Workers in paper room
Illustrations by Drew Shannon
Thursday, April 26 - 2018
Jessica Wynne Lockhart

Your co-worker hides information files, but claims they got lost in transfer. Your manager dithers about a deadline extension he promised two minutes ago. And your cubicle mate offers Talk Therapy because you seem emotionally repressed.

What’s going on?   

No job description — no matter how thorough — captures how we really spend our workdays. Imagine what job sites would look like if employers spelled out the skills actually needed to excel in the workplace:

Must be able to stay awake in a three-hour work meeting that was supposed to take 20 minutes.   

The ability to deal with co-workers who eat tuna with their mouths open is a requirement.

Preference given to applicants who have endless patience for being micro-managed.

According to the 2016 U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report, office workers spend less than 40 per cent of their day working on primary responsibilities. Instead, the majority of our time is devoted to answering emails, attending meetings and being interrupted by co-workers, including for non-work related matters. (Why wouldn’t you want to hear your cubicle mate’s play-by-play account of her sick cat’s vet appointments?) Perhaps not surprisingly, the same survey also found that 95 per cent of respondents had experienced conflict with other groups, teams or departments in their workplace.

It could be easy enough to chalk up these disagreements to difference of opinion or personality. But, according to researchers at U of T Scarborough,your co-workers aren’t nuts — they’re just trying to navigate demands unique to the modern workplace. While technology has made our work easier, it’s also made our workplace relationships much more complex.

“Why don’t my colleagues use the shared file system at work?”

Withholding information at work is more common than you might think. Take the example of one company employee, who had knowledge of an impending ‘surprise’ audit of paperwork, but actively chose not to tell one of their coworkers.

“I wanted them to get in trouble,” the study participant said. “I wanted a higher-up person to discover his ineptitude.”

It’s stories like this that first attracted David Zweig, Chair of the Department of Management, to investigate the hiding and theft of information in organizations.queen knighting

“I like to study the dark side of organizational behaviour,” says Zweig. “We can’t have a Pollyanna-ish view of the workplace. People need to understand that bad and unfair things happen at work.”

Zweig’s research focuses on identifying why negative behaviours happen in the workplace and how to prevent them. He first became interested in information-hiding when he heard managers complaining that they couldn’t get staff to use the information-sharing tools they’d developed. Maybe, Zweig theorized, it wasn’t because of laziness or a reticence to accept new systems. Maybe it was that people deliberately chose not to share information, even when it was requested.  

People frequently engage in evasive hiding (giving only a small portion of information), rational hiding (claiming, for example, that it’s “confidential information”), and playing dumb (pretending that they don’t know anything about the requested information). The behaviour might sound nefarious, but it boils down to this: information feeds knowledge, and knowledge is power. In a workplace, that power might translate to a promotion or a raise.

That’s why organizations “have to create a climate where rewards are given for team rather than individual effort,” says Zweig. When you’re in a highly competitive environment and fighting for a limited resource, you’re not going to be motivated to share information that could give you a competitive edge.  

This behaviour, Zweig notes, isn’t limited to corporate environments, where climbing the ranks may mean pushing colleagues off the ladder. The size of the organization doesn’t matter, nor does the personality of the perpetrator. Instead, it boils down to trust — if your colleagues trust you, they’re more likely to share information with you.

Why does my boss always give my co-worker extensions on deadlines, but not me?”

Whether it’s for help on a project or advice about a personal matter, we constantly have people asking us for favours at work. That’s why Psychology Professor Cendri Hutcherson says that understanding how decisions are made is key to managing workplace relationships.

At the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at U of T Scarborough, Hutcherson and her team are trying to understand the processes that go into decision-making and what affects their outcome. Using simple computational models, they have been able to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, what choices people are likely to make when faced with a decision. The lab’s research has examined everything from the push-pull of temptation and self-control, to the role of emotions in moral judgement. And while the lab doesn’t explicitly focus on workplace behaviour, its research does have implications for professional environments.

Take for example, the decision-making that goes into determining whether you’ll lend a hand to a colleague:

“We’ve been trying to understand those big questions about whether people are innately selfish and can override those impulses, or if they’re actually pretty nice at heart,” says Hutcherson.

The answer, it turns out, is neither.

“People are likely not one or the other. Rather, they’re actually very good at weighing how much they care about other people’s outcomes,” says Hutcherson.  

As heartless as it might seem, when you’re asked for a favour, your brain immediately asks “what do I get out of it?” and weighs the personal benefit versus the personal costs. In some situations, you might deem the time and energy spent too high. In others, you might receive vicarious joy or satisfaction, particularly if you have a close relationship with the person asking.

“People are going to be much more likely to weigh the positive outcomes if they care about you,” says Hutcherson. “It makes it easier to make those choices. Saying yes to helping is actually easier than saying no.”

If you’re asking a colleague for help on a task, or a boss for an extension on a deadline, you need to consider their perspective first. If they say no, but waver or take time to respond, it may be worth asking again later. “People are not great decision-makers in some ways,” says Hutcherson. “If you give them exactly the same choice, they’ll come up with completely different responses because the brain is noisy.” 

“Should I worry about sharing personal information with co-workers?”

man and womanSome might say that you can’t put a price on the value of workplace friends. Those people would be wrong. Matthew Lieberman, psychologist and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, reports that seeing a friend on most days is on par with earning an extra $100,000 per year.

Fortunately, thanks to social media and constant connection to email, it’s easier than ever to make work friends. The lines between personal and professional have blurred, with people knowing far more about their colleague’s home lives than ever before. However, when there’s pressure to maintain a professional image, this can cause conflict.

“In the workplace, there are certain expectations of how we are going to emotionally present ourselves. If you’re upset or sad or angry, you’re not going to openly share these feelings with all of your co-workers; people have to regulate their emotions,” says John Trougakos, professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at U of T Scarborough. 

For certain professions, managing emotions is a key part of the job description. Nobody wants to be served by an angry customer service representative, or given bad news by a smiling doctor who avoids eye contact. But regardless of your occupation, emotional suppression can take a toll.

“It drains you,” says Trougakos. “That emotion lingers. Even if you don’t express it, you’re still feeling it. It can cognitively distract us from that work that we’re doing because we haven’t addressed it.”

Straight up, if you’ve got a work bud and a safe space to vent, it may mean boosted productivity. Having close colleagues also allows you to combat workplace anxiety.

“Co-workers are in a unique position to pick up someone’s anxiety, help them out emotionally and provide support. It ensures your anxiety doesn’t lead to a point of exhaustion,” says Julie McCarthy, a professor in organizational behaviour. While much of the research has previously focused on the relationship between employees and their managers, her research has found that the people sitting next to you can make just as much difference.

For Trougakos, staying in touch with these emotions and developing bonds with your colleagues are skills necessary to excel in today’s office environments.

“We’re more exposed, but at the same time there is a greater acceptance of emotions in the workplace and people being more humanistic,” he says. “People are emotional. It’s an important part of our everyday life and that includes work life.