suggesting — good or bad — and no one sticks to the subject. Each person wants to make his mark and will stop at nothing to do that. Compromise doesn't exist because of the ego clashes among all.
I have periodically reminded everyone of the way brainstorming is supposed to work; everyone can safely make suggestions and comments of any kind are withheld until we are ready to discuss them. We start as reasonable people, but once someone slips and gently criticizes a point made all hell breaks loose. We become stars in a reality show where everyone wants the spotlight. Have you ever seen people talking at each other so no one is heard? I am done playing referee and I haven't done it well. I don't think anyone can change it due to the competitive personalities, and I want to leave no matter how much I like the work itself. I can easily find another job, but can I reveal my real reason since I am not criticizing the job or anyone in particular?
A: This chaos can be corrected and the behavior changed, but not by passively and politely re-explaining the brainstorming process. Ask for a meeting, but not to discuss anything about the business and the direction it's taking. It sounds like everyone there could use communication training. A psychiatrist once explained to a client that just because you put a question mark at the end of the sentence doesn't necessarily mean it's a question. People who use sarcasm often form criticisms as questions, but they are not seeking true answers. They use sarcasm to make a point, and that point is instigated by negative intentions. Sarcasm, belittling, name-calling, and shouting profanities across a conference table are not communicating, unless the person's goal is to clear the room. A discussion on successful communication also must involve lessons in attitude, integrity, emotional intelligence, and creating a company environment people enjoy.
Negativity stresses all present, so rest assured that if you can't take it anymore, neither can your colleagues. You played referee before. Do it again. Take the initiative to stop the first person that violates the silence when others are sharing suggestions. And don't give up. Others will begin to see what you're trying to accomplish and hopefully your high level of emotional intelligence will shame them into behaving professionally. Once you take charge, others may want to compete with you, and you're going to let them. Once everyone joins in a cooperative effort and starts feeling the difference in the environment, all might be able to move ahead to focus on company goals instead of their own.
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