Many employer-employee relationships fail, devolving into bitterness and conflict when they disregard what employees think or feel, often leading to gridlock. They get stuck in their own point of view, unable or unwilling to consider another vantage point. They make up their minds that they’re right, that employees are wrong and communicate their feelings as facts, turning a deaf ear to the thoughts and feelings of workers. Determined to force their own point of view, they communicate in presumptive, heavy-handed and parental ways. If you’re like most people, chances are you’ve interacted with a boss or coworker through one or more harmful types of disrespectful “crossovers” or “verbal trespassing” without realizing it.
Five Types Of Damaging Crossovers To Avoid
1. Mind Reading. Many of us do it hundreds of times during the workday. We make up stories about a situation without evidence and jump to conclusions about what a coworker is thinking or doing before checking it out. This crossover of imposing your thoughts on someone else is a total disregard for what they might be thinking. A boss might say something like, “You took three sick days off. I think you were looking for another job.” That’s presumed guilt without evidence. A better approach to sidestep the verbal trespass is to check it out with curiosity instead of judgment, “I understand you’ve been sick. How are you feeling after three days off?” You’re likely to get the information for which you’re fishing. Another example of an employee who concludes what a boss is thinking: “You probably think I’m irresponsible because I dropped the ball on the deadline” becomes “Do you think I’m irresponsible?”
2. Emotion Reading. A similar crossover is known as emotion reading in which we conclude what a manager or colleague is feeling without asking. You might say, “I can tell you’re angry with me because I’m late.” To avoid this trespass, you can ask what she or he is feeling: “Are you angry with me because I’m late?” Checking out your presumption with a question instead of a conclusion respects the other person’s point of view as long as you’re genuinely curious and not bootlegging judgment.
3. Labeling. This crossover labels a coworker with negative attributes and name calling either to their face or behind their back: “You’re mean and selfish.” To dodge this trespass, step back and speak of yourself, using “I-messages” instead of “You-messages” such as “I’m uncomfortable with how we’re talking; I’d like to take a time out and come back when we’re calmer.” When we refer to our own feelings (I-messages) instead of pointing our fingers (You-messages), it reduces defensiveness and tension and promotes open dialogue between colleagues in a more professional manner. Labels are for jars and cans, not people. When you practice this verbal trespass, it engraves the negative perspective in your mind, preventing you from seeing the other person for who they really are, preempting you from communicating in a professional way.
4. Put-downs. Whether you’re a manager or employee, when you constantly criticize another’s behaviors or habits, it destroys trust. Suppose a manager says, “You never speak up and contribute to the team in our brainstorming sessions.” You can actually communicate the same message, sustain trust and get better results when you reverse this trespass by using, “When you . . . I feel . . .” to communicate how a certain action makes you feel: “When you are silent during our brainstorming sessions, it makes me feel like my requests don’t matter to you or you’re not interested in your job. Help me understand what’s really going on.” Another approach to avoid put-downs when giving critical feedback is to remember that a criticism is a desire stated in a negative way. Ask yourself what it is that you really want from an employee then state it in a positive way: “I value your ideas and would like for you to speak up more when the team brainstorms.”
5. Commanding. Many bosses tell employees what to do, expecting them to do what they say. While it’s the role of a manger to lead and direct, barking commands often sets up a parent-child dynamic, which can make employees feel intimidated and humiliated. There are respectful ways to lead in an organization besides bullying. Even if you’re a boss, it’s unacceptable and unprofessional to demean an employee with commands. There are far more respectful ways to communicate expectations. To avoid the trespass of, “Don’t ever be late again,” state your concern, or ask a question with curiosity instead of judgment: “I’m concerned about your chronic lateness. Is there anything I can do to help?” You’re more likely to get the truth.
Creating A People-Centric Work Culture
Over time, crossovers cause connections to devolve into a state of relationship failure—even contempt. Studies by family therapist John Gottman reveal four warning signs that breakups are imminent. These same four red flags can signal that employer-employee trust and collaboration have deteriorated: Constant criticism(attacking) can lead to defensiveness (a counterattack) or stonewalling(withdrawing from the conversation altogether), and eventually to contempt (looking down our noses at or resenting others for how we’re treated).
When companies prioritize an employee-centered culture, they have more engaged and productive workers who stick around for longer periods of time, outperforming their competition by 400% by some accounts. The experts I spoke to were unanimous that an employee-first workplace is a win-win for people and profits. The consensus is that companies must emotionally invest in their employees and listen to their needs if they want to build trust and belonging. Whether you’re an employer or employee, developing meaningful personal relationships is essential in the current volatile job market. This involves more deep listening and less heavy-handed talking, understanding the coworker’s point of view and being able to put yourself in the shoes of those with whom you work. According to Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Visier, “There are two critical things the HR industry needs to acknowledge for 2023. First, companies need to become people-centric and approach future actions with empathy in mind; and second, they need to up the ante on what good looks like for listening to and communicating with employees and communities.”
It’s simple science: Empathy neutralizes discord. Studies show that the soft skills of consideration, kindness, and generosity are the best medicine for strong, healthy professional relationships. Putting yourself in employees’ shoes by temporarily suspending your own perspective sharpens your listening skills and deepens your understanding of their thoughts and feelings without the need to agree or disagree. This type of active listening engages you in what an employee is saying and feeling without falling into the trap of who’s right and who’s wrong. It softens tension and sets the stage for mutual cooperation, collaboration and connection.
“When businesses invest in their employees through acts of appreciation, words of encouragement or making investments in their success, they build a culture where people take pride in their work and feel a sense of engagement and accountability,” explains Jonathan Legge, co-founder and CEO of &Open. “When companies fail to do that, employees will simply check-out. This is especially true since the pandemic when nearly every company is grappling with fully remote or hybrid work. Employee investment is key to creating a culture where team members feel engaged and excited about the company and the work they’re doing.”