Heather Darata

Heather Darata

Best Practices

By Heather Darata

Want to create a stronger workplace? It’s as easy as looking no further than your home or playground for examples of the dynamics that can restore—or destroy—your communications center.

Family dynamics and the workplace are nearly indistinguishable in the potential to affect a member’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, Sharon and Jim Lanier told attendees in their Navigator 2011 session Triangles, Fusions, Cutoffs, and Bottom Feeders.

It’s a dynamic that, when identified, can foster positive change in the workplace and diminish coercive behaviors. “Your public safety answering point (PSAP) is a living system, and the leaders and followers are emotionally connected,” Sharon said. “This theory really changed the way I began thinking about managing conflict.”

And if bullying is intimidating your team, that’s an effect no member should be forced to endure.

“Do you think that all of these different people had an epiphany when they graduated from school and said ‘Wow, I’ve been doing this wrong all this time,’” Jim Ferguson said during his Navigator 2011 session Bullying in the Comm. Center. “They haven’t. They are going to continue the behavior giving success on the playground.”


In short, all three said managing conflict is tough. People resist upsetting homeostasis—the way things have been—even with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that prompt introspection and balance—whether functional or dysfunctional. People crave equilibrium and typically are not open to change.

“People need the balance and the resistance is built in,” Sharon said. “It’s a survival technique. Change cannot be brought about in the PSAP without disturbing homeostasis, so tremendous energy is needed to tip the system.” Sharon said years spent resolving conflict as an ombudsman at a large hospital in Florida has helped her realize that two questions get to the root of an uncomfortable situation:

What happened or has changed to throw things off kilter; why have these symptoms surfaced now?

The workplace cut four ways

Looking at how your employees function as a team, rather than paying attention to a particular employee, provides insight into the role each person plays in the system. Although hesitant to pigeonhole people, the Laniers classify workplace behavior four ways—cutoffs, fusions, triangles, and bottom feeders.

Cutoff: These employees are at work but are generally disconnected from the workplace. They regularly put personal needs first, are unaware of the way others think or feel, and tend to lack empathy.

Fusion: This group is at the opposite end of those in the cutoff category. These are the employees who are often reactionary, putting aside personal needs and expending energy to influence the thoughts and feelings of others. These individuals lack a sense of personal boundaries, emotions, and desires.

Triangle: A three-person or triangular relationship functions to preserve the members of the relationship and to counter any perceived or real intentions to change the relationship. Stress is transmitted to the most responsible/focused member, which, in turn, can lead to greater stress and burnout to the individual at the tip of the triangle.

Bottom feeder/parasite: This category includes people who perceive themselves as victims. They get stuck in routine, act intolerant to change, and assign blame. Their inability to self-regulate can be destructive to the whole environment. “They never see how they contribute to the condition in which they complain about all the time,” Sharon said. “I see a lot of folks in my office and it’s very difficult to get them to see that they’re part of the problem.”

Differentiated self

Team play naturally puts people at odds; they are caught between both protecting and sacrificing individuality. Somewhere in the middle is the differentiated person—the coworker who anticipates and accepts change, despite how the change may clash with his or her individual sense of equilibrium.

According to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and the Georgetown Family Center, the basic building blocks of “self” are innate; however, a person’s family relationships while growing up during childhood and adolescence play a significant role in determining how much “self” he or she develops.

A person who has developed a high level of self (differentiated person) is comfortable in his or her own skin; proactive, not reactive; and is able to stay connected with others without losing a sense of self. This life-long process to discriminate between self and the needs of a team gives leaders the leverage in creating a healthy work environment, the discussion leaders said.

Self-awareness reveals hot buttons that might cloud decision-making and provides insight into the reasons we might value or personally dismiss a coworker. The self-aware leader listens subjectively to employees and is genuinely concerned about actions affecting subordinates. Selfaware leaders don’t react emotionally to employees threatened by a change to the workplace environment.

These leaders maintain a non-anxious presence, designate clear boundaries, and stay connected. They are able to diffuse anxiety and bring cohesion to the team.

According to the article The Edwin Friedman Model of Family Systems Thinking by David W. Cox, there are two steps to becoming more self-differentiated: knowing what you believe and defining yourself to others. Self-differentiation is a life-long process of working to be in balance through self-regulation and self-definition.


Workplace bullies are often adult versions of the grade school kids using bullying tactics in class and on the playground. As in elementary school, they select a target and use repetitive actions—name-calling, physical intimidation, rumors, and sabotage—to make the target uncomfortable.

The same can and does happen in the workplace. Key findings from surveys conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, show 35% of the U.S. workforce has experienced bullying firsthand. Bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment. Bullying in the workplace leads to absenteeism and high turnover and because of the bullying consequences, few coworkers are willing to do the one thing that will stop it—speak up.

“You need to speak up respectively and assertively,” Ferguson said. “If everybody in here stays quiet then it’s just going to get worse.”

Before confronting the alleged offender, however, it’s important to document dates, times, what happened, what was said, and any witnesses. Ferguson cautioned his audience to target the bully’s actions, not the person.

“It’s the number, the frequency, and especially the pattern that it happens that’s going to constitute bullying or harassment,” Ferguson said. “[A bully] is somebody who makes you uncomfortable all the time.”

Ferguson recommended workplace managers develop policies against bullying y investigating complaints and suppressing the behavior. Examples of such policies can be found on the Internet.

Signs of workplace bullying:
  1. Undervaluing an employee’s efforts
  2. Refusing to delegate
  3. Withholding opportunities for development
  4. Humiliating others publicly
  5. Using personal insults and name-calling
  6. Micromanaging—supervisors monitoring people with the intent to discover problems instead of finding ways to help them succeed
  7. Consistently passing over qualified people for promotions
  8. Criticizing—rather than giving feedback, criticism is used to undermine and take away a sense of empowerment
  9. Spreading rumors, gossip, or innuendo
  10. Ignoring or excluding someone on the team. People generally want to be included; someone in the group might not be participating because he or she is not interested in that particular event or activity
  11. Withholding information—setting someone up for failure by only giving that person part of the information needed to do the job
  12. Physically intimidating—instills fear and that person can’t function when living in fear
  13. Taking away responsibility
  14. Deliberately sabotaging or impeding performance