People still need to learn the appropriate tools to help them deal with work relationships and their demands in a rational manner

Contemporary urban lifestyles demand that we spend more than a third, sometimes even half, of our lives in the workplace. In fact, most urbanites, whatever the gender, derive their very identities from the work that they do. As a result, work has come to occupy a position of predominance in modern lives and the workplace has slowly become almost as important as home, oftentimes even being a substitute for it.

Friendly environments

This probably explains why many large business corporations invest substantially in creating work environments that are friendly, supportive and even fun. Today, employees in many progressive companies can, aside of doing their work, eat, sleep, work out, shower, change, lounge around, read books and magazines and so on, without ever leaving the office; the idea being that if employees think of their workplace as a more engaging environment than home, they may then find it easier to spend increasing amounts of time at work, thereby ensuring greater productivity and lower attrition.

But despite all these efforts, attrition continues to be worrisome, employee satisfaction levels labile and productivity as-yet-unpredictable. Looking closer at this paradox, one realises that we have everything going for us except, unfortunately, the appropriate tools that could help us deal with our work relationships and their demands in a rational manner. So, we approach such relationships with tentativeness rather than confidence. And if things aren't going too well, we imagine they will somehow improve, if we spend more time and invest more energy in the workplace. However, this by itself is not going to produce results, unless we are mindful of three mental phenomena acting in concert that might end up holding us back.

The first of these is poorly balanced ‘domain investment'. As a highly social species, the human individual exists in a ‘personal space' that relates to the following social ‘domains' or ‘spaces': the marital domain, the primary family domain (those that one lives with), the secondary family and friends domain, the work domain and the community domain. Mutually satisfying relationships in each of these domains are important for the individual to achieve personal growth and fulfilment. Each domain requires that the individual invests a certain proportion of available time and energy in order that the relationships within these domains be adequately nurtured. In other words, it is critical that the individual distribute the available time and emotional energy across all the domains, not necessarily equally, but in a manner that the needs of both the individual as well as those of the constituents of the domain are well served. However more often than not, the investment is usually lop-sided with the work domain being the recipient of a disproportionately large investment in the mistaken belief that the holy grail of growth and fulfilment are more likely to be found here. The danger of doing this is that the other domains suffer and are therefore not configured to provide us a balance and an ‘emotional safety net' that the process of fulfilment necessarily requires.

Needs and expectations

The second unconscious phenomenon is ‘transferring expectations across domains'. Each domain has its own set of relationships and each relationship is geared to fulfilling a different set of needs. As a result, we have expectations of individuals who exist in our social domains, to fulfil these needs and they, in turn, have expectations of us to fulfil theirs. If our emotional needs in one domain are unfulfilled, we, without even being aware of this, tend to transfer the expectation of fulfilment to another domain. For instance, a person who has a dysfunctional relationship with his father, may end up unconsciously expecting his boss to give him not just professional guidance, but also in personal areas (the kind of direction he never got from his father). What happens when expectations are transferred is that the transferee is never in a position to fulfil the transferor's expectation because neither is aware that such an intense expectation exists. Conscious expectations are hard enough to deal with; unconscious ones are next to impossible.

The third unconscious deterrent is the phenomenon of ‘Control and Resistance'. All human beings tend to try and control the relationships they engage in, usually without being conscious that they are doing so. Some do it actively by being domineering and blatantly aggressive. Most others engage in passive aggressive behaviour – procrastination, non-cooperation, withdrawal and resistance to taking orders or instructions. Essentially what happens is that when one is placed in an unpredictable or uncomfortable situation, one tries to control the environment to make it more predictable for oneself. In the process one engages in active control or passive resistance. Both are equally hard to handle whether you are a boss or a subordinate.

In the final analysis, it is absolutely critical that relationships in the workplace be appropriately configured if we are to give the best to and take the most out of work. As a rule of thumb, every time bottlenecks are experienced in relationships with boss, peers or subordinates, it would be prudent to take a step back and see whether one of the above three phenomena are in operation. It will, I assure you, be more than worth your while.

The writer is the author of the just-launched Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com