No Silver Bullet
Zagenczyk says many external factors contribute to unprofessional behavior among co-workers. During the economic downturn, for example, cutbacks prompted people to do more with less, causing stress and resulting in friction among co-workers and their superiors. But he cautions about rushing to judgment on a person because of how they act at work.
“We tend to attribute a behavior as just who these people are. Frequently, behavior is a function of what’s going on at home or with someone’s supervisor at work,” says Zagenczyk. “Don’t automatically assume a person behaving badly is a jerk or has a dysfunctional personality. Often, it’s extraneous factors like relationships, culture or climate that affect someone’s attitude. But for many it’s easier to believe the behavior is a function of who they are.”
Zagenczyk is quick to point out that a supervisor’s abusive behavior may be related more to deep-seated issues, than to current problems at home or with workplace relationships. A study he and Scott conducted showed bosses who hollered, or were generally considered abusive by their co-workers, were subjected to bad behavior by caregivers during their adolescence.
“In that study we asked supervisory employees how often before 18 years of age they were subjected to yelling or insults. The findings showed supervisors who reported being undermined growing up tended to have subordinates who said their supervisor exhibited abusive tendencies.”
Zagenczyk says negative emotions experienced during adolescence don’t just go away. There is generally fallout that is manifested in adulthood.
“Displaced aggression is very common among those whose adolescence was tumultuous,” he says. “People who have aggressive, demeaning parents believe that type of behavior is acceptable and model after them. Aggressing against others, such as co-workers, is a convenient way to release negative emotions.”
Scott adds that tension between employees is often a byproduct of what’s at stake. “Careers are livelihoods, and for many it defines who they are, so there is a lot at stake,” she says. “It seems people have a need for control when they have things at risk. So, if things don’t play out right, it tends to invoke fear, anger and frustration, which can lead to retaliation in the workplace.”
Zagenczyk and Scott say skewed work-life balance also creates stress, which can lead to retaliatory behavior against co-workers. One study they conducted showed that women are more likely than men to vent their frustration over work-life imbalances at work.
“The study found women experiencing work-family conflicts are more likely to respond negatively at the root of the perceived problem because they tend to be more protective of their family role than men,” says Scott. “Men, on the other hand, tend to be more protective of the work role and are less likely to blame the employer for their inability to meet family or personal obligations.”
Scott says there’s no silver bullet to ending abusive and obstructive attitudes in the workplace. And if organizations allow a toxic culture to exist, they will pay a price for it.
“There are ways to address how people deal with stress to help mitigate the negative fallout, and one key factor is a person’s emotional intelligence,” she says. “People can be trained, through meditation and other ways, to calm their minds by focusing on the present, not the past. It can help bring emotions under control so you can think through your actions. However, it doesn’t work for everyone. If you don’t have the social skills, or have personal issues, the problem may be harder to overcome.”