Whoa! What Just Happened Here? When Everyday Workplace Interactions Come At You Hard

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You know the feeling I’m just about to describe. You’ve been there too. You’re at work, and everything is going smoothly. You’re sailing through your day. Work is getting done. Meetings are productive and blessedly short. Everyone is smiling at each other. You can hear laughter in the halls. Your boss thinks you’re fantastic. And your team is eager to take on the next challenge with you.

Then someone says, “I need to talk to you.” And you can tell by the facial expression that it’s not going to be good.  You find out that:

  • You hurt someone’s feelings.
  • A cherished coworker is planning to leave the company because of a lost chance at a promotion.
  • A direct report was thinking aloud to a coworker and now it’s a problem for HR.
  • A teammate left the room during a presentation, and now the presenter is infuriated, feeling disrespected.
  • Someone needs to tell you that what you said or did was hugely offensive.

And all you can think is, “Huh? Wait a minute. What?”

Welcome to what I call the bumper car moment. These are times at work – and in other incidences when people interact, even, say, at the supermarket – when people inadvertently collide with each other with the meanings, expectations, interpretations they bring to the situation. The bumper car moment is more than just a simple misunderstanding. It’s a powerful, potentially damaging, emotional impact that happens because coworkers bring more than just their skillsets and career credentials to work – they also bring their pasts.

Bumper car moments are different than your typical trigger situation, which I have written about here.  A bumper car moment is when two or more people – propelled by each one’s powerful emotional sensitivities – collide with each other, almost always simply by accident. And the impact is forceful, jarring, disruptive, and potentially explosive. Bumper car moments are when two or more pasts collide; you have two or more interpretations of what happened, with each person thinking they are air-tight right in the story they tell and the meaning they attach to the collision. The result? Feelings are hurt. Trust is destroyed. Confidence is compromised. Careers are at risk.

The bumper car moment is more than just a simple misunderstanding. It’s a powerful, potentially damaging, emotional impact that happens because coworkers bring more than just their skillsets and career credentials to work – they also bring their pasts.

All because of an avoidable collision.

You don’t have to be an adult survivor of a damaged past (ASDP) to suffer bumper car moments. We all bring unique sets of beliefs about ourselves and the way others should behave to the workplace. The multicultural aspects of our increasingly global workplaces alone offer multiple opportunities to take offense – and inadvertently give offense. When you think about the many stories, meanings, expectations, wounds, sensitivities that each person brings to work every day, it’s amazing anything gets done at all.

In future blog posts and in my forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve, we’ll dive deep into understanding bumper car moments and how to deal with them appropriately. But for the moment, I just want you to understand that they exist.

This way, when you experience that sudden collision with a coworker, try to remember that the resulting bad feeling is probably just someone’s past running into yours.

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Whoa! What Just Happened Here?  When Everyday Workplace Interactions Come At You Hard

Whoa! What Just Happened Here? When Everyday Workplace Interactions Come At You Hard

© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt

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Bio: Susan J. Schmitt is the Group Vice President, Head of Human Resources for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA.  This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

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