Two friends texted me this week asking for advice about drama they were having at work. Specifically about some nasty things co-workers did to undermine their credibility with their bosses. While you may have hoped this kind behavior was over after high school, entering the workforce and learning it’s basically just high school with cubicles instead of classrooms can be pretty disappointing. Personally, while I always strive to get along with co-workers, I’ve also worked for companies with cultures that fell somewhere between “Mean Girls” and “The Hunger Games.”
Let’s face it, no one wants to spend 40 hours a week in either of these scenarios. And because you live a good portion of your life at work, learning how to get along with your co-workers can go a long way toward making that time more pleasant. If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, and you’re not in a position to leave that job, one thing you can do is consciously try to avoid absorbing the bajiggity energy of others.
Because our natural instinct when someone throws shade our way, online or IRL, is to immediately go on the defensive, this sounds easier than it is. If social media is the junior high school of the internet, the water cooler is the junior high of office culture. It’s where people go to gossip, sometimes about stuff like “Abducted In Plain Sight,” that 100-percent bananas Netflix documentary, but often they go there to gossip about each other.
However, Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., explains on Psychology Today that bad behavior from co-workers usually says more about the person acting out than it does about their target. “Sometimes, CFHs [co-workers from hell] are the way they are because of unresolved personal issues, or because their social skills are underdeveloped, or because they're insecure and use provocation as a shield to protect themselves. This doesn't excuse the bad behavior, but it may explain it,” Dr. Carter notes. “So when CFHs begin to cause chaos, keep in mind that it's probably more about them than it is about you.”
Keeping this in mind has helped me a lot, and every time I find myself getting testy with someone (OK, not every time because I am human), I try to understand what that behavior could be about. Sometimes it might be about me, and if it is I’d prefer to talk it through rather than have things be uncomfortable. In the instance of the friends who reached out to me this week to discuss their work kerfuffles, both issues stemmed from my friends’ co-workers feeling insecure or threatened by their success. While this behavior can take place anywhere, it seems to happen in certain work environments more than others.
I’ve worked in restaurants, bars, in retail, from home, and in offices, and in my experience offices seem to be the places with the most drama because they’re also the places with the most precarious power structures. Add in the cubicle farms that pack workers into what’s akin to a human zoo, the recycled air, smelly tuna-sandwich lunches and fluorescent lighting, and offices can bring out the worst in people.
Part of this is because of the pressure to keep it professional, which makes some people avoid conflict and act out in passive aggressive ways instead of addressing a problem with a co-worker like a grown up. And hey, if you’re reading this, you’re probably—no matter how reluctantly—a grown-ass woman. Fortunately, solving the problem of getting along with your co-workers is much easier than winning “The Hunger Games.” In fact, it all starts with having honest and caring conversations.
I recently started doing some work for a company committed to helping individuals and teams improve their relationships at work. Radical Candor, which is based on the book “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott, who has worked at Apple, Google, and Facebook, teaches a concept so simple it’s amazing no one thought of it until now.
Each time I turned a page of the book I was yelling out loud, “yes!” because the issues addressed therein pretty accurately described a few of the places I worked before going freelance. If my former employers had adopted the tactics for improving relationships at work outlined in “Radical Candor,” things could have been very different. Instead of “The Hunger Games,” perhaps these companies could have fostered a more humane vibe.
While some people think embodying radical candor is license to act like a jerk, it’s not about brutal honesty. It’s actually about being kind and caring to the people you work with and who report to you. And part of being caring is being direct. The two tenets of radical candor are caring personally and challenging directly, or as Scott says, “saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to.”
Think of it like telling someone their fly is down or that they have spinach in their teeth. Whether or not that person is your BFF or the person sitting in the next cubicle over, not telling a friend or co-worker something that could save them from embarrassment is 100-percent “Mean Girls.” While being kind and direct makes total sense, it can feel kind of awkward at first because it’s likely not what you’ve been taught. While the concepts are simple, putting them into practice isn’t always easy.
“Two nearly universal experiences make radical candor unnatural,” Scott explains. “One, most people have been told since they learned to talk some version of ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.’ Furthermore, most people, since they got their first job, have been told to be ‘professional.’ Too often, that’s code for leaving your humanity at home.”
When you fail to be radically candid, your behavior can fall into one of three other areas that we’ve all been at one time or another.
Obnoxious Aggression: What happens when you challenge but don’t care. It’s praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism that isn’t delivered kindly;
Ruinous Empathy: What happens when you care but don’t challenge. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear; and perhaps the worst behavior of all,
Manipulative Insincerity: What happens when you neither care nor challenge. It’s praise that is non-specific and insincere or criticism that is neither clear nor kind. It’s basically being super passive aggressive.
Another important part of radical candor is not talking behind a co-worker’s back. Once that water-cooler talk veers from friendly topics and morphs into someone throwing shade at someone else in the office, you can totally walk away. In addition, if Linda in the cubicle around the corner has done something to annoy you, talk to Linda about it directly. Don’t email Linda’s boss, and don’t send a mass email cc’ing everyone and their mother explaining how Linda did x, y, or z. Neither of these tactics is going to win you any friends at work.
“I think it’s always best to talk to somebody directly. When you go to the boss without having talked to the person directly first, it can feel like you are trying to get them into trouble rather than to help them improve,” Scott says in response to a question from a reader. What’s more, it’s important to take a beat, or five, before you have any sort of talk when you’re feeling upset. “Try to take some time to let your annoyance cool off before having the conversation, and remember to go into it with the intention to be helpful.”
This is good advice. At a previous job, I went to someone’s boss after that person had taken credit for my work. At the time, because the person in question had seniority over me, I thought it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t. My gaffe created a chain reaction that resulted in an aggressive attack from the person in question, and HR had to get involved. If I had gone to this person first, the entire situation could have been avoided.
If you want to learn more about how to build better relationships at work, get the book “Radical Candor,” which is one of Bustle’s five business books by women to read. A lot of people, in life and at work, get caught up in how they think other people should act or react. It’s important to keep in mind that the only person’s behavior you can control is yours. If you commit to being kind and caring at work while also being honest and clear in your communication with your co-workers, even if you’re not BFFs with everyone, you’ll likely earn everyone’s respect.