Bad Blood at the Office? How to Change the Conversation

A study suggests that the ways coworkers are perceived and talked about influences the way work gets done. An attentive leader can have a positive influence on the conversation.

Organizations are built out of stories.

That might sound like a squishy notion—yes, yes, organizations are also built out of dollars and legal articles of incorporation—but it’s the stories that we tell about a place that help define it. It’s in the mission statement that guides the organization. It’s in the vision of the future that underpins your strategic plan. It’s in the marketing messages that get sent to members and attendees to join, volunteer, and convene. It’s in the narratives we share about our accomplishments in performance reviews.

Let your workers talk about themselves and each others’ work in a positive way before getting down to work.

And it’s in the ways that the staffers in charge of putting the mission into action talk to one another. Which is why it’s a good idea for leaders to look at how those conversations are going, and steer them in positive directions when possible (or necessary).

In “The Benefits of Saying Nice Things About Your Colleagues,” in the Harvard Business Review management professors Jane E. Dutton and Julia Lee summarize some recent research about the virtues of praising colleagues. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it can get tricky in the day-to-day dynamic of a workplace. Hard-charging workplaces run the risk of creating employee squabbles; employees who feel their workplace is biased are more likely to withhold their ideas; even the old standby “employee of the month” program can be littered with landmines, if public acclaim is not the kind of thing an employee wants.

So meanness is, well, mean, silence is problematic, and praise is complicated. Which brings us back to storytelling: Dutton and Lee point to research that shows that “teams in which members affirmed their best selves prior to team formation (i.e., by soliciting and receiving narratives that highlight one’s positive impact on close others) outperformed teams that did not do so on a creative problem-solving task.” That’s management-scholarship-speak for: Let your workers talk about themselves and each others’ work in a positive way before getting down to work.

If that seems simple enough, consider the number of times an office you’ve worked at has brought in a new staffer without much of an introduction beyond a paragraph in an all-staff email, and how the employee’s first task on a new team is figuring out work routines instead of taking part in opportunities to know each other. (Please don’t assume that “coworkers will get to know each other naturally”; as a lifelong introvert, I can attest that a lot of people can feel shut out as a result of such assumptions.)

An attentive leader can take ownership of these kinds of conversations and help stoke them. Dutton and Lee give the example of a team leader who kicked off the first meeting by going around the room and providing not just some background but praise. “[The leader] went around the room introducing each member and describing the strengths each brought to the group,” they write. “He also explained why each person was uniquely qualified to help the team meet its objectives, peppering in fun facts about people’s backgrounds and interests. This piqued other members’ curiosity, fostering a desire to connect.” Everybody is praised and recognized; extroverts get a bit of the spotlight, and introverts don’t feel like they’re being singled out.

Sometimes the storytelling message needs to be a little more targeted, though, and the situation a little more fraught. Dutton and Lee point to the case of two women senior managers who were seeing their ideas undercut in a hypermasculine environment; by providing a public support system for each other, talking up their talents and expertise, they were able to improve their position (and respect for each other).

Praise and support aren’t hollow, meaningless gestures in a workplace; if you disagree, withhold it for a while and see how that goes. Last fall the management expert Dan Ariely wrote in his book Payoff that workers rarely are as motivated and inspired by financial incentives as leaders like to think they are. “We are strongly motivated by the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment, and feeling of creation,” Ariely once said. The best way for that to happen is for leaders to recognize that need among those workers, to know their story, and then spread the word.

What does your organization do to encourage recognition and praise for coworkers? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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