About Jerks and Negative Nancies at Work

Uber, the hail riding company, has been criticized for its culture and leadership style. Often the negative anecdotes I hear about working at US companies center around the benefits and performance focus, it’s often the interpersonal relationships that have more far stretching consequences, as Uber helps to illustrate. Working at a performance drive company is (or can be ) tough . However, working at a company where negative relationships among colleagues persists is worse. Most work isn’t done in isolation. Hence, work relationships are key in determining how we feel about our job.

Social network research looks at relationships between individuals. Most social network research explores positive relationships. Examples of positive relationships are friendships, information exchange partners. These are people with whom you want to spent time with. Sometimes the relationship are of a more neutral or objective character, such as when researchers ask for a list of colleagues, individuals with whom you work with, or relatives. The common aspect in those questions is that researchers are trying to figure out with whom people like to spent their time and energy. But let’s be honest, at work there are also those people you could do without. You list them as ‘ individuals with whom you work with’, but that is just because your task requires it. You would rather not have to. For many different reasons.

What does theory say?

Joe Labianca provides a theoretical framework to understand the difference between negative and positive relationships. He calls it a social ledger, to highlight that relationships can be beneficial and detrimental. That perspective is based on the theory of social capital. In short, individuals receive value from each relationship they have. In the financial domain, assets, such as a house, provides value. However, in a financial ledger individuals also have debts, those entries that take value from them. Joe applies the same thinking. Hence, individuals have relationships that take value from them. These are individuals that are disliked, enemies.

Let’s make it more concrete by talking about the specific capital (the value) individuals can give each other. One example is that individuals provide each other with knowledge. Being connected to department members and to employees in other departments can provide individuals with important information to complete their project, necessary feedback to grow personally, and new information sparking creative ideas. This is the kind of value individuals derive from their positive relationships. These relationships are beneficial. But how can a relationship now be detrimental? Disliking a colleague first impacts the frequency of interaction with that person and hence the amount of information that is exchanged between these two. Secondly, disliking can impact how individuals feel about the company. For example, they can reduce organizational attachment. Quitting is the next step if the feeling of disliking becomes stronger. This applies for the person who is disliking others.

Being at the receiving end of a dislike-relationship, thus being disliked by others, leads to exclusion. Employees who are disliked are excluded from important communication about their work and their company. This exclusion can be intentional when employees intent to hide or conceal information to hurt his or her performance, hoping that he/she will leave or be asked to go. However it can also be without intent. Employees might simply not be thinking about that person when communicating information. When someone is disliked, the chances are great that any contact is avoided. Following the recency effect , if two employees do not interact much with each other, they are not on each other’s mind, and therefore unintentionally excluded each other when sharing information.

Brian Rubineau and Yisook Lim would support the idea of “unintentional forgetting others’. They assume that negative ties are a reason to avoid someone. This makes sense. Why hang out with someone who you dislike? However, Julia Brennecke provides another perspective on these “negative ties”. She and her co-authors argue that negative ties are often associated with cognitive conflict. In other words, in her research, employees who pull others into discussions about your work (task conflict), are more often nominated as someone to avoid. However, there is nothing negative in task conflict. In contrast team literature considers this type of discussion as a necessary ‘evil’ for high performance . Task conflict demonstrates that team members are engaged with the task and spend effort and cognitive resources to discover what the team wants to accomplish and how to achieve their goals. As these talks often involve the discussion of deeply rooted assumptions about the task, and team processes, it can turn into quite uncomfortable, but necessary, discussions. Hence the negative ties. Most people don’t enjoy discussions that unroot their assumptions and way of working.

Other research looked at the implication of personal characteristics on negative relationships. For example, Yisook Lim and Brian Rubineau demonstrated that individuals with higher social status ‘send out negative ties’ . This means that when asked “who do you avoid at work”, most listed colleagues with lower status. A similar finding was reported by Alan Daly and colleagues among district office leaders and other educational leaders. District office leader nominated school staff as ‘preferred to avoid’. An influencing factor in this study might be the tenure of the different individuals, with district office leaders having spend less time in their job, and their divergent perception about the environment (school staff perceived the environment to be more trustful and innovative than district office leaders).

What does this mean for managers?

The research on negative ties has a couple of implications for managers. First, it is clear that some negative ties shouldn’t be avoided. I mean those that involve discussions about work assumptions. While these types of talks might be unpleasant in the moment, they lead to personal growth and improved team performance. However it is necessary to have these talks properly facilitated. This means preparing employees on the possibility (and necessity) of these talks and on the importance of keeping them task focused. A form or template could help in those situations. Just a document to keep track about what assumptions have been discussed with potential changes in individual’s approach to work and team processes. Of course, tracking the discussion while taking part of the discussion isn’t easy. Other, less burdensome alternatives, could be to take notes directly afterwards and circulate (or not). The goal of individual note taking about task conflict events is to track changes. It helps employees as a reminder that this ‘negative’ discussion led to positive events (e.g., personal growth).
Other negative ties are based on biases and power relations, such as disliking those of lower status. Reducing bias at work is hard [link to Hidden Brain podcast on bias] as these biases are perceptions that are hared wired and unconsciously influence human behavior. A one-time training will not do to get rid of them, nor even change them in the slightest sense. Extended effort in the form of cultural change is necessary to work on reducing bias at work.

So what to do about those Jerks and Negative Nancies at work? Well, it’s work, not kindergarten. Ever thought about confronting them and clarifying to them the personal and organizational debt they incur through their behavior?

Academic Bullet

1. Negative feelings do not have to reduce knowledge transfer if the source is cognitive conflict. Being confronted by different people is always difficult, but shouldn’t be avoided. As manager, create a safe climate and you are good to go and let your colleagues discuss.
2. Negative feelings can arise if two individuals do not share the same perception about trust and innovation climate. To choices: 1) Get the people to talk and come to an agreement, and 2) reshuffle relationships to create better matches.
3. A challenge for managers: In dislike-networks, someone will be the target of most dislike relationships (i.e., he/she will be branded as ‘avoid that person at all costs’ ) and someone will target most co-workers as ‘ avoid them’. Consider, 1. Why is someone the target of most avoidance-ties? 2. How would the overall productivity change, if you remove that person ? 3. Why does someone consider it necessary to avoid a majority of co-workers?

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