Over a period of months, several organizations collaborated to identify why some minority demographic groups were not accessing certain community services. This involved many meetings and focus groups, both large and small. The staff members of the participating organizations saw each other at least once a week. However, this was not a social milieu.
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One day, one staffer was trying to leave the office, taking personal leave to go to receive a volunteer recognition award. Because this was a personal matter, the staffer had pushed the departure time until the very last minute, in order to get as much work done as possible before being out of the office. By the time she was exiting, the staffer was nearly late.
Entering the office at just that moment was one of the representatives of one of the collaborating organizations, arriving for a meeting. This individual hailed the staffer and indicated that she had been trying to reach her.
The staffer, conscious of the cramped space of the reception area of her office, tried to sidle out without impinging on her space, while simultaneously signaling with words and gestures that she knew that they had something to discuss sooner rather than later.
When she returned to the office, her supervisor was waiting to meet her, in a fury. The representative of the collaborating organization had taken deep offense at being “blown off”, and had demanded an apology. She had interpreted the physical avoidance as an attempt to avoid interaction.
A phone call apology indicating that no offense was intended was duly made, and duly rejected. A face to face apology was demanded. During this deeply embarrassing conversation, the staffer was compelled to reveal how uncomfortable she was at the thought of looming over the other person in the cramped office hallway, and how she had intended to give her respect by giving her space. Her credibility was always thereafter a bit suspect.
This was a case of mutual misunderstanding of body language and personal space.
Back in the days of secretarial “pools”, one word processing supervisor had everyone intimidated. If a document was sent back more than twice for revisions or corrections, she would question why; even high level managers were terrified of her. They would handwrite rather than deal with her displeasure.
One document bounced back more times than she thought necessary, and she grumbled. However, right there, as glaringly wrong as could be, was the word ‘impotent’ where it should have been typed as ‘important’. It had slipped by the rudimentary spell checking software.
In a desperate attempt to avert a confrontation with this unpleasant person, managers from three different levels of the organization huddled together, trying to puzzle out what their superior could possibly have meant that could have resulted in the use of the word ‘impotent’ (the original handwritten draft was long since in the trash can).
They argued and proposed different readings of the text as though they were rabbinical scholars. In the process, they burned up literally three person hours of work time – far more than would have been used if they had simply sent it back to be corrected and reprinted, and at a pay grade that was easily double that of the word processing worker who had made the error.
This is an example of a misunderstanding on the part of both the word processing supervisor and the whole staff of the role of a support function in an organization; where the tail wags the dog rather than the other way around.