Workplaces can leave us bewildered. One of my earliest memories of work was as a casual waiter for a busy function centre. My job was simple: Keep the tables well stocked with drinks. I was a young student and nervous. I’d never waited on tables before. And the training was as thorough as my knowledge of wines, i.e. close to zero.
Thankfully, one of the first people I met was a smiling fellow, whom I’ll call Phillip. He was introduced by a relative who worked there and I felt instantly assured by Phillip’s friendliness.
It wasn’t long into the night, as I searched for empty wine carafes that needed refilling on my assigned tables that I felt a hand reach over my shoulder and take one from my tray. I looked around and to my shock it was Phillip. Only, he wasn’t smiling. His face was red and he told me to p— off for “stealing” the empty carafes from his tables. His anger was palpable.
Bewildered. You could say that about my state at that moment.
Reflecting on the word bewilder, it has its roots in an archaic term which means to lead astray or “lure into the wilds” (look it up on etymonline.com). The picture is of being disoriented and losing your bearings. Phillip’s smiling face had lured me into a sense of security that turned out to be false.
Moving to maturity
I must admit that I have done my fair share of bewildering too, both as a parent and a manager, though, hopefully not as drastic as Phillip’s. On one occasion a staff member of a team I was leading gave me some unsolicited feedback. She believed that a few team members were experiencing dissonance between my words and my non-verbal behaviour. It’s perhaps easiest to describe the situation as one where I was trying to build a culture of openness and collegiality, while displaying a deeply embedded value of respect for authority. I found that it wasn’t easy treading a path between being a workplace “buddy” and someone who expects respect. Or at least, respect of a certain sort I had imbibed from my father and my earliest workplace mentors.
Looking back I don’t think I did much with the feedback, probably filing it in the “too hard” basket. Since then, I’ve come to realise that simply diagnosing problems in the presenting behaviours without looking at my role in the group system is really a case of being immature. Jenny Brown speaks of six characteristics in becoming mature in relationships, which I believe should be a blueprint for all workplaces. One of these is working on inner guidelines and refraining from blame:
“The mature person is able to refrain from the childish impulse to blame others when things don’t go well. Instead they have learned to look at themselves first to see what part they have played in the difficulty…”(Growing Yourself Up, p17)
Another way of considering maturity, especially as a leader, is doing all I can to match my words with all other aspects of my communication. I guess if I do this, I won’t be bewildering anyone.