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Your Co-Workers Are Mean to You for a Reason

People “need to stop looking for this mythical Santa Claus that's going to be nice to them,” says a Stanford professor

Some of the biggest complaints about corporate life concern co-workers—and what self-interested jerks they can be. Turns out there's something to the complaints. People at work act more calculating, are more cynical about favors, and are less likely to reciprocate good deeds to co-workers than they are to acquaintances outside work, Stanford researchers say in a forthcoming Academy of Management Discoveries paper. 

Peter Belmi, a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford’s department of organizational behavior, and Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, conducted five experimental studies to test how people respond differently to favors. In one study using 325 participants, Belmi and Pfeffer told some people to imagine that a personal acquaintance took them out to dinner and told others to imagine that an acquaintance from work took them out to dinner. Those whose imaginary work friend provided their imaginary meal felt significantly less likely to reciprocate than those who pretended that a personal acquaintance had treated them. They were also less likely to believe that the other person had acted out of a sincere desire to help.

In a second study of 182 people, Belmi and Pfeffer told participants that they were being offered a ride home from the airport either by a friend or by a co-worker. When asked whether they'd be willing to return the favor, those who had imagined interacting with a co-worker felt less obligated to return the favor if they were told that the co-worker wouldn't be able to do much for them in the future. "People shouldn't expect that their good deeds, especially in the context of an organization, are going to be repaid," Pfeffer says.

It's not just that work interactions are one-sided: There's something about the workplace that breeds—and perhaps even rewards—the very self-interested behavior that people who hate their jobs often complain about. The study found that just thinking about being in the workplace is enough to make people act more calculating. 

It's not necessarily natural to act selfishly. Decades of research suggest that humans are  hard-wired to reciprocate kind deeds because doing so offers an evolutionary advantage.  Yet being at work seems to strip people of a desire to help people. "Organizations are more future-oriented," Pfeffer says. "They emphasize calculation, rather than morality and duty." He and Belmi cite prior research showing how companies have increasingly walked back promised pension benefits, cut retirees' medical insurance benefits, and laid off staff in the absence of financial strains. Even though research suggests the obvious—that being stingy about reciprocation can make employees less productive and more likely to quit—companies still seem to have no qualms about screwing over workers.

The best tactic for survival might not be to fume over a co-worker's snide e-mail but to expect selfish behavior from officemates. "People need to take care of themselves," Pfeffer says. "They need to stop looking for this mythical Santa Claus that's going to be nice to them." To the suggestion that this was a depressing assessment of cubicle life, Pfeffer responded, "what I find more depressing is instances when people misplace their faith and trust in organizations—when people who think their company will look after them meet horrible consequences."

In their paper, Pfeffer and Belmi quote Willy Loman, the distressed protagonist in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, who pleads to his boss: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit.” The idea is that you shouldn’t use people you're working with and then treat them like dirt. Except, science tells us, that's exactly what our psychology instructs us to do. 

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