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Happiness At Home: How To Create A Positive Work Environment

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Wednesday, June 01, 2016


We have all worked in places where we grew to dread getting up in the morning, and a few of us have had the pleasure of working for a boss who makes us feel like we can do anything. Let’s take a look at the differences between a positive and a negative work environment.

Signs of a Negative Work Environment

  • The boss is unfriendly.
  • The boss is critical.
  • There is high employee turnover.
  • There is low employee morale.
  • People watch the clock.
  • People don’t get much performance feedback.

Signs of a Positive Work Environment

  • The boss demonstrates interest in the employees.
  • The boss has an encouraging attitude.
  • Employees like working there.
  • There is evidence of company pride and loyalty.
  • People know where they stand with their supervisors.

Thousands of books have been written on the subject of managing and motivating people, and as many training seminars are conducted on this subject around the world every day. And yet it’s interesting that even with all of this available information, few companies succeed at creating a positive work environment. Let’s see what’s involved.

Four Key Skills

Creating a positive work environment is based on four key skills. They are:

  1. Tell people what you expect of them.
  2. Show interest in your team members.
  3. Create an encouraging environment.
  4. Recognize and reward good performance.
While we would all hope that our boss would read these skills and take them to heart, we can all contribute to a more positive working environment by thinking about how we relate to those around us, whether they're our superiors or those who report to us.  Relating to colleagues, and even contacts outside of our company that we do business with, becomes easier and more productive when we keep these four skills in mind.

Skill #1: State Your Expectations

Telling people what you expect of them means doing the following:

  • Communicating expectations clearly
  • Having a specific job description
  • Identifying specific performance standards
  • Specifying deadlines
  • Setting goals

Skill #2: Show Interest in Your Colleagues

What behaviors convey that someone is interested in you?

  • Making eye contact
  • Calling you by name
  • Asking your opinion
  • Smiling
  • Complimenting your work
  • Taking your suggestions

These behaviors convey a lack of interest:

  • Ignoring you
  • Not knowing your name or not using it
  • Not asking your opinion
  • Ignoring your suggestions
  • Not commenting on your work
  • Following your suggestion, but only when heard from someone else

Such signs discourage productivity because they make people feel discouraged, angry, less confident, and stripped of self-esteem.

Skill #3: Create an Encouraging Environment

Most people would agree that an encouraging work environment is one where:

  • Your ideas are valued.
  • Creativity is encouraged.
  • Risks are encouraged.
  • Fun and laughter are valued.
  • New ideas are rewarded.
  • You feel appreciated.
  • People thank you for your contributions.
  • Flexibility is valued.
  • You feel like part of the team.

Skill #4: Recognize and Reward Good Performance

A reinforcer is anything that happens, after a behavior, that tends to increase the chances that the behavior will be repeated. Included are such things as:

  • Compliments
  • Smiles
  • Thumbs-up gesture
  • Saying “Thank you”
  • Public announcement of your achievement
  • Positive letter in your personnel file
  • Promotion
  • Time off
  • Special parking space
  • First choice on schedule
  • Dinner with the boss
  • Tickets to an event
  • Extra employee discount
  • Picture on the bulletin board
  • Applause at a meeting

Recognition Guidelines

  1. Describe the results you are recognizing. Be specific. It’s important to make certain your colleague or employee knows what behavior or accomplishment you are referring to.
  2. State your personal appreciation. Say, “I appreciate it.” Adding your personal appreciation makes the compliment feel more genuine.
  3. Encourage the person to continue producing such good work. This increases the chances that the person will repeat the desirable behavior.


Eliminate Criticism and Minimize Mistakes

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

This is the title of a chapter in Rudolph Dreikurs' classic parenting book Children: The Challenge.  It can be a tough concept for a parent to really grasp, though, because our first instinct as humans seems to be to step in and correct, instead of letting things run their course.  It gets easier the more we practice it, as with everything else, but when we start out trying to eliminate criticism, it takes a focused effort to do so.

Kids receive a lot of message based on our judgments and what we consider to be important.  To use an example from Dreikurs' book, kids aren't concerned at all that their thank you letter to Grandma is filled with mistakes and is incredibly sloppy.  They just enjoy the process of creating something for someone they love.  And if we step in and point out all the ways their letter is inadequate, they lose the joy and pride they felt in creating it.

As Dreikurs points out, we cannot build on weaknesses, only on strengths.  It may be tempting to focus on the negative because that's the part that needs more work, but research has shown that by focusing our efforts more on what kids are already doing well, we increase the likelihood that their behaviour will improve.  (This is referred to as positive reinforcement.) 

Many of us, without realizing it, spend most of our time focusing on what's not working with our kids.  All of our attention and focus goes to what we'd like to see changed, or the negative, and we spend very little time dwelling on what's already working.  But that's the exact opposite of what we should be doing, if we really want to see our kids make positive improvements in what they're doing.

A matter-of-fact approach is usually a much better way to handle mistakes.  No shame, no blame, simply focusing on where things took a wrong turn and what we (or they) can do to set it back on course.  We need to get rid of the notion that in order to help kids do better what have to make them feel worse and instead put our attention on the actions that are already working and on the behaviours we'd like to see more of.  We want to empower our kids to feel ok about making mistakes and taking chances, to help them develop the courage to be imperfect but to get back up and try again anyway.  Kids want to do well.  They want to fit in, get along with others, be seen as helpful and cooperative.  And when they don't, it's because they've been conditioned to believe that nothing they do is right, that they can't do things without screwing them up, or that it's just better if they don't get involved or don't even try.  While kids may come to these conclusions on their own, as parents, we can avoid contributing to their discouragement by eliminating criticism and focusing more on what they do well already.

Conversation Basics

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I think every parent wants to raise a polite child.  Sometimes how that is defined varies from family to family, but overall, there are some things that we have as a culture generally decided are rude.  One of those things is when a child doesn't answer or mumbles when spoken to by an adult.  This can be a tough one for shy kids, but it's an important lesson, not only in manners, but also in making friends, developing relationships, and if not being comfortable, then at least being able to function in new situations.

The three basics that you can focus on with your kids are making eye contact, smiling, and saying hello.  Of those three, eye contact may be the most intimidating, but encourage your kids to at least look at the person they're speaking to, even if they're actually looking at their eyebrows instead of their eyes.

The other part of a being a good conversationalist is avoiding yes-or-no responses. If someone asks your child about a hobby or sport he's involved in, help him to think about things that he can say to keep the conversation going himself.  It might be to mention an aspect of the sport that he really loves, or an achievement he and/or his team have recently reached, or an interesting fact about what he's doing.  This helps kids to feel as though they are an equal member of the conversation and that they have something valuable to contribute to the discussion.

Starting out with a few conversation basics is a valuable investment in your child's social confidence and skill, regardless of how old -- or shy -- he may be.  Letting your kids off the hook because they don't enjoy or feel uncomfortable with this kind of conversation doesn't do them any favours, nor does answering for them or making excuses about why they can't answer appropriately.  These are valuable skills we all need to have to succeed socially, as children and as adults, and a little bit of training and coaching now can ease the discomfort kids may be feeling today and avoid feeling increasingly uncomfortable as they age.

“Fighting Fair”?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Thursday, May 12, 2016

All couples disagree at some point.  It’s not realistic to think that we’ll see eye-to-eye on everything over the course of a long marriage.  Disagreeing isn’t the issue; how we handle it is.

Most of us will admit to fighting in front of the kids at some point.  This is a problem.  Disagreeing in front them?  Ok.  Problem solving in front of them?  Good.  Working things out from start to finish, so that they aren’t left feeling anxious and wondering about the state of your marriage, and they learn some solid communication skills in the process?  Even better. 

But be careful.  Many people will say that it’s important to “fight fair” in front of the kids.  I’m not a huge fan of that phrase.  Fighting, to me, implies something hostile, maybe violent, definitely not collaborative.  I’m ok with disagreeing and problem solving, but fighting?  That just feels like a slippery slope into name-calling, swearing, personal attacks, put-downs, aggressive body language and all sorts of other behaviours that cross the line and that we certainly don’t want our kids witnessing or, worse, imitating. 

I’m a very big advocate of never fighting in front of the kids.  Ever.  When I’m doing couple counselling in my office in Oakville, I’m pretty clear with my clients that as we move away from all of the fighting that may have been taking place in their marriages, that they put a full-stop on fighting in front of the kids.  Consider how you would define how you’re speaking to one another in these moments: if there was a camera in your house right now, would you say that you’re disagreeing or fighting?  Is it causing your kids distress?  Does it leave you feeling depleted and hopeless?  Then you’re fighting.  It’s not helpful, it’s not working, and we need to connect you with other ways to manage those problem situations.

Instead, breathe deeply.  Most of us don’t lose our cool with our kids the way we do with our spouses – even though our kids push our buttons like nobody’s business – so tap into that reserve and hold back.  No good ever came from speaking to someone we love from a place of anger.

Give yourself a time-out if that’s what you need.  Letting your kids watch you say, “I’m feeling pretty angry right now and I don’t want to fight or say something I’ll regret.  I’m going to leave the room until we can work this out calmly” teaches them that some things are better dealt with once everyone is feeling calmer.  There’s no shame in saying that you’re too angry to work something out right this minute.

If you start a discussion or argument in front of your kids, let them see you finish it.  Not only are you demonstrating how to work through problems with those you love, but you’re also reassuring them that sometimes their parents don’t see eye-to-eye, but that they can work through those differences and come to a place of resolution that leaves everyone feeling ok.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever done marriage counselling and not had the couple tell me that one of their main issues is communication.  What a gift it would be to our kids to teach them better ways of talking to one another than what we’ve been left to sort out on our own!  Let them learn at home that it’s possible to disagree without fighting, to work through problems together without there needing to be a clear “winner”, and that there’s always a better way than fighting.

Interruption Disruption

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I’m of the belief that one of the hardest parts of parenting is the constant interruptions.  It could be interruptions while you’re talking, or just the idea that a parent’s life is often broken down into two to three hour windows – it’s a luxury to have a whole afternoon to just be able to focus on what you want, without being distracted or having to put what you’re doing aside to help a little person.  The continual shifting of mental gears can really start to chip away at you!

That isn’t to say that an interrupting kid isn’t a normal kid.  Impulsivity and egocentricism go hand-in-hand with childhood, and that often leads to interrupting Mom or Dad when they’re in the middle of something.  We can still coach our children into more socially appropriate behaviour, though, making our lives at home a little more stress-free, and the social lives of our kids a little more pleasant (no one wants to be friends with a constant interrupter or conversation hog).

When kids are just starting school, they’re at a good age to be coached into a less disruptive behaviour.  Train them to recognize when you are available for conversation, and when you’re not which means they’ll have to be patient.  You can make this waiting easier for them by acknowledging them; even something as simple as a hand pat or eye contact and a nod, let’s them know that you know they’re there, and that their turn will come.

As kids get just a little older, self-control develops enough that they absolutely have the ability to resist some of that impulsivity and wait for their moment.  It’s not asking too much of a seven year old to catch your eye but still wait until you’re ready to talk, or to ask, “When you’re done with what you’re doing, can I talk to you?”.  If they forget and jump right in, a simple, “It’s not polite to interrupt” or “I was still speaking” can be enough of a cue for most kids to be patient.  It generally works better in relationships if we tell others what we will do (not what they must do), so try telling your kids how you will handle their interruptions, without focusing on what they need to do: “When you interrupt me, I lose my train of thought, so I’m going to have to go back to the beginning,” or “When someone talks when I’m talking, I get confused or frustrated, so I’ll just stop talking until it’s my turn again.”  Actions speak louder than words, so don’t focus on lectures of how rude it is to interrupt. Instead, lead by example and model for your kids how you would like for them to behave in those moments.

No matter how frustrating those interruptions are, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your kids aren’t trying to test your patience.  They aren’t suggesting that your thoughts or conversation are less important than theirs, it’s just that they haven’t developed the skill of balancing both people’s needs in a conversation, and while it might be irritating in the moment, this is a great opportunity to help them flex that muscle.

Is It Wrong To Ask For Help?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, April 05, 2016

We live in a culture that values independence.  There’s a common belief that everyone can and should take care of themselves alone, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it.  But is that really true?  Do we have reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed or “less than” because we could use a hand?

The answer is no.  Just, no. 

So then, why don’t we ask for help more often?  Sometimes we worry about the cost – if we take up a friend on her offer to help with carpooling, for example, we feel anxious about what she will expect in return.  Asking for help can feel the same as admitting inadequacy or a lack of ability.  We worry that everyone else is keeping their lives together but us, and if they can all do it, then we should be able to as well. 

The problem is, other people aren’t necessarily keeping their lives together any better than you are.  Everyone goes through ups and downs, and if you’re experiencing a “down” right now, there’s no point in comparing yourself to someone who doesn’t have your current challenges.  It’s ok to feel overwhelmed.  Life is overwhelming sometimes.  Those are the times when we need a hand more than ever.  And it’s ok to ask.

In fact, people who care for us want us to ask.  Think about how you feel when you help out a friend or family member: Are you pleased to have the opportunity to hold something over their heads and “cash in” when you need it most?  Then why would your friends and family feel that way about helping you out?  Asking for help – and offering it when we can – increases connection between two people.  It reminds us that we are a part of a community, that we’re cared for, and that we deserve help sometimes.  We feel less alone when we admit we need help.  And research is pretty clear that one of the most important protective factors for both physical and mental health, is a strong social support network.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes one to support an adult.  Human culture has historically been focused around community, whether that’s a family community (with aunts and grandmothers contributing to the childrearing) or a community of neighbours. We weren’t meant to do this alone, whether “this” is raising our kids or coping with a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or even high levels of stress. Don’t feel trapped into going it alone.  If you could use some help, ask for it.  Reach out.  

If you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, struggling to cope, I’m here to help.  If you live in the Oakville area and you’d like to talk, as a psychotherapist I can help you with feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress.  You don’t have to do it alone.  Click here to reach me.

Skin Deep

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

We’d all like to think that appearances don’t matter as much as what’s on the inside does. But if you haven’t heard, even researchers have to sadly admit that better looking people get better jobs and make more money in those jobs than their less attractive counterparts, even if they’re less qualified. Alarmingly, current research is showing that kids are becoming more and more concerned about their appearances earlier and earlier. The connection between self esteem and appearance is becoming more pronounced, and it’s not just teenage girls that are feeling the pinch – boys and tweens are also becoming less and less content with what they see in the mirror.

Unfortunately, while we as parents may be giving lip service to the notion that looks don’t mean as much as kindness, smarts, or empathy, we may be inadvertently sending mixed messages ourselves. If we’re paying undue attention to our own appearance (or theirs), or commenting regularly on how attractive other people are, or behaving differently toward the better looking people we come across, our kids pick up on the fact that while we would like for looks not to matter, we know deep down that they really do.

So how do we not get sucked into the vicious cycle of rewarding beauty and ignoring ugliness ourselves? A conversation with your kids is, as usual, a great place to start. They may have already noticed that the prettier or better looking kids in the class get more attention and favours, so don’t try to tell them that looks don’t matter. They’ll see right through that, and you’ll just come across as being completely out of touch with reality. Instead, talk about the unfairness, and how things will never change if we all continue to buy into the myth that beauty matters most. Have a conversation about the pressures they feel and how fabricated the images they look at are. (The Dove beauty campaign has a great video on the making of a print ad – right down to digitally altering the model’s features. Take a look, if you haven’t already seen it, it’s called “Evolution.”)

Acknowledge and encourage all of the great things your kids do, not just their appearances. Physical activity and healthy eating are two loving things your kids can do for themselves that have a positive impact on their mental and physical health, as well as their self esteem. Speaking of self esteem, keep in mind this definition by Dr. Jane Nelsen: The belief that I count, I am capable, and I can control what happens to me or how I respond. Notice that there isn’t a single mention in there about appearance. We need to work at separating how we feel about our looks from how we feel about ourselves – and then we need to help our kids do the same.

Fear of Being Away From Home

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Most of us are familiar with separation anxiety as it relates to infants and toddlers, but what do you do if your middle-school kid or teenager still has a fear of being away from home or away from you?

Our first reaction is often to try and talk our kids out of their fears.  Explaining to them why there's no need to be concerned or that they need to grow up and just get over it, though, usually do very little to reassure them that they have nothing to be concerned about.  Assuming that there is no history of trauma when separated from parents, this may be more of an irrational fear than a rational one, and trying to rationalize an irrational fear doesn't usually produce much success.

A more effective strategy is to really listen to what's bothering your child, then work together to come up with some strategies to cope with and eventually overcome these fears.  Take small steps, provide reassurance along the way, and create a backup plan in case things get too stressful.  Let your child know that you don't mind coming to pick her up in the wee hours of the morning if needed, or driving two hours to bring him home from camp if he's too unhappy.  Build on small successes, don't try to minimize or talk your kids out of their fears, and plan ahead -- these actions will all help your kids to overcome their fears of being away from home.

A String on the Finger

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 01, 2016

One of the things that never fails to set parents off is when kids are chronically forgetful.  And it can be a long haul to get kids to accept the responsibility of remembering their own tasks and items.  One of the worst things parents can do in these situations is to rescue their kids.  If we are chronically running behind our kids, picking up their laundry, bringing their forgotten lunch to school, or dropping off last minute permission forms, there's very little incentive for kids to step up their game.  Give kids an opportunity to experience the consequences by not swooping in to save them.  Trust me, going without lunch or mittens one day is a much more effective reminder than the lecture you give them when you drop the forgotten items off at school.

This won't turn around overnight.  Notice and encourage progress, not perfection, and be patient with the learning curve.  Ultimately, this is your child's lesson to learn, so don't take on too much responsibility for helping them succeed.  You could offer suggestions or offer to brainstorm solutions together and help your child determine which strategy he'd like to try first, and then step back and give him the opportunity to try it.  Share some of the strategies you use to keep on top of your own responsibilities, such as making lists and checking them regularly, planning ahead, and creating routines.  Some of us have better memories than others -- that's ok.  By helping our kids learn how to play to their strengths and create strategies for overcoming their own personal hurdles, we're teaching them how to succeed whether their memories are like steel traps or Swiss cheese.

Happiness At Home: How To Manage Sibling Rivalry

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 01, 2016
It is human nature to feel competitive and envious toward others. A moderate spirit of competition is a positive and productive attribute in school and in business. Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up in families. The competition between siblings starts when the second child is born. Unfortunately, many parents ignore it and some even make the situation worse.
 
When occasional fighting becomes a constant series of arguments and fights, it must be dealt with to avoid years of discord and even potential danger. Here are some tips that will help you lessen your frustration over argumentative brothers and sisters and help them learn to get along better.
 
Do your best to offer each of your children equal amounts of encouragement and attention. This is true if they are competing for your attention or if they are participating in a school or sports activity.
 
Encourage your children to participate in activities that they truly enjoy. Don’t expect them to always join activities that they must do together or where they will be competing against each other.
 
Children sometimes perceive that their parents favour one child over the others. While some parents do prefer one child to the others, it is usually not a conscious choice. If your child tells you that you favor his or her sibling, pay attention to your behavior; maybe there is some truth to it. However, if you know you are being fair or if there is a valid reason for treating one child differently, stand firm. "Equal" is not always the same thing as "same.'  Sometimes children use the “favorite child” complaint as a way to make you feel guilty and give them what they want.
 
Sometimes one child is more cooperative or better behaved than another. It’s normal to compare siblings, but it’s generally better not to talk about it. Comparing two kids doesn’t help improve their behavior; instead, it intensifies the sense of envy and jealousy. A more constructive strategy is to limit your comments to the problem behavior. Always avoid telling one child that his or her sibling does something better.
 
Make it a rule that family members may become involved in incidents between siblings only if they actually saw what happened. This keeps people from being manipulated.
 
Realize that younger children can be the aggressors. Don’t automatically rush to their defense.
 
If two kids are fighting over a toy, take it away. This discourages them from arguing over who can play with what.
 
When two kids are fighting, make them share a chair and look at each other in a mirror. With all the goofy faces they make in the mirror the disagreement is soon forgotten and they are laughing like best friends.
 
If the kids continue the fight after a few minutes in the chair, assign them a chore to do. The excess energy they are directing toward each other is soon put to better use setting the table or picking up the toys.
 
Use the Active Listening technique to allow siblings to express their feelings. When kids fight, parents often try to talk children out of their feelings by saying things like “Stop arguing with Tony, Sarah. You know you love your brother.” Instead, you could acknowledge the child’s feelings by saying, “Sounds like you’re pretty upset with Tony.” You might be surprised to see that this defuses the emotion and enables Tony to move on to something else.
 
When you give things to children, base your choices on their individual needs and interests. If you try to avoid arguments by giving equal gifts to each child, they will inevitably find something about them that is unfair. Again, "equal" doesn't necessarily mean "same."
 
When your children are in an argument, avoid taking sides. If you can, encourage them to work out their differences. It is almost impossible to try to determine who started a fight. Even if you know who started the argument, taking sides only makes things worse. If your children learn that you will not enter their minor disagreements, they will have to learn to settle things between themselves.
 
Take a parent education instructor course. As you educate yourself about parenting, you will change some of your attitudes toward your children and learn new ways to interact with them. You can have the kind of family you want if you are willing to work at it, make some changes in your own behavior, and be patient for things to improve.
 
You may think that rivalry will stop magically if only you learn to do the right thing. However, learning new behaviors takes a lot of time and persistence.
 
It is important to address the issues of sibling rivalry when children are young, because it can intensify and persist as children become adults. It is important not to give up when you feel frustrated. Things may even seem like they are worse before they start to improve. Because of your efforts and persistence, your children will learn how to get along better. That will prepare them to have productive relationships in the future.

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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