Today I open with the following question to ponder:

How do people treat each other in your workplace?

That might be a strange question for most people, but not for me—this is our company’s ‘bread and butter,’ after all, and it’s critical for me to ask this sort of question to understand the culture in the workplace.

When you start to really pay attention to how people communicate with each other in your workplace, you’ll begin to see a range of behaviours.

Let’s start with the positive ones.

These behaviours include people who smile, say please and thank you, acknowledge others, actively listen, are supportive, use affirming language, are civil in e-mails, show appreciation, speak kindly of others….shall I go on?

We all know what kind of beneficial effects this can have. Even giving people a small reason to smile lends to an upbeat atmosphere. There might even be a ‘lightness’ in the air as people enthusiastically go about their work like it’s not ‘work’ at all.

In this type of positive workplace, disagreements that surface are usually dealt with quickly and a sense of community is felt throughout.

Some behaviour, however, is not positive (queue the Jaws theme music here) and the consequences are the exact opposite of the daisies and rainbows listed above—remember, emotions (both positive and negative) are infectious!

Our reaction to the negative behaviour we discover will largely depend on who we are and where within the organization we find ourselves.

You may notice anything from small nuanced comments between colleagues (such as an eyebrow raise or a quizzical glance from those who are on the outside), to much more overt and clear-cut harassment, bullying, or discriminatory style behaviour.

For the latter, we can all learn a thing or two from Lieutenant General David Morrison who, after becoming aware of the sex discrimination scandal within the Australian Army, took to the You Tube airways on June 12th, 2013 to make his feelings about the situation clear to those involved.

His three-minute ‘response’ has been viewed almost 1.8 million times! Here is the link.

Also, as a result of the cultural change that he initiated within the Australian Armed Forces by posting the video, he was named Australian of the Year in 2016.

Although over three years old, it is one of the first lessons that we share within our Respectful Workplace training workshops, as it contains so many powerful messages.

Not all of us can do what he did, of course.

However, there are much smaller things that we can do which, if done well, will have a significant effect on those whom we are trying to ‘help’ or ‘guide.’

The starfish analogy comes to mind.

You might have heard the story:

Imagine that you are walking along the longest and widest stretch of a sandy beach.

For me, I think about going to Chesterman Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The tide is going out and the last traces of water are dissipating after those remaining small waves break and start to retreat to where they came from.

As you walk along the edge of the water, you see a figure at the furthest end of the beach.

The figure appears to be bending down, picking something up from the sand, and then lunging forward to throw it out to sea.

You continue walking towards the person, and as you get closer you suddenly realize that on the newly exposed sand there are tens, then hundreds, and then thousands of starfish—all freshly stranded by the still retreating tide.

You continue through this ‘sea’ of starfish towards this person.

As you get even closer, you realize what he is picking up and throwing into the sea.

You approach him and he turns to face you.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

While motioning around him at the starfish covered sand he replies, “I am saving these starfish!”

You gesture around you, almost laughing, “But look at them! There are so many! You can’t possibly make a difference!”

He looks you straight in the eye – deadly serious – then he bends down and picks up another starfish. He holds it out to you briefly and takes a pace forward, throwing it out far into the waves before turning back to you and saying, “I made a difference to that one.”

What a beautiful and important analogy representing something that every one of us can do to help improve our workplace relationships.

And in my opinion we need that sort of help…as the world is not filled with David Morrisons.