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Selfish meanies in your office

Monday, May 30, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

There are likely selfish people who are in your office and others who are just plain mean. This may not come as a surprise to you. And sometimes, they are the same people/person. That may not shock you either. We’ve written about civility and incivility before here, but this time we have brand new research to show us how it is expressed now.


A firm pays good money for research by outside organizations. And they depend on “knowledge sharing” for the distribution of that knowledge. Except it doesn’t work. New research show that due to basic distrust and a poor knowledge-sharing climate in companies, employees hide what they know from each other: through being evasive; “rationalized hiding” (saying the report is confidential); or simply by playing dumb. The researchers recommend several strategies for increasing willingness to share knowledge freely: less email communication and more direct, face-to-face communication; showcasing examples of trustworthiness within the company; and avoiding what the researchers call “betrayal incentives” (where you are rewarded for stealing clients from coworkers, for example).

In other words, be more transparent, actually value honesty and direct communication, give face-time, and encourage collegiality.


Most of us who have worked for more than 5 years or so have run into ‘meanies’ (aka bullies). Some of them are bullies in email or on blogs and others are just plain nasty in person as well as in writing. And the harm they can do to your reputation (in writing) and your emotional wellness (in person) can be extreme. It’s increasingly important to know who is a bully and how they bully in order to protect yourself from their venom.

  • It turns out that the more politically astute a person is, the less need they have to bully because they already know how to get what you want through interpersonal negotiations.
  • Plus, if they are politically astute, they realize there is no long-term benefit to abusing coworkers.
  • And, it’s probably no surprise that if you tend to view the world through a more negative frame and are often distressed, upset, afraid or jittery—you are more likely to be abusive to your coworkers.

So, what do you do if your organization or firm has a problem with abusive behaviors between coworkers? The researchers recommend you consider assessing negativity and political skill during hiring and offer manager training on conflict resolution to prevent escalation of conflict to abuse.

We think that makes sense and that a workplace that experiences “knowledge hiding” is also likely to have a fair amount of bullying and nastiness between colleagues. In a simple way, ‘knowledge hiding’ is a way to hoard power, as are other forms of selfishness, and bullying is a way of stripping power from others.  We wrote an article in The Jury Expert about how to manage and mentor Millennials. In truth, those recommendations are truly just plain good management for all of us.  There are some Millennial-specific instructions but all of us want to be treated with respect, listened to, and given the opportunity for interesting work.

Law firms are hired to deal with conflict between parties. Learning to deal with those conflicts in-house will result in longer tenure, increased productivity, and good will toward each other that will come back to increase your bottom line. Win- win.

Connelly, C., Zweig, D., Webster, J., & Trougakos, J (2011). Knowledge hiding in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior : 10.1002/job.737

Harris KJ, Harvey P, & Booth SL (2010). Who abuses their coworkers? An examination of personality and situational variables. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (6), 608-27 PMID: 21166327


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