Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention?

Ostracism, (n), exclusion from a society or group

One of the legal journals I was scanning yesterday brought to my attention a report looking into whether negative attention was better than no attention. Jane O'Reilly and her colleagues believed that employees have a strong ‘need to belong’ within their organisations. So they set out to test whether employees perceive ostracism, compared with harassment, to be more socially acceptable, less psychologically harmful, and less likely to be prohibited in their organisation.

The results, I feel, are worth discussing in many formal work place forums. They found that not only is ostracism a more harmful workplace experience than harassment, but it also negatively impacts on staff turnover. This makes sense, if you are ignored, you don’t feel a sense of belonging, therefore why would you want to stay with that organisation?

It’s an odd feeling when you see something in writing that you’ve experienced and yet never been able to put a name to it; or not even realised that it had a name. My experience of ostracism was at school. English was the only class I shared with a good friend, and for those few hours a week, my life light up. It threw the lonely free periods, invisible lunches and the endless corridor moments into sharp relief. In school it appeared that I possessed an aura of untouchability, which ultimately fostered a handy shell of independence. Maybe one followed the other, who knows.

Whether this can truly be called ostracism is debatable but it certainly heightened a sense of not belonging in that community and I was very happy to leave. However it was shaped my life far beyond school. During university when I was unaccountably popular, I was still wary and wanted to minimise the possibility of that ever happening again. Therefore I maintained sports and hobbies where no interaction with others was required, retained a high level of independence, and, misguidedly, I was determined to find a career in a solo capacity wherever possible.

It just shows you what idiotic ideas come out of youth. Librarianship is most definitely not a solo option. If you are the only librarian in a law firm, you have to work hard to be accepted and ‘belong’. Some law firms are not known for their welcoming atmosphere, especially when you were at the wrong school in the first place, so you can feel like you are back in your worst nightmares.

My worst experience of ostracism at work came out of a single piece of work commissioned by a terrifying senior partner. For whatever reason, I failed to provide the information he wanted. He never looked at, or spoke to me ever again. Whether this ultimately impacted on the delivery of library services in the firm, I don't know and it would be impossible to tell without rejoining that firm. Perhaps I was so insignificant to him that he didn't mentioned my failure to any of his colleagues, and anyway, I stayed to pursue a successful career there. 

But in the immediate aftermath of my failure, it shook me to my foundations and for a while, the insecurity made me doubt everything I had built up. But in light of work experience and increased assertiveness, I was no longer the same person as I had been at school. Instead of being ostracised, I would have preferred a verbal challenge and have been able to restart the relationship.

In a further echo of my school days, in another firm, I watched as a succession of people in business services were bullied and harassed. I relived that same relief that it wasn't me being targeted in that unpleasant way, just as I had been relieved at not being physically abused at school. Perhaps the report should have noted that it also depends on personality types and some people react in different ways to the polar opposites of silence and noise; ultimately neither behaviour is acceptable in civilised workplaces.

Still, experiences are there to be exploited, both good and bad. You have to overcome whatever obstacles you face in order to get involved with your workplace. You have to meet the clients with whom your firm works and network with everyone. If you put in the hard work and have been recognised as a valuable member of staff, the chances are you won’t find yourself ostracised by people in the firm. You’re probably more likely to be over-harassed, in the overwhelmingly positive sense.

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