About Jerks and Negative Nancies at Work

Our social relationships are like a social ledger consisting of assets and debts. Negative relationships form part of our social debt that will harm our personal and team goals.

Last week's post was about working with difficult people. Difficult here is subjective and often the result of several mini-interactions leading you to form the judgment that this person is a pain to work with.

I made the point that there is two sources for disliking working with someone: Personal and work. Unfortunately, there isn't much social network research on negative work relationships. Getting reliable data is tricky. But there are some theories we can borrow from, and some research insights.

What does theory say about negative relationships?

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 ("assets") and detrimental ("debts").

Let’s make it more concrete. One source of value derived from your connection is knowledge. Being connected to peers provides you with access to information about new projects, behind-the-door discussions, ideas, personal feedback etc. This is the kind of value individuals derive from their positive relationships.

But how can a relationship be detrimental? If you dislike a person, you'll talk less often with them. This means fewer opportunity to exchange ideas, get feedback, or exchange other work-related knowledge.

Of course, if employee A dislikes employee B, employee A might start to purposefully withhold information with the goal of employee B leaving, or voluntary or forcefully.

However, withholding information can be unintentional. 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 simply forget that the other person exists, and hence unintentionally excluded each other.

Brian Rubineau and Yisook Lim 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 (task conflict). In other words, in her research, employees who create lengthy discussions, question ideas and approaches,  are more often nominated as someone to avoid.

But, there is nothing negative in task conflict. In contrast team literature considers this type of discussion 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 effect exists for gossiping: We talk bad (negative gossip) about those who have a lower social status than us, but we praise (positive gossip) those with higher status.

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.

Second, other negative ties are based on biases and power relations, such as disliking those of lower status. Reducing bias at work is hard 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 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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