“Close encounters of the cubicle kind” The noisy and smelly grate big-time in doorless world; stress levels rising

By Samantha Marshall, Staff Reporter | Crains New York
Published: March 14, 2005

Damon Gonzalez is suffering from olfactory overload. One female co-worker sprays on enough perfume to make him sneeze. There are so many fragrances available for sampling at the major fashion publication where he works that there’s no escaping the smells of tuberose and orange blossom.

“It’s so overpowering, I feel like I’ve been taken hostage by someone else’s scent,” says Mr. Gonzalez, an ad manager at the Manhattan-based magazine, which he prefers not to name.

Perfume, body odor and smelly lunches are just a few aggravations in a long list of annoyances that plague workers in today’s cubicle culture. Finger-drumming desk mates and Chatty Cathies who interrupt colleagues with stories about their personal lives are bad enough. Throw in raucous barroom laughs, persistent snorting and nosy neighbors, and there’s a toxic mix of small irritations that add up to one big erosion in the quality of life at work in a world without offices.

“We’re so used to being around each other every day that corporate etiquette has gotten lost along the way,” says Suzy Khalaf, an office manager at a jewelry design firm in Chelsea. She says the open physical environment of her workplace has created a family atmosphere that’s both a blessing and a curse.

Rudeness cubed

Ms. Khalaf was recently cursed by the blare of a radio that a colleague kept at her desk. The noise became so distracting that a cubicle mate changed the radio batteries to duds. When the unwitting morning-show addict replaced the batteries, another co-worker took the woman’s radio and hid it in a distant filing cabinet.

“Eventually, she got the hint,” says Ms. Khalaf.

Some workers aren’t easily bothered by teeth-sucking or the smell of a neighbor’s takeout curry. They may not be aware that anything that can distract from work or invade a person’s space could be a source of complaints.

“Some people feel so comfortable at work that they don’t even realize that they’re starting to dress down their thinking and behavior,” says Judith Glaser, a workplace consultant and the author of Creating We, a book about company culture.

The consultant, who has worked with Manhattan-based employers like Pfizer, Hallmark Entertainment and Donna Karan, was amazed by the breadth of the complaints she received in anonymous notes.

One worker at Donna Karan expressed revulsion at a tooth flosser in the women’s room who would leave flecks of food and saliva on the mirror. An employee at another company complained that his chief executive would casually and audibly pass gas during meetings.

While workplaces with doors and a more formal environment were the norm 15 years ago, the boundaries of a buttoned-down corporate world were erased in the late ’90s when the dot-com boom ushered in open-plan offices. The subsequent economic bust and its mass layoffs have meant that frazzled employees are together in these fishbowls for longer hours in tense conditions. The result is cubicle fatigue.

“Once you take away barriers and enable people to step into each other’s spaces, there is a potential territorial backlash,” says Ms. Glaser.

As petty as many annoyances might seem in isolation, they add to the already growing stress among office workers, workplace experts say. The existence of too many such irritants can also indicate problems with a company’s leadership.

“This behavior is a symptom of poor management oversight and a lack of a sense of mission,” says Steve Carney, author of The Teamwork Chronicles.

Bosses need to step in, because long-suffering employees often stay silent in order to avoid confrontations with offending co-workers.

Anne Silverman, an executive at publishing firm Reed Elsevier Business never got up the nerve to tell a colleague at her previous job that his feet stank. He would get comfortable first thing in the morning by taking off his boots

“He was a single man, so who knows how often he did laundry,” Ms. Silverman says.

Corrine Swineford, a public relations consultant, estimates that she loses at least 15 minutes of work time whenever her neighbor tries to insert himself into her conversations or insists on showing her pictures on his computer. Ms. Swineford says she’d rather endure the chattiness than risk hurting his feelings.

Some of the culprits would rather hear about their colleagues’ discomfort directly from those who are suffering. Beth Nussbaum, an executive at Hallmark Entertainment who admits to talking loudly on the phone and shouting across the hall to the photo department, wishes people would say to her face that they have a problem.

“It’s hard to hear, but it bothers me less when it comes from colleagues instead of the HR department,” she says. Co-workers are less shy when Ms. Nussbaum eats sardines in the office. “They let me know about it,” she says.

Leadership Models

By Judith E. Glaser and Michael E. Pilnick | Leadership Excellence
Published March 2005

These set corporate fashion.

Models are trendsetters, and your leadership models walk the runways daily. They come in every size and shape—from the CEO to front-line supervisor. They influence the desired rules and values for your culture. Leadership modeling is a powerful force that exerts its influence daily in dozens of interactions. The example set by leader’s realtime behaviors influences the realtime behaviors of colleagues.

As people observe the actions of their leaders, they pick up cues about what is expected and how to behave; how power is being used and distributed, how open or closed the culture is, what gets rewarded and punished. Often, authority figures forget how their actions serve as behavior models. They fail to see the impact their behavior has on relationships, teams, and business results.

For example, Barbara graduated cum laude from Wharton, had many job offers, and entered business with everything going for her. In the sixth year in her first job, she was a director seeking to become a Vice President. She was lobbying for a promotion, and in doing so stepped on others. She was perceived as aggressive, ambitious, manipulative, egotistical, and selfish. She was talented, yet in need of coaching.

She didn’t listen, or know how to build a team. She was, on the other hand, an intelligent, results-oriented task master who created results.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Many leadership models are drawn from history—from studies of wars and politics. They paint the picture of a leader charging into battle and getting the troops to follow, regardless of the challenges. Authority is seen as the same as leadership. In reality, this chain-ofcommand notion of leadership contributes to dysfunction.

Abandoning these toxic beliefs can be the first step toward living the new fashion and creating a we-centric culture.

  • Old-fashioned leadership: The old-fashioned, “I-centric” leadership model is about power over others and derives from old models of leadership about power and control, directing and delegating, power at the top, constructive criticism, leaders and follower, servants and masters. Leaders get sucked into I-centric behaviors because they are hardwired into our culture: to be a success you have to be powerful, dominating, authoritative and forceful. These behaviors are rewarded. Icentric leaders hold a double-standard: I’m okay; it’s you who needs to change.
  • Fashionable Leadership: The “we-centric” leadership model is about sharing power with others. It’s about inclusion, support, development, learning, nourishing, futurefocus, co-leadership and co-creativity. People are encouraged to experiment, take risks, speak up, and push back. They are fully engaged in challenges and fully vested in success. They have psychological ownership of the business. We-centric leaders hold a single-standard: Together we will grow and transform the business.

Leaders living in the old model are creating a virus of crazyness—often without realizing it. They are reinforcing both styles of leadership at the same time, sending mixed messages.

Three Red Flags

There are three signs or red flags to help you monitor your behavior:

1. Communication. Most employees dream of being involved in creating the strategy and living the vision. They hope to be included in conversations about critical challenges so they can make a contribution. We-centric leadership engages employees in understanding the challenges, interpreting the challenges, expanding points of view, and creating solutions.

Red flag: While leaders talk about the vision, mission and direction, employees feel disconnected and excluded from the larger goals and strategies, often feeling left out of the decision process. The CEO is often the driver of everything important. There is little strategic dialogue to define the customer’s needs.

While employees want to live in hope for the new future and want to be part of the discussions about the challenges so they can participate in solution-finding, they are not included. There are mixed messages that confuse employees about organizational strategies and commitments, and people don’t know what to believe.

2. Sensitivity and awareness. Most people dream of working in open environments and sharing ideas and feelings. We-centric leadership is self-aware, advocating 360 feedback for everyone, sharing the results, and being open to rich-feedback as a way of creating mutual support. Open environments also focus on sharing best practices and critical information to build core competencies.

Red flag: While some leaders talk about breaking down walls and silos, advocate collaborative and cross-divisional initiatives and focus on best practices and becoming world-class, they model internal competition and fail to collaborate with colleagues to build the brand. So, employees are competing for resources, priorities are unclear, and the environment becomes one of we/they. There is a lack of awareness of common challenges and of direction. Territoriality drives the decision process. There are mixed messages that drive people between optimism and pessimism, and people don’t know what to believe.

3. Creating the future. Most people dream of being involved in critical projects and making contributions to innovative next-generation products and services. We-centric leadership engages people in understanding the customer and focusing on customer needs. They celebrate past success but are not be tied to it. They grow and learn with others, thinking how to enhance relationships, teams, and business success.

Red flag: If leaders talk about refocusing on the customer and growing the business but model an arrogance about past success, there is little acceptance of new thinking and little agreement about how to change. Anchored in the past, they are blind to the realities of today’s marketplace and challenges that cause the holding pattern, depleting the strength to connect with the customer. There are mixed messages that drive people between inner-focus and outer-focus, and people don’t know what to do.

The Crazy-making Virus

Unawares of these mixed messages that reflect two different leadership styles, leaders send their people into either holding patterns or crazy-making. They say they want growth, yet they hold on to the past. They say they want collaboration, yet they create competition. They say they have a strong vision, yet they only include employees in the tactics, not the strategy. They convince themselves that they can say one thing and then do something else. Their words fall flat, while their behavior communicates the direction they advocate. They give lip service to one set of practices, while modeling behavior that sends an opposite message: “Do as I say, not as I do” is the sub-text.

When leaders say one thing and do another thing, they send conflicting messages. That’s crazy-making. It confuses both customers and employees. Crazy-making trains people to be skeptical and disbelieving about management’s intentions.

Crazy-making breeds cynicism, disloyalty, and antimanagement attitudes. Crazy-making threatens the sanity of the culture and, when widespread, undermines performance.

Impact on teams. All the talk about teamwork becomes moot when top executives behave as though other departments are adversaries and enemies.

Impact on values. When leaders proclaim that innovation is a critical value, yet discount people with great ideas, they cause a fear of speaking up. Everyone gets the message: here innovation is something we talk about, but in reality risk-taking and speaking-up are not rewarded and, in fact, are punished.

As the crazy-making virus spreads, people abandon all thoughts of exciting and disruptive technologies. Front-line leaders learn to ignore “what-is-said” and to follow “what-is-done.” In the meantime, crazy-making around innovation has salespeople scrambling to cope with customer dissatisfaction.

Four Courses of Action

To eliminate crazy-making from your culture, and live in the new fashionable, collaborative leadership, you need to undertake four courses of action:

1. Positive modeling. Identify opportunities for positive modeling of we-centric leadership behaviors, practice them consistently, and be held accountable to the new standards.

2. Let go of the past. Identify examples of Icentric leader and eliminate them. Be self-aware and self-correct. Be open to coaching and to be a coach.

3. Work in concert. Accentuate and reinforce modeling the wecentric leadership beliefs and behaviors. Confront and eliminate the old virus.

4. Set the trend—create a culture fashion. Through self-awareness and positive modeling, you can wipe out crazy-making, built trust and hope, and set a trend that “we are all this together” and “what we say is what we do.”

The leaders who transform their organizations draw out power in others. They eliminate crazy-making.

Learn to expand your leadership portfolio. Challenge yourself daily to match what you think with what you do, to marry your intention and your impact so that you are modeling and living the leadership you want.

ACTION: Model the leadership you want.