12/08/2011 03:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

Moving From Combat to Compassion in the Workplace

As concerns about workplace bullying and mobbing bring to light the damaging toll of interpersonal aggression, there remains a disturbing tenor to many of these discussions that leaves me wondering just how possible it will ever be to minimize workplace aggression. With calls to purge and shun anyone labeled "bully" on the one hand, and tips on how to document and eradicate anyone labeled "difficult employee" on the other, there seems to be more and more room for intolerance, exclusion, and aggression among the workforce.

I have written elsewhere about my concerns about the use of the bully label, and about the distinction between one-on-one bullying and collective mobbing. Central to these views is my belief that in order to promote civil workplaces, we must extend compassion to our colleagues and co-workers, even when to do so is discomforting. When a worker is targeted for elimination, whether for poor performance, financial constraints, or because they have been unfairly marked for retaliation, discrimination or harassment, the common response among the workforce is to avoid the worker, spread gossip (often masked as "concern"), and align with management. When this happens, workplace mobbing ensues and the impact on the targeted worker is profound.

It is at this stage of the process of eliminating a worker that nearly all workers behave at their very worst. The response of a targeted worker is likely to be one of anguish, anger and depression -- the very traits that can then be used against the worker to paint him or her as mentally unstable, threatening or unproductive. Workers in management often align to ensure that regardless of the targeted worker's past performance or procedural fairness, the termination of the worker is presented as justified. Managers climbing the corporate ladder often find themselves acting in ways they personally abhor, but feel they must carry out in order to demonstrate their loyalty and grit. The workers closest to the target become fearful of their jobs, and in many cases, opportunistic. To distance themselves from the target, they are likely to spread gossip that only undermines the worker's status and further isolates the worker. Moreover, in the interest of workplace entertainment, gossip inevitably becomes embellished as it spreads, until there is little truth to it -- but the subject's reputation is severely damaged nonetheless. As those who spread the gossip feel discomfort in their behaviors -- whether by making "small betrayals," withdrawing friendship and support, spreading rumors, or not sharing critical information with the targeted worker -- they are more likely to act even more adversely toward their vulnerable co-worker, to justify their behaviors as necessary and righteous.

In short, workplace conflict brings out the worst in people, and the worse people behave, the worse they will behave. What happens in these cases is that we lose sight of human compassion, and replace it with combative behaviors that further erode our humanity and escalate workplace conflicts. Paradoxically, in many of our efforts to eliminate bad behaviors in the workplace, such as efforts to end bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination, we become so concerned with upholding our virtues that once someone is accused of any of these bad behaviors, we tend to no longer see the worker as a human, but as a symbol of what we abhor. In other cases, once collective mobbing ensues, the targeted worker is viewed as the source of conflict, rather than the target of it. Even in cases involving poor managers, it is all too easy to view them as unsympathetic symbols of corporate power, rather than humans struggling to survive, and build and sustain relationships.

The workplace is a network of strategic and treasured relationships, and during times of conflict, these relationships can be destroyed just as new ones can be forged. Yet the more we draw on a rhetoric of intolerance, labeling, and exclusion to rid the workplace of the kinds of people we do not like, the less humane we make the workplace and the more our professional relationships become void of compassion and sincerity.

If there is one thing we could do to make our workplaces more rewarding and enriching, it is not by creating ever more categories of the kinds of people we do not want. It is by nurturing compassion within ourselves, one small act at a time. By refraining from gossip, and demonstrating greater kindness to workers who are targeted, we plant seeds of compassion in our workplaces. By cooperating with our colleagues, even when we disagree or dislike them, rather than avoiding them, we plant seeds of compassion in our workplaces. And by understanding that workers under fire may not always behave ideally, but may well be kind and decent people -- and excellent workers -- we plant seeds of compassion in our workplaces from which the fertile grounds of human relationships might thrive.