Workplace whispers: Real or imagined?
Consider this scenario. You hear laughter coming from the lunchroom, but when you open the door, the laughter stops.
What would your initial assumption be?
That your colleagues were laughing at you and talking behind your back, or that your colleagues were laughing at something in the lunchroom before you came in?
This was one of the scenarios that participants in a new study, by the London Business School, were asked to consider.
They uncovered a self-fulfilling prophecy; those who automatically assumed the more sinister reason and sought information to confirm their fears, became more likely to be rejected by the group.
It was one of several experiments used to determine the relationship between our perception of work-related group situations and paranoid thought patterns.
The authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Process, refer to this process as "motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information (MARTI)."
The researchers found that "the odds of [the group] excluding someone who possessed higher MARTI qualities was 3.63 times greater" than those who did not.
"A fundamental problem that people face in groups is that of social uncertainty; it is difficult to know whether others' intentions toward us are malign or benign," the authors wrote.
"To manage this uncertainty, some individuals may be motivated to seek information about whether others have said unkind, unfair, critical, and intimate details about them to others.
"However, our research indicates that wanting to know this kind of information can lead to maladaptive outcomes for individuals, such as paranoid thought and suspicion behaviours. Moreover, other group members may react to these people with anger and by trying to reject them socially."
Dr Simon Crisp, from Monash University's department of psychology and psychiatry, said group work dynamics were inherently challenging.
"One of our basic human needs is to feel included in a group... the workplace is an involuntary group. We want valid, authentic connections. If you have doubts about that then it may be useful to clarify that."
But, as the study found, too much doubt creates the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy. "If you have doubts you may seek to affirm those doubts," he said.
Certain people are more likely to seek affirmation of those doubts and are more susceptible to having MARTI.
"Often people have had negative experiences in group settings - perhaps back in primary school," he explains. "They may have experienced rejection in a different setting and expect that it might happen again. [But, as a result their behaviour] indirectly signals they shouldn't be in this group ... and sows the seeds of doubt in other's minds."
While a person's history may give them reason to doubt and they may expect to be alienated, their perception is not necessarily correct, Crisp said.
To keep a balanced perspective in the workplace, he suggested talking to someone you trusted. "Get a reality check and an objective view," he said.
If your concerns are correct, the challenge then becomes knowing whether to live with it or to leave.
"If there's sufficient support in the workplace to resolve the matter in a constructive way [then it's worth staying]," Crisp said. "If you get a sense that you're not supported or attempts to resolve the situation exacerbate it, you might want to consider leaving."
Regardless of the decision to stay or to go, learning to navigate the fine line between self-awareness and self-consciousness is an important part of mitigating negative workplace dynamics.
Sydney Morning Herald