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Interpersonal “mush” in the workplace develops when employees invent stories to explain puzzling behavior, actions, and attitudes. Real collaboration can be challenging to sustain because it requires robust partnerships among staff members. Today, the command-and-control type of leadership is considered traditional and outdated. It is being replaced by collaboration between different levels in an organization, so HR leaders are focused on bringing interpersonal clarity.

Why Employees Invent Puzzling Stories?

Coworkers tend to invent sense-making stories about each other to explain puzzling behavior. Those stories are mostly negative and disconnected from reality, creating the so-called interpersonal mush. Nobody tries to prove or disprove these stories, which eventually become lenses through which people perceive each other. The burnout and distrust that may come from these misperceptions become stronger and endure.

Organizations need to focus on a collaborative and positive environment by eliminating these stories and making way for clarity. The stories often get built around authority figures in the organization, as employees are very unlikely to confront them to verify the truth. To improve collaboration, everyone must address their perceptions openly.

Clearing Away Confusion with Learning Conversations

To help clear away the misunderstandings and confusion that fuel interpersonal mush, HR professionals should engage employees in honest and simple learning conversations. They can share their own perceptions and experiences and then invite others to share theirs. Listen, ask, and reiterate back to them. Don’t interrupt them with opinions or explanations, and stay calm during the conversation. When people communicate directly and openly, conflicts often disappear.

Maintaining Clear Boundaries

Those who fail to achieve interpersonal clarity are people who are too detached from or too close to their coworkers. People should not let others’ actions dictate their experiences and thoughts.

Employees who are too attached tend to fuse with their managers automatically, holding them responsible for their negative experiences, which makes honest communication almost impossible. On the other hand, disconnected people don’t perceive others as human beings, but as objects to either manipulate or avoid. They have no interest in the experiences, feelings, or thoughts of their employees. Striking the right balance between detachment and fusion (self-differentiating) is crucial.

To be able to create meaningful partnerships and self-differentiate, we need to understand and learn from our in-the-moment experiences. This requires us to consciously strive toward self-differentiation by being aware of four elements:

  1. Observations
  2. Thoughts
  3. Desires
  4. Feelings

Leadership Skills that Help Engage in Learning Conversations

There are four essential skills that can help HR leaders engage in fruitful and learning conversations:

  1. Aware self – a skill that requires self-reflection, so leaders are able to examine their observations, thoughts, desires, and feelings to uncover their subjective truths.
  2. Descriptive self – the ability to sense when others might need to create a story about you, so you clarify your behavior to make yourself understandable.
  3. Curious self – being able to understand other people’s experiences and subjective truths through observing, asking questions, and listening.
  4. Appreciative self – focusing on other people’s merits and strengths and seeing them as partners to create robust relationships.

Collaborative partnerships are becoming the standard and are easy to initiate. Yet, they are difficult to sustain without using clear leadership to foster an environment where employees are more willing to approach each other in a direct, open, and honest way. This is what is necessary for correcting any misperceptions and learning from a collective experience. Aim to foster a culture of clarity, and you will enable everyone in your organization to collaborate and make way for creating real partnerships.

Is all that interpersonal mush destroying your efforts for building a positive and collaborative environment? If so, I would be glad to give assistance. Feel free to book a few minutes to discuss.

Book an appointment with me at, or call me at +1 (604) 943-0800.

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
Mobile: 604.831.4734