How Not to Sabotage Yourself at Work

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Are these two co-workers talking about you? Sometimes office paranoia that people are out to get you can actually lead to you becoming the office pariah

To paraphrase the old saw about suckers at a poker table: If you can’t spot the sneaky gossip at the office, it’s probably you. But you probably shouldn’t be looking for him or her at all. That’s the conclusion of an interesting new study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, which suggests that people who search for enemies in the workplace will find what they’re looking for — if only because they turned their colleagues against them in the process. Through a series of cleverly designed experiments, the study’s authors — Jennifer Carson Marr, Stefan Thau, Karl Aquino and Laurie J. Barclay — demonstrate a clear relationship between the motivation to prove that co-workers are saying bad things about you and an increase in paranoia, suspicious behavior of your own and peer rejection. That is, people who try to ferret out workplace enemies are likely to create some that didn’t exist before, at least in part because their own eavesdropping, snooping and gossiping sets colleagues to talking about them. Worse, the quartet’s findings suggest that this vicious cycle leads to suspicion-confirming behavior beyond gossip; it’s likely to lead colleagues to actively reject their paranoid peers whenever possible — for example, by avoiding opportunities to collaborate.

For people who aren’t prone to paranoid ideation on the job, the findings will likely confirm their experience at work. Most of us have had colleagues who insist on treating the workplace as a toxic combination of the U.S. Senate cloakroom, Cold War–era East Berlin and the parlor game Mafia. The best strategy for dealing with such types is often to avoid prolonged or in-depth interactions with them whenever possible.

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But if your first thought when reading about the study’s finding was more cynical — i.e., But what if someone really is trying to undermine me? — you just might be the sucker at the table. (No, really.) That is, the takeaway from this study is not so much that you’re imagining all those evildoers, gossips and troublemakers at the office. They might, in fact, be gossiping about you, criticizing your work or avoiding you. But they might be doing all or some of that because your initial and unwarranted feelings of threat or exclusion — not to mention the negative behavior that followed — prompted their actions.

To paraphrase another old saw: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you. It means they may be out to get you because you’re paranoid!

And so the best strategy for dealing with potential workplace “frenemies” is to give them the benefit of the doubt, even if it feels like you’re exposing yourself to harm. For one thing, you might be sensing that others are gossiping about (or otherwise undermining) you simply because you’re prone to such behavior yourself. “There is evidence from other research that people often do project their perceptions of themselves onto others,” says Aquino, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, who is the study’s lead author. “And there is also a stream of research that shows that when people do something bad to others, they are highly motivated to rationalize it. One way to do this is to assign more negative attributes to people whom they harm as a way of making the harm-doer feel like the person deserved it.”

It takes one to know one, indeed.

But there’s another, even-more-humbling reason you may experience yourself as a workplace target: a psychological bias called the spotlight effect, which was demonstrated some years back by Cornell University psychology professor Tom Gilovich and colleagues. (Those few careful readers of my author bio will know that Tom and I wrote a book together about behavioral economics.) In a series of experiments that were both amusing and revealing, the researchers showed that humans consistently overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to them. In the most recent edition of our book — Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them — Tom and I summed up the relevant takeaway thusly: “The key lesson is not that fewer people are paying attention to you than you think; it’s that you’re paying more attention to what you think people are thinking about you than is warranted.”

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In other words: “It may be best to ignore impulses that tell you that you’re the victim of office politics,” says Aquino. That’s good advice. Because there’s a good chance that the harm you may incur by failing to be as “vigilant” (a.k.a. paranoid) as you might otherwise be will pale in comparison with the benefits you’ll garner when your colleagues slowly start to realize you’re not such a sneaky gossip after all.