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NIH Record

Novel Training Approach
Learning to Respect via Live Drama

By Carla Garnett

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield claims he gets none of it. Singer Aretha Franklin spells it out, so there's no mistaking what she wants. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Fact is, around NIH, many employees seem to feel a lot like Dangerfield. So, one employee group decided to make like Franklin and make the issue of respect — particularly in the workplace — a bit more clear. "Respect — Give It to Get It," a campaign developed by the 1998-1999 advisory committee of the Equal Opportunity Office, Office of the Director, now in its second year, was kicked off last season with a speech by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Its most recent effort includes a unique training course that offers live-action vignettes with NIH workplace specifics written into the scripts.

"The OD equal opportunity advisory committee has addressed a very significant issue and taken a difficult step in promoting their respect campaign," said Hilda Dixon, OD EEO officer. "The training component of this campaign has been exceptionally well received. OD employees, supervisors and managers have signed up for this training. It is a credit to the OD that employees are interested in making the work environment more comfortable and productive."

Differences in Perception

Imagine you're in an elevator chatting with a coworker when two other people you both know subsequently board the car. What happens next during that short ride may depend on a couple of things — common courtesy, or cultural or regional upbringing, for instance — and, odd as it may seem, could affect your future working relationship. Who speaks first? Is a greeting even required? Is there a so-called "elevator etiquette"?

A lot of respect is in perceptions, explained Gary Johnson, a former CIA intelligence analyst-turned-training facilitator with a company called Organization Twenty-One. "I can only guarantee one thing about today's session," he said, opening a recent course at NIH, "and that is that at some point, we all will see the same situation in completely different ways." Respect, he added, begins when we begin to acknowledge and accept perceptions besides our own.

The objectives of the training session are made clear at the outset: Students will discuss key elements of verbal and nonverbal communication, identify communication problems and explain approaches to working through conflict in a positive, respectful manner. A four-person professional acting troupe, which accompanies Johnson, makes each scenario come alive in a way that training videos cannot. In addition, many of the scenario details — unique policies, settings and language — are customized for NIH, adding realism, and frequently humor, to the learning experience.

"I enjoyed the class very much," said Paul Coppola of the NIH Office of Management Assessment. "The time went by very fast. By the time I looked at my watch, it was time to go. I felt engaged for the entire 3 hours...Having the parts acted out makes a strong and lasting impression."

"What are the risks in assuming what the other person is thinking?" Johnson asked the class, following the elevator scenario. The answers proved to be instructional. You and your coworker, Eduardo, stopped chatting the moment Emily entered the car. Nods of greeting were exchanged, but the elevator remained quiet. When Mark boarded, nose buried in a stack of papers and obviously distracted, he didn't speak or acknowledge anyone. Perhaps you felt slighted; after all, you reasoned, Mark can be friendly enough when he needs a favor. Eduardo noticed that Mark didn't speak, but thought, "He's in his own world again." Mark wasn't wondering about anything, except the budget figures in the report he was studying. Emily just wished the car would reach her floor, so she could escape the sudden crowd created by four acquaintances and their dueling perceptions and expectations, trapped in a small space. By the time the action stopped, most classmates were nodding, chuckling and calling out advice to the actors.

"Several of the training vignettes accurately depicted a number of fairly typical (i.e., disrespectful) exchanges between NIH administrative and scientific staff, supervisors and employees, and employees and their coworkers," said David Ramos, director of the Office of Logistics Management, OD, who took in one of the first sessions. "From the reactions of the participants, it was obvious that some of the dialogue was hitting a little close to home. The discussion that ensued from these vignettes exposed the participants to many different points of view and reinforced the need for sensitivity towards differences in personality, style, and culture. Playing off the actors permitted participants to express their perspectives in a nonthreatening and productive way."

Watch Your Body Language

Johnson gave insights about the scenes. "Most people will act on what they see as opposed to what they hear," he commented. Body language, therefore, is at least as important as speech, he said. Crossed arms or other closed gestures do send a message, whether the communication is intentional or accurate. In addition, he explained, there are some words that act as triggers for people, evoking negative responses. For example, such words as "childish" and "sloppy" when heard during a performance evaluation — a perennial high-anxiety situation — could cause even the most even-tempered employee to react badly. An added complication in workplace interactions is that everyone has different triggers and hardly anyone can guess them all, noted Johnson. Even otherwise harmless words such as "honey" and "ma'am" can be perceived negatively, he cautioned, so the best policy is "always be careful in what you say.

"Knowing we have different expectations, how do we get along in the workplace?" Johnson asked. "One of the answers may just be simply to cut each other some slack."

Ramos agreed. "I believe that disrespectful behavior is a significant impediment to achieving a productive and enjoyable work environment here at NIH," he said. "Whether the disrespect is based on cultural differences, organizational status, educational level, or some other factor, the result is the same — an atmosphere of distrust, tension, and loss of focus on our core mission. If it is strongly endorsed and supported by top OD management, the respect training can serve as a helpful first step in creating an organizational climate that is sensitive to individual needs, tolerant of different opinions, and taps the tremendous creative potential of all NIH employees."

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