Playground behaviour in the office – do we really grow up?

Alongside my corporate work I’ve undertaken many projects in the education sector. It never ceases to amaze me how the same behaviours that first appear in the classroom and the playground manifest themselves again years later in the office and the boardroom …

I used to work in a place where I could quite literally look around the table at a committee meeting and think to myself, “You were the one puffing away on a cigarette behind the bike sheds … you were the class creep who always brought an apple for teacher, and then slagged her off behind her back … you were the vacant one who’d be watching clouds out of the window and didn’t have a clue what was going on in the room …”.  I’d almost be prepared to wager that if any of my former colleagues are reading this, they’ll know EXACTLY who I mean!

Throughout my training career I’ve come across examples of behaviour which at first seem a little out of place … until you consider their parallels in the classroom.  Clearly, if a behavioural tactic proved successful for someone at an early stage of their life, that behaviour is likely to be repeated – whether or not it’s appropriate at work or not – until it is caught and corrected.

By way of example, I was astonished at a participant on an in-house training programme I was delivering a wee while ago, who took every possible opportunity to convey (both verbally and non-verbally) to the trainers and his fellow participants how senior he was, and how far beneath him the programme content was (and de facto his colleagues in the room).

By contrast, another senior level individual in the room took a much more active role in the proceedings, and generously shared his considerable expertise and experience with his colleagues.

I’m taking a wild guess here that the first participant thought that he was cutting an impressive figure, and cementing his senior status in the pecking order of the group. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he was at school, he’d see a classmate tussling with a tricky maths equation and say, “This is so easy! I finished it ages ago! I’m bored now! I should be in the advanced maths class, you know.”

At some point, exhibiting these behaviours has probably successfully intimidated other people into behaving towards this individual in a deferential way which fed his ego. And so, inappropriate though it is as a leadership behaviour, it continues today. It will continue to do so until he receives feedback that prompts him to reflect on his behaviour, and change it.

Another example was a young woman I worked with a few years ago. I was working with her one-to-one on her personal presentation skills, and the issue she wanted to overcome was that older male contacts and colleagues (she felt) were not taking her as seriously as they should.  Now, her voice was very high pitched, she spoke very fast, and she had a distracting habit of winding her hair around her fingers as she spoke.

Here’s the thing. We DID manage to address this issue in part. However, an underlying factor was that when she was a little girl, this lady had been very ‘sweet’, with her high breathy voice, fast manner of speaking, and coy fiddling with her hair. And it was difficult for her to let go of some of that, in pursuance of a more grounded, measured way of communicating at work.

I don’t have to look too far for my third example. I have a tendency to ‘ask for forgiveness rather than permission’, which is often not appropriate. My school environment in particular was one where conforming and conservative behaviour was encouraged, and asking permission to do something out of the ordinary was met with a resounding “no”. Best not to ask and just get on with it then. It’s a pattern I still have to watch out for 30 years later.

Take a close look at some of your colleagues – what would they have been like at school? What ‘child’ behaviours and tactics do they bring to work?

Have a look at yourself. What do you do that you learned in your childhood … your actions, responses, attitudes and communication style … and how helpful (or not) is it?

As the poet William Wordsworth said – “the child is father of the man”.  And sometimes we all need to grow up a bit.


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