Negotiating Relationships And Issues of Power in the Workplace
3.1. What are boundaries?
3.2. Why do we establish boundaries?
3.3. How do we establish boundaries?
3.3.1. Personal work
3.3.2. Verbal communication
3.3.3. Non-verbal communication
3.4. When our boundaries get penetrated, what do we do?
3.5. Checklist to ensure professional boundaries
4. Sexual Dynamics
4.1. Human rights definition of sexual harassment
4.2. Helpful hints
5. Positive Confrontation
5.1. The six steps of Positive Confrontation
5.2. Some tips on interpersonal communication
5.3. Why is it important to engage in Positive Confrontation?
6. Suggested Readings
This document aims to provide an understanding of relationships and issues of power in the workplace.In doing so, we hope to facilitate healthy relationships and their growth in the workplace by encouraging the reader to reflect on work-related interactions. At Montreal City Mission (MCM) we strive to work on a collegial model. It is important that we share the same definition and understanding of appropriate behavior that facilitates open collegial working relationships.
The material you are about to read comes out of workshops that MCM has held every year for new students on interpersonal dynamics. It became apparent during these workshops that students would benefit from written guidelines that reflect Montreal City Mission’s spirit of functioning. We therefore began the process of writing the Interpersonal Dynamics Document, making sure that students played an integral role in its development. Our objective is to raise awareness and develop an understanding of how personal interactions affect our professional relationships. 2. Power The root of the word ‘power’ is ‘to be able’. In order to work efficiently with our colleagues, community and government networks, refugees and other community members requesting our services, it is necessary to reflect on our role as ‘enablers’. How well do we enable or empower ourselves and those with whom we come into contact to act judiciously, make a valid contribution to community and society, and engage in a process of growth?
Starhawk, an American peace activist and leader in the feminist spirituality and eco-feminist movement, author of the book Truth or Dare, defines power as something that takes three forms: power-over, power-from-within and power-with. Power-over is linked to domination and control. Power-from-within is linked to the mysteries that awaken our deepest abilities and potential. Power-with is social power, the influence we wield among equals.'
Starhawk goes on to explain that power-with embodies a particular consciousness, language and set of motivations. It bridges the value systems of power-from-within and power-over. Power-with sees the world as a pattern of relationships, but its interest is in how that pattern can be shaped, molded, shifted. It values beings, forces, and people according to how they affect others and according to a history based on experiences. It can recognize inherent human worth.
It is important to reflect on the way power influences and shapes everyday relationships. Be aware of what kind of power you have and how it may be potentially put into practice both negatively and positively.
Power-from-within is what Dallaire and Chamberland, two Quebec university researchers, and Bill Nincas, a community worker, call empowerment. Empowerment underlines the ability of each individual to act either individually or collectively in order to solve his or her problems and to make changes in his/her life. The driving force for this action stems from self-esteem and motivation and an analysis of obstacles that hinder life and need to be removed. Participating in a community is an ideal way to allow individuals to develop their abilities and to live a fulfilled life. These authors advocate participation in community groups to help people to find their place as citizens in civil society.
According to the American educator Sharif M. Abdullah, the character for power in Chinese has three elements: One part is forward motion; the second part is a heart; the third part is a goal. Therefore, the Chinese definition of power is moving forward, with heart, to achieve a goal. When you have all three elements, heart, forward motion, and a goal, you are beginning to achieve authentic power. If you dosomething without heart, without love, it lacks power. If you act without a goal, you act without power.
In addition to inter-personal dynamics, MCM also bases its community development work on the philosophy of empowerment as put forth by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, Margot Breton, a Quebec social worker, and Brian Murphy, a Canadian activist. See the bibliography for references to help you find more information.
Establishing proper boundaries is the foundation upon which a healthy professional team is built. When we claim our personal power through proper boundaries, we become more effective professionals and colleagues.
3.1. What are boundaries?
Boundaries can be defined as invisible structures imposed by legal, moral and professional standards. A helpful image for social workers is that of a permeable membrane, one that allows certain events and emotions, to pass through but not others. Social workers have to be able to practice empathy and show caring and compassion for the plight of those seeking help and also for the struggles of colleagues. Someone who remains untouched and unmoved by these things will be an ineffective social worker. On the other hand, you also have to be able to protect yourselves, to prevent the pain and anguish of those with whom you come into contact from affecting you to the point where you too become anxious, depressed or overwhelmed. When this occurs, your good judgment flies out the window, your needs become the focal point, you cease to be an effective professional and may be a candidate for burn-out.
A personal example considering cultural differences:
I have had to struggle with the issues of boundaries and personal space because of my cultural background. I grew up in a country where these issues are not considered to be serious. For instance, one could knock on a neighbour’s door for food, water, etc. and it would be considered normal. Similarly, there can be close interactions on the train, in the bus, and so on, and this is also normal.
I had strange experiences when I first arrived in Canada in the early 90s. The first was when my roommate was told by our neighbour ‘do you think we are in the Third-World’ when he asked for some salt. The second experience was on the metro when it was evident that people preferred to stand thanto sit next to us. Also, I found it bizarre when people would put their bags on seats when people were still standing. Nobody would ask them to remove their bags so that they could sit down.
After sometime, I came to understand these types of actions better. People are protecting their boundaries and personal space.
I too have come to embrace the idea of boundaries and personal space, even more so as I begin my journey as a social worker. But I still struggle with the issue of blending the ideas with my cultural beliefs. Sometimes it becomes difficult to set limits in certain situations where I might hurt others. On the other hand, I have learned to set limits when the invasion of my personal space becomes overwhelming. I have learned the language to use in setting limits, especially in dealing with members of my ethnic community. I find it much easier to relate to the dominant population when it comes to the issue of boundaries and personal space.
For me, the struggle is to know when someone else’s space is being invaded. Sometimes, I pick up cues from tones of voice that also tell me the mood of the person. Although I may be wrong sometimes, this can act as a yardstick and I have been able to respect the boundaries of others through this measurement.
3.2. Why do we establish boundaries?
To respect professional standards and ethics. This includes your own professional code of ethics as well as the code of ethics where you may be doing your field placement or eventually working.
To feel at ease – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It is important to remember that the more grounded you are, the more effective your work is.
To protect yourselves from unreasonable demands or destructive attitudes you may encounter with clients, colleagues or outside authority figures
To establish what you will and will not allow in terms of personal interaction
To develop healthy working relationships with others
3.3. How do we establish boundaries?
Establishing boundaries is an ongoing and dynamic process. Here are some tools for setting boundaries, organized into three areas: personal work, verbal and non-verbal tools.
3.3.1 Personal work
Self-awareness: Be aware of how something makes you feel and ensure that those feelings are reflected in your actions. If you’re uncomfortable in a particular interaction, its’ important to be aware of that and state it, if appropriate, to the other person or persons.
Self-confidence: As you become more self-aware and engage on a path of self-discovery and personal growth on your own and with others, your self confidence inevitably increases because you’re both acquiring new skills and drawing on your inner wisdom to put those skills into action.
Self-respect: As your self-confidence grows, you are more and more able to trust your judgment and ensure that your views, personal space and actions are respected by others because you respect them yourself.
Self-reflection and analysis: Once again, it’s an ongoing process. New situations require new understanding, yesterday’s techniques may need to be updated. New learning goals, both skill based and personal must be constantly set and revised.
Self-esteem: You are a worthwhile and intelligent human being who is engaged on an exciting learning path and who has a great contribution to make. This comes back to Margot Breton’s empowerment theory of recognizing oneself and being recognized by others as a competent human being.
3.3.2. Verbal communication
Send clear verbal messages and cues. If you don’t state something clearly, you can’t assume the other person has gotten the message.
Be able to say no. This may be more difficult than you think. It is also clearly linked to self-confidence: if you have difficulty saying no for fear of a negative reaction (rejection, dislike, anger), you may have to work on your self-esteem.
Practice positive confrontation. It is important to present and frame a problem in such a way that it opens up the dialogue.
3.3.3 Non-verbal communication
Make direct eye contact. This way we empower ourselves to claim our personal space.
Use appropriate tone. Don’t forget that tone and body language represent more that 80% of all our interpersonal communication.
Use proper breathing techniques – in other words, don’t forget to breathe! Proper breathing helps you find your center, remain calm and project conviction in a challenging situation.
Finally, it’s very important to ensure that body language and verbal messages are the same. An angry tone will belie any kind or neutral words you might be saying. What you say and how you say it should deliver the same message. If not, the non-verbal message will probably be the one that’s heard.
Personal story of a student at Project Refuge:
In my first weeks as a social work intern at Project Refuge, I was excited to be here, but didn’t know the ropes, so to speak. I spent a good amount of time hanging out upstairs with the residents, and developed a sort of friendship with them, but didn’t know any of the answers to any of the questions they had for me. I was anxious to be liked and accepted both by my colleagues and by the residents. There were so many new experiences. During these first few weeks I got hit on very frequently; not in a rude way, but I was invited on lots of dates. Obviously, I was sending mixed messages to the residents inadvertently. As I have become more confident in my role, and more knowledgeable about the information needed by the residents, my relationships with them have changed dramatically. I still feel that I establish warm relationships with the residents, but no longer receive daily invitations for coffee. I have developed more professional relationships due to my knowledge and confidence.
3.4 When our boundaries do get penetrated, what do we do?
No matter what we do, our boundaries will be crossed on different occasions. We are sure to encounter moments in which we feel drained, exhausted, angry, hurt or disappointed. We must avoid blaming ourselves for these feelings. Working in the helping profession, we give a lot, people expect a lot from us and often we expect a lot from ourselves. Each of us needs to develop personal care strategies and make sure that we put energy into taking care of ourselves as we do in taking care of others. For each of us, the way we replenish will be different, but here are some ideas:
keep a journal
ensure that we have a support system in place -- at work and in our personal life
consult a therapist
exercise, do sports or yoga
explore one’s spirituality
Personal story of a student at Project Refuge:
A boundary issue that I had to confront during my first weeks as a student at Project Refuge was dealing with personal questions. Because I am from another country, it felt normal for me to be quite open with the residents about where I was from, etc. I was new to the job and I lacked confidence about what I had to offer, so being chatty and friendly was a way to compensate for this. I soon found, however, that I was feeling uncomfortable about some of the questions I was being asked by the residents. For example, one man kept asking me where I lived and saying that he’d seen me around this area (I do live close by). I really appreciate my privacy and like to relax and have a break when I am not at work. Even though I knew that I didn’t want to give away this information about myself and that I was perfectly entitled not to, I found it difficult to directly communicate this to the resident and instead found myself changing the subject and pretending not to hear him. Because I felt awkward and slightly threatened in this situation, I noticed that I was withdrawing and not then offering all that I could as a project worker. In the end, I talked to other workers in the project and that made me feel clearer about my role here and more confident about saying that I could not tell him where I live. I can now see that being straight with the residents in this way does not mean that I care any less about them and in fact means that as a worker I can give a lot more because I am not worrying about giving mixed messages or feeling guilty about not wanting to tell them about my personal life.
3.5 Checklist to ensure professional boundaries
Be informed and conversant on your professional standards (knowledge is power)
In personal interactions:
Be aware of your physical state. Take time out to check your pulse! Is your heart racing, do you have butterflies in your stomach, do you need to take a breather? If you are nervous or afraid, chances are you won’t be in a position to establish correct boundaries and you’ll be more vulnerable to someone invading your space or making unreasonable demands.
Be aware of your emotional state. Your physical state is of course induced by emotions. Are you feeling self-confident, relaxed or are you worried and anxious?
If you are feeling emotionally and physically off balance, perhaps you can try to postpone a meeting or encounter; if that’s not possible, you can at least take a few minutes out to do some breathing exercises in order to calm yourself and refocus. It’s also important to take time afterwards to evaluate the interaction and perhaps re-evaluate your learning goals, determining what you need to work on in order to gain more confidence in that particular kind of situation.
Plan ahead. If you’re going into a difficult situation or one that is challenging for you, plan what you’re going to say, how you’re going to say it and how you’re going to deal with some things you think might come up.
Get Support. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for support from your supervisor, colleagues and professional help if needed. The more aware you are of your own personal issues and what causes you stress, the more able you will be to devise a plan to tackle those difficult issues, making sure you get the time you need for self-care.
Finally, engage in professional development. Once again, professional development is on-going. Setting goals allows us to get the most out of each learning experience and to shape our journey so that we not only become effective workers but also professionals who are creative, visionary and leaders in our communities.
A personal story of successfully establishing personal boundaries:
Developing active listening skills and ways of resolving conflicts has been a long process, one in which I have learned to have more self-confidence. It takes a lot of time and effort to build levels of trust and to keep hammering away at certain behaviour until it changes. The issue of boundaries has been very much tied into this work for me as I endeavour to give clear messages about what behaviour is acceptable in a professional setting. The following anecdote demonstrates my struggle to establish proper boundaries with a rather difficult colleague.
I felt I had come a long way in developing effective communication skills but still experienced fear of confrontation with a few domineering individuals. I had developed a skills as a peacemaker and problem solver but still backed down from the bullies in the schoolyard!
The opportunity to do some concentrated work on this issue came when I attended a two-week course at a retreat centre. It was a time of intensive work in small groups on personal issues as well as peaceful walks along Lac St. Louis. In retrospect, I realize that time allowed me to consolidate the progress I had made thus far in positive confrontation and to create the mental energy to go one more step. Upon my return, I was presented almost immediately with the necessity to confront a colleague on behaviour I found counter-productive. I practiced positive confrontation (with a somewhat accelerated heart beat) – the individual agreed with me and the situation changed for the better.
The individual in question had not respected proper professional boundaries, displaying hysterical and ‘bullying’ behaviour towards his colleagues. As for myself, my boundaries weren’t strong enough and I allowed this behaviour to ‘get to me’ which had somewhat of a demobilizing effect. As I mentioned, important elements in resolving this problem were: awareness of the problem; concerted action to change things; a retreat time to go within, reassess and re-energize; and continued action.
4. Sexual Dynamics
Transgression of sexual boundaries inevitably creates problems in the workplace. Since we work with both male and female colleagues, students and residents, it is important that we share the same definition and understanding of appropriate behavior that facilitates open collegial working relationships.
4.1 Human Rights Definition of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is defined as conduct of a sexual nature such as, but not limited to, sexual assault, verbal abuse or threats of a sexual nature, unwelcome sexual invitations or requests, demands for sexual favors or unwelcome and repeated innuendoes or taunting about a member’s body or appearance when:
(a) submission to such conduct is made, whether explicitly or implicitly, a term or condition of a member’s paid employment, student placement or volunteer position; or
(b) submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for paid employment, student placement or volunteer position
(c) when such conduct has the effect or purpose of unreasonably interfering with a member’s paid work, student placement or volunteer work or of creating an intimidating or hostile environment for work.
For example, persistent requests for ‘dates’ when the refusal has been made; inappropriate posters, inappropriate form of address (i.e. Baby, la belle...)
4.2 Helpful Hints
This section is designed to make the reader reflect upon his/her reactions in situations that frequently occur.
Giving out your telephone number: We highly recommend that you don't give out your home phone number to residents. Giving out your number creates the expectation that a relationship outside work is a possibility. This obviously affects your professional relationship in an adverse way and also impacts your colleagues' work as well.
Accepting an invitation for coffee: Once again we recommend your relationship with residents be limited to work. Going to a cafe for coffee may seem harmless to you but again may create expectations on the part of the resident. There are plenty of opportunities to chat with residents in the common room on the 3rd floor or at a community meal.
Flirting: Be aware how you interact with others. Don’t feel guilty about certain behaviour as blushing, giggling, inappropriate staring but recognize that these are human reactions that do occur. It is normal to feel attracted to colleagues and those with whom you work. However, we must recognize these feelings and make a conscious decision to put professionalism before personal needs. If a problematic situation does arise, remember that staff is here to support, not to judge. Avoid the mentality: ‘I got myself into this mess so I’m responsible to get myself out of it’. It’s important to keep communication channels with colleagues open at all times.
Cultural awareness: Be aware of potential differences in cultural meanings attached to conversation topics and behavior. (I.e. eye contact, hand-shaking, kissing as greeting...). There is no definitive answer to cultural differences. What is perceived as a romantic gesture in one country (i.e. kissing a woman’s hand) may be a customary greeting in another country. Once again, it is important to discuss these situations with other staff as they come up. It is important to keep the lines of communication open at all times.
Needs: Be aware of people’s needs for professional help and orientation above all else.
Suggestions for dealing with inappropriate personal questions:
Remember that you are in your working environment.
Turn the question back to the person (i.e. Why are you asking me this?)
State that you prefer not to discuss your personal life at work.
Be aware that if you use marriage or involvement in a relationship as an excuse not to accept a date, this may imply that you would accept if you were free to do so. This kind of a response is an easy way out and takes away your power to make your own decisions and set your own boundaries.
In some cultures, questions about one’s family are considered polite and normal. If you are unsure how to interpret the situation, discuss it with other staff.
5. Positive Confrontation
Positive confrontation is a technique you can use to raise problems and suggest solutions in a collegial manner that opens up the possibility for dialogue.
5.1 Six steps of positive confrontation
Locate situation that produced it
Determine what are personal issues and other person’s issues
If necessary, check feelings/intentions with third party before action, avoiding permanent triangle situation
Organize meeting in appropriate place at an appropriate time if possible
Practice active listening.
This is one of the main elements of positive confrontation and a valuable tool in calming stressful interpersonal situations. The practice of active listening can be carried out in the following manner: listen to what the other person has to say, giving her enough time to express herself; repeat back to the person using your own words, what you understood it was that she said; check to make sure your perception is correct.
Mutually decide on next steps if necessary
Check in with person a few days later
Positive Confrontation is a two way street. You have to been able to practice it and receive it. Some tips when confronting someone are:
Avoid comments like: Has anyone ever told you this before? A sure fire way to make someone feel disempowered. You're not concerned with what other people say. Your concern is the issue you have with this person.
On that exact same note avoid the following statements: I'm not the only one who has this difficulty, but other people have mentioned it as well. Again this will make the person feel insecure and think that everyone is talking about her or him. This approach also tends to escalate the interaction. The person might reply: Oh really, who is saying these things about me, why haven't they come to me? And by the way, people have been complaining to me about you too!
Furthermore, this approach is not a fair way to address a problem that may be difficult for the person to hear in the first place. Your objective is not to make the person feel badly or prove that you are right. Your objective as a professional is to get the issue on the table and create a safe place for both of you where meaningful dialogue can happen and the issue can be resolved.
Don’t forget that it’s the person’s behaviour and not his/her character that frustrates us on occasion. Without thinking, we tell people: you’re a drag, you’re being ridiculous, you’re too sensitive. This type of comment can be hurtful and cause a defensive reaction. Try instead to express disagreement or frustration with the behaviour and not the person. For example:
Avoid: You’re a drag, you’re being ridiculous
Replace by: I feel ….when you …
Avoid: You’re too sensitive
Replace by: We might have a misunderstanding - let’s talk; Has something upset you?
5.2 Some tips on interpersonal communication
Body language also plays an important role in positive confrontation. Remember that body language and tone constitute over 80% of all communication. In particular, when you are on the receiving end of Positive Confrontation, avoid expressing your frustration, disagreement or anger through body language. Rolling one’s eyes, sighing, furrowing one’s brow or tapping one’s foot, are all messages we send to say we’re bored or we don’t understand or disagree with what’s being said.
The message gets across but communication becomes difficult for the following reasons:
the non-verbal nature of the message makes it difficult for the person doing the speaking to adequately address the concerns
the onus is on that person to figure out what the problem is and try to elicit a verbal response to get the issues on the table
such negative non-verbal messages can make the person speaking feel embarrassed or insecure. This is especially true if there are several people present (i.e. during a presentation or a staff meeting).
When someone has the floor, those listening should endeavour to:
listen attentively and politely
allow the person adequate time to express his/her ideas
when your turn comes to talk, express concerns or disagreements calmly using ‘depersonalized’ language and asking the person to respond or react to what you have to say
Non-verbal messages often have the effect of silencing a person rather than opening up dialogue. They do not facilitate problem solving but rather tend to exacerbate an already difficult situation.
5.3 Why is it important to engage in Positive Confrontation?
Positive Confrontation is important for the following reasons: to nip problems or irritating situations in the bud before they become more serious problems which require a lot more energy and time to deal with personally and collectively. There are numerous examples of workplaces where interpersonal conflict has gotten out of hand, mediators have to be called in and staff members wind up on sick leave. Frequently these crises can be avoided if the simple rules of Positive Confrontation are applied early on in the game.
At times, we might think that an issue does not warrant discussion. We might say to ourselves, it's not important, a minor thing, so and so is too busy right now or has too much on her plate - I don't want to bother her. Don't forget one of the basic laws of physics: what gets suppressed or repressed has to emerge in some form or other. By not dealing with issues as they arise, you're subjecting yourself to unnecessary stress and you're not contributing to the health of the team. Worse still, you may be creating a more serious problem somewhere further down the line.
Positive Confrontation relates directly to the theories of empowerment. One of the main tenets of those theories is the role of dialogue in the learning process. Learning happens when open communication takes place. If you don’t have healthy communication with peers and also with figures of authority, the results can be self-censorship, tension and distrust. Once again this blockage impedes the process of action and reflection.
6. Suggested Readings
The following books are helpful tools for learning about power dynamics, collegiality and male/female patterns of interacting.
Abdullah, Sharif M.: The Power of ONE – Authentic Leadership in Turbulent
Times. New Society Publishers; Philadelphia. 1995.
Breton, Margot. "On the meaning of empowerment and empowerment-oriented social work practice", Social Work with Groups, Vol. 17(3), 1994.
Breton, Margot. "Liberation theology, group work and the right of the poor and oppressed to participate in the life of the community", Social Work with Groups, Vol. 12(3), 1989.
Brown, Allan and Bourne, Iain. The Social Work Supervisor. Open University Press. Philadelphia, 1996.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seabury Press, New York, 1970.
Kline, Paula: Trajectoire hors de l’itinérance : parcours du groupe communautaire d’entraide itinéraire au journal L’Itinéraire, Mémoire présenté comme exigence partielle de la maîtrise en intervention sociale, Université du Québec à Montréal. Janvier 1996.
Lee, Judith A.B., The Empowerment approach to social work practice. Columbia University Press, 1994.
Levy Simon, Barbara. The Empowerment Tradition in American Social Work: A History. Columbia University Press. New York, 1994.
Murphy, Brian. Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the World: An Open Conspiracy for Social Change. ZED Books, New York, 1999.
Nuechterlein, Anne-Marie. The Male-Female Church Staff, Celebrating the gifts, Confronting the challenges. New York: Alban Institute, 1990.
Pierce, Carol. Power Equity and Groups. New Dynamics Pub: New Hampshire. 1984.
Pierce, Carol, David Wagner and Bill Page. A Male/Female Continuum. Paths to Colleagueship. New Dynamics Pub: New Hampshire. 1995.
Shaw, Ian and Joyce Lishman. Evaluation and Social Work Practice. SAGE Publications, London, 1999.
Starhawk. Truth or Dare. Harper and Row: San Francisco. 1990.
 For further explanation of collegiality see Montreal City Mission’s policy statement on collegiality.