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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
Photographer: Dave Fleetham/Design Pics/Getty Images

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.