I once heard a saying that the workplace isn’t like college. College is about doing well and getting ahead. Instead, the workplace is like high school – it’s all about who likes you and who doesn’t. When we’re thinking about human interaction in the workplace and how it impacts performance, that’s a pretty apt analogy – if the folks with influence and power in your organization don’t like you, it’s going to be much harder for you to get things done or advance in your career. But I’ll add to it just slightly – you have to do something egregious to “get fired” from high school. In the workplace, it can be as simple as having the wrong friends and allies. You can be a highly competent, productive employee but align with the wrong person and that can be enough to get you handed your pink slip.
Identify the cliques
Think about your workplace for a moment – it’s likely that you can name at least too groups of people (or cliques, just like in high school) that don’t get along. Here’s an example of how this might play out: John doesn’t like Susan because she got a promotion he wanted (or some similar perceived infraction that could create hard feelings). Over time, John and Susan turned their respective workplace friends against each other. John talks down Susan’s competence every chance he gets to illustrate that he really deserved the promotion over her. Susan, hearing about this (because gossip always gets back to people) fights back by doing the same to John because he’s making her life difficult.
All this could build up over the course of weeks, months, or years depending on how long management wants to let it go on (and yes, they know what’s going on). Every single person on both sides of the equation could be performing their jobs competently and meeting performance goals. But the interpersonal issues between the two sides will hit the fan at some point resulting in any number of organizational problems – constant running/tattling to HR, lower job satisfaction, poor organizational culture, lack of teamwork, low morale, increased turnover, etc. They could still be meeting goals, but eventually someone is going to ask “What are we losing on as a result of these problems? How much better could we be doing if they weren’t there?”
Let’s face it – even if the bottom line strong, these are annoying things to deal with day in and day out. They can suck the life out of you. And if it goes on long enough, management at whatever level is above them are going to step in and make a choice about who they want to stay, and who they want to go. They may not fire the person on the losing end outright – it’s more likely that life at work will just start to become very difficult for them. Their ideas won’t be implemented, they won’t be invited to meetings, they won’t be given the prime projects to work on, they’ll hear the word “no” a lot. Their boss may start to hint around about it being time to move on. In short, they will slowly get pushed out of the organization.
In the example above, knowing no specifics about the situation, we can make a good guess that John is going to be on the losing end based solely on the fact that Susan was promoted over him. That means at one point, the managers saw something in Susan that they didn’t see in John (or, alternatively, that John did something to make them not want to promote him in the first place). Managers generally don’t like to admit they are wrong, and so unless Susan does something egregious, chances are that John is going to be characterized as a sore loser and the perpetrator of the interpersonal problems that exist.
However, it could easily go the other way. Maybe a new boss comes in and John gets in there early and builds credibility with that person and Susan doesn’t. What that new person is going to know is that there are interpersonal problems that are negatively impacting organizational culture, that John and Susan are at the head of it, and that the new boss likes John more than he or she likes Susan. It can be that simple.
Don’t buy into it
Let’s say that John is on the losing end of this equation – unless he does something to turn the situation around (which is certainly possible!), he’s either going to get pushed out of the organization or fired. John’s workplace allies are in a bit of trouble now – they’ve actively associated and supported someone who is now on the outs with those in power in the organization. That means they’ve actively aligned against the organization and its goals. When you want to be successful in your job, that’s not a good thing! And it’s all because they chose their workplace ally poorly without considering the big picture and possible consequences.
There are certainly ways to turn it around if you find yourself in this situation – you can immediately distance yourself from the person and work to build a positive working relationship with the “other side.” But the best way to not get caught up in the blowback is simply to not buy into the idea of choosing sides in the first place. Rarely are we forced into a situation where we have to, and sometimes being a professional means that you need to depersonalize situations and approach them dispassionately. If you don’t get caught up in the back and forth, the office gossip, and the “he said” versus “she said” in the first place, then you’ll be less likely to experience the consequences of it. Instead, build relationships throughout the organization instead of siloing yourself into a specific group or alliance.
That can be much easier said than done. We are social beings and want to be a part of the group…whether you admit it or not, we want people to like us. If you “opt out” of the back and forth, the group that buys into it may actively start excluding you. I was once told by a co-worker that I was “disrespecting the team” by not engaging in negative talk with them. The key is to see the big picture. Look at who’s in power in the organization, the people they listen to, and the things they care about and try to anticipate how they are going to react. Long term outcomes should trump short term social acceptance.
Perception is reality
Here’s where it gets really tricky – little things that you don’t even think about can change perception, regardless of if it has basis in reality. Even if you do “opt out”, you can still be perceived as having alliances with those who are on the outs with the organization. Say, for example, that you report to John. You don’t particularly agree with him, don’t dislike Susan, and try your best not to participate in the negative things that are happening around you. But if you don’t actively create allies and relationship build outside of your immediate team, then it can be very easy for those in the organization to perceive you as being a part of the problem – you haven’t given them any reason to assume differently.
That’s why relationship building with those who have power and influence across the organization is critical. This is something you should be doing on an ongoing basis regardless of if there’s a problem or not. Get to know people in other parts of the organization even if it’s not required. Chat with them. Learn about their kids, their families, what they like to do, what they’re passionate about. Share that information about you with them. Once people know you on a personal level, it can be harder to assume the worst.
No, it’s not fair
One of the hardest lessons to learn and really internalize is that life is not fair. Human beings do not make decisions based on logic and reason – we make them based on emotion. That means that our emotional reaction to a situation, whether it be positive or negative, influences how we interpret the actions of those around us. If we like someone, we’re more likely to interpret things positively. If we don’t, we’re more likely to assume the worst. And remember, you’re just as emotionally bias as anyone else.
The key takeaway is this: Make sure you don’t inadvertently (or deliberately!) align yourself against the organization, or put yourself in a position where you are perceived to be. Being friends at work with the wrong people can be an incredibly easy way to do that, and once you’re there it can be a difficult hole to dig yourself out of.
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