What makes life at work uncomfortable?

How normal are you?

Or maybe I should have used the title “Who makes life at work uncomfortable?”

Sometimes it’s the sheer volume of work. More often than not it’s things that other people do at work. It might be your boss. It might be a team mate. It might be someone in a completely different team. Perhaps it was an isolated incident. Worst case is when it is something that somebody does all the time, making it almost impossible for you to develop a good working relationship with that person.

Why does it happen?

Whether it’s an isolated occurrence or regular and repetitive, when you sit back and retrace what happened you’ll usually identify a behaviour that jarred with you. A behaviour that was more extreme than you would consider generally acceptable?

But how do you define acceptable? What is normal?

The picture shows the “Normal” distribution curve. No need to worry about the maths behind it, just lodge the shape in your mind. The shape is commonly found when analysing a set of data from a large group. Let’s take a simple example:

Think about the height of all your colleagues in the office. You might have a few very short people and a few very tall people. The rest … the majority … will fit in a relatively narrow height range around 5 feet 6 inches or so (or 175 cms for the metric minded). If you plotted the numbers, they would look like the Normal curve. The bigger the distribution of people, the closer it will resemble the graph.

So What?

What has all this got to do with behaviour and being uncomfortable?

Well, what if the horizontal axis represented how helpful everyone was at work?

In my experience, most people tend to be positive and willing to lend a hand. It might be that you have to wait until later in the day because they’re swamped with work, but they’ll fit in doing a favour for you. That’s fine, you can respect they’ve got their own work to do.

What about the people who always jump in and say “yes” to everybody? The ones who are just too eager. Then you find that they’ve over committed and can’t get anything done. From appearing helpful, they end up letting everyone down. They turn out being irritable.

Then there are those who always say “no”. They never offer to give anyone in the team a hand. It’s always “I’m too busy” or “I’m on my break”. Aren’t they painful?

The eager “yes” people are at one extreme of the Normal curve. The always say “no” folks are at the other extreme.

The majority are in the “acceptable” range in the middle.

And you can apply that Normal curve idea to lots of characteristics:

Speed: the person who dives straight in to get the project moving may make others nervous of an ill thought through outcome. The person who wants to weigh everything up to the nth degree will irritate everyone by being too slow to get started.

Team: the individual glory-hunter will not earn the trust and respect of the rest of the team

Rules: the outright disciplinarian will wear everyone down with pedantry. At the other extreme the persistent boundary pusher will confuse people with inconsistency.

And so it goes on, there are many more examples … the person who is persistently late for meetings, the person who insists on having a project plan that goes down to minutiae detail, the one who never stops talking in the office, the one who never talks at all, …
You’ll find all the irritating behaviours in the extreme tails of the Normal curve.​

Are you normal?

Of course, it might be you that is exhibiting the extreme behaviour. Have you stopped to ask yourself whether you are in the acceptable range in all cases? Or is one (or more) of your characteristics far out in one of the tails of the Normal curve?

Be honest. You have to be open and reflective. Are you irritating others at work?

That thing that made you uncomfortable … did it make all of your colleagues uncomfortable too? If so, then you’re probably in the middle of the curve. If not, it could well be a sign that you’re outside the acceptable range. And that’s when you need a friend – someone who you can seek honest feedback from.

It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change that behaviour. You may need to recognise that facet of your character, understand when it might rub someone else up the wrong way, and occasionally moderate it.

Unless you are an aggressive lout and a bully at work – in which case Management ought to have spotted that a long time ago and dealt with it!

Brian Lancaster is a Director of BLMS Consulting