Mistreat Your Coworkers? Payback is Coming

Learn what to do if you are trapped in a culture of mistreatment. Mistreatment can spiral, so stopping it is key.

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While we wish it weren’t true, coworkers often mistreat each other at work. Negative workplace behaviors have a negative impact on wellbeing. It often seems like bad behavior never catches up to the perpetrator. But, coworkers often return negative behaviors, recent research shows. Unfortunately for the larger culture, this cycle can create a negative spiral. When and how do coworkers pay others back for mistreatment? Read below to learn more. You can stop behaviors that will lead to retaliation!

Coworkers Mistreat Each Other in Many Ways

First, it’s important to recognize the different types of coworker mistreatment. Some of the more frequently occurring types of mistreatment are abusive supervision, bullying, harassment, and incivility You might be treated in a hostile fashion by your boss. Maybe a coworker is intimidating or humiliating you. Perhaps a coworker is targeting you and making you feel uncomfortable. Or you might just generally feel disrespected by others.

Regardless of the form that these behaviors take, they fall outside of the norms of acceptable behavior within the workplace. They also cause harm to employees and to the organization overall. So, it’s important to recognize these behaviors and address them immediately.

mistreatment can feel terrible
Being mistreated at work can feel like a punch in the gut. If someone mistreats you, it’s natural to want to get even!

When Mistreatment Goes Unchecked, Payback Occurs

When coworkers mistreat others, they are not likely to just get away with it. Across 246 samples, containing over 95,000 employees, a recent meta-analysis found that coworkers who mistreat others, get mistreatment back. This is because coworkers think about their interactions as exchanges. If you treat others positively, they are likely to treat you positively. If you treat others negatively, you get negative behavior back. Similarly, if others treat you well, you treat them well. If others treat you poorly, you’re likely to find ways to get back at them.

This is called “the norm of reciprocity“. It means that humans are driven to repay people for favors, but also to retaliate against them for bad behavior. Unfortunately, when employees are continuously treating each other badly, a company culture can be ruined. No one wants to work in a place where they are constantly on guard. People like to be able to trust their coworkers. While positive behaviors in the workplace are “generative”, negative behaviors are “degenerative”. They start to degrade the organization and its members over time.

The Way You Mistreat People Predicts How They Mistreat You

All mistreatment behaviors don’t get the same payback, however. Interestingly, people are more likely to respond to negative behaviors with similarly negative paybacks. The second most likely response is a payback that is even more negative. In other words, people are more likely to escalate the situation than to de-escalate it.

Also, coworkers are more likely to respond with similar types and frequencies of negative behavior. For example, if you are withholding information from someone, they are likely to withhold information from you, instead of badmouthing you. But, if you badmouth someone, they are likely to badmouth you. In other words, we often match the severity and type of behavior we receive. But, if you don’t use a matching strategy, you’re more likely to do something worse, than to do something better. Further, if you’re withholding information from someone every day, they are also likely to withhold information from you each day. If you intimidate someone once a month, they will be likely to match your frequency.

mistreatment is likely to escalate
Being mistreated leads coworkers to pay back the same mistreatment. The second most popular option is to escalate!

What Does Mistreatment Mean for Wellbeing?

Being mistreated makes people less psychologically well. Further, it distracts people from their work if they have to be on guard all the time. On the whole, organizations that have a negative culture of mistreatment have less healthy employee populations. These companies also have lower cultures of trust and decreased performance. So, it’s really important to nip these behaviors in the bud. The big takeaway here is that one negative behavior at work can have a big impact. Negative behaviors can start a cascade of negativity. But, being aware of their impact can help.

If you have been treated negatively, try to stop yourself from retaliating. Talk to the employee about their behavior instead. If that doesn’t work, talk to a manager about how to stop the behavior at the source. If you are mistreating others in the ways listed above, stop. These behaviors might seem like shortcuts to getting what you want in the short-term. But, you will only get negative behaviors back in return. Finally, if you’re a manager, don’t turn a blind eye to negative behaviors. Letting these behaviors go can have a bigger impact on the culture than you might think.

We have talked about the impact of negative workplace behaviors before, on our podcast and blog. Have you ever experienced a culture of negativity before? How did you try to disrupt it? We would love to hear about strategies that have worked for you!

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