Sunday, January 28, 2007

Good Fences

There are different theories about the roots of office conflict. One I've often heard is that coworkers simply need to become better friends: that we should go out together after hours, that we should strive to make the office 'fun', that we should be enjoying each others company... There is some notion that if people are not friends they will be unable to work together; and indeed, should not be expected to work together. For the sake of this and all future FS tours of duty, I hope that this is not the case. There's just no way that everyone can be friends with everyone else all the time; in fact, one of the key stresses of being in an office (or, as I'm discovering, at a consulate) is the pressure to be instantly tight-knit and soul-baring with one another. It's not a realistic expectation of any group of people.

This unworkable expectation seems to be key in one of the great faults of FS culture: conflict avoidance. I don't think that the FS possesses this trait to a greater or lesser extent than any other organization, but the nature of constant, anticipated personnel turnover makes it far too easy to say 'oh, just wait; they'll be gone soon' rather than dealing with problems. We tend to think that because we are all nominally diplomats, we should naturally and easily get along; when we don't, the underlying presumption seems to be that we're not truly cut out for the role. Within my own office, I've seen misguided attempts at avoiding personality clashes lead to secrecy and a certain level of collusion among staff, justified as necessary in protecting office 'harmony'. Recognizing my own tendency for this has been a disappointing part of serving here. The hallmark of diplomacy is not never having conflict, but rather the willingness to take-on and gracefully address conflict. One of my goals for the remainder of this tour is to better foster that sort of willingness within myself.

The challenge this presents is not insurmountable, but certainly not small. Realizing that the need to be helpful, supportive, courteous, and patient, does not necessarily translate into the need to be fast friends is probably the first step.


mud said...

wow. Very well said.

Anonymous said...

Very well said. I'm taking notes for my first tour.

Anonymous said...

I find being openly hostile to my boss works wonders in our office. I wonder if that is going to come and hurt me at EEO time? I am from Seattle, so conflict avoidance is culturally implanted in my psyche

Anne said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with this post in terms of describing not so much the typical avoidance patterns that I've seen, but this odd expectation that everyone will automatically get along swimmingly. It just doesn't happen. If more people accepted that, I think that it would go a long way to solving the overall issue and we wouldn't have to play the game of avoiding the issue. In "normal" careers no one expects you to get along with everyone in the office all the time.