Workplace paranoia a self-fulfilling prophecy: study
Shanna Landolt stressed that communication is important for dealing with workplace issues.
Christine Tam, CTV British Columbia
Published Tuesday, July 31, 2012 1:26PM PDT
Last Updated Tuesday, July 31, 2012 1:36PM PDT
It’s normal to care about office politics, but a new study says worrying too much about rejection and sabotage in the workplace can actually cause more.
The University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business report revealed that people who are paranoid about negative gossip or being snubbed at work can cause them to seek out information by eavesdropping or spying to confirm their fears.
Seeking out negative information was proven to annoy and anger coworkers, which increased the likelihood of rejection.
“When people are very motivated to find out if their colleagues are trying to indirectly harm them or to undermine them, this leads them to be highly suspicious and to engage in overly suspicious behaviour,” said professor Karl Aquino, lead author of the report.
Aquino suggests although it’s normal for people to care about how others view them, caring too much can cause a negative spiral.
“If you start seeing the world in this way it makes you think that everybody is out to get you, and usually they’re not,” Aquino said. “Most people are too busy thinking about their own problems.”
Aquino said the idea for the study was inspired by research that found people in intimate relationships who are suspicious of their partners will look for evidence to confirm their fears. This information seeking behaviour tended to harm the relationship, regardless of whether their suspicions were confirmed.
“If one party is always looking for things that cause harm, it’s basically saying ‘I don’t trust you,’ and most people don’t want to believe their friend doesn’t trust them,” Aquino said. “So we took the same pattern and applied it to the workplace.”
In one of the study’s experiments, researchers discovered participants were 3.5 times more likely to choose working with people who asked for feedback on work quality, than with people who worried about unfair treatment.
Participants were also 16.5 times more likely to prefer working with others who were keen to accept feedback on group dynamics as a whole.
Aquino said if people feel they’re the target of gossip or avoidance it may be helpful to ignore it instead of taking it personally and fuelling the negative cycle.
“When it goes to the extreme and people start interpreting ambiguous actions in a hostile way, it will push other people away,” he said.
Instead he suggests “killing them with kindness,” or seeking out an objective opinion to see if the paranoia is warranted or just a perception.
“Perception is what we act on,” Aquino said. “It’s what we think is going on and not necessarily what is.”