According to one study, 60% of surveyed employees believe that their co-workers are the biggest contributor to their happiness at work. Conversely, a study of 2000 workers showed that 1 in 5 ‘hate’ one or more of their colleagues. While these types of statistics can vary, what’s clear across the board is that our workplace relationships hold significant importance for our well-being.
Why workplace dynamics matter
We spend most of our lives at work. That means, many of us spend more time with our colleagues than we do our families. If you have healthy, happy workplace dynamics, you could be more happy, settled and successful in the long run. Conversely, constant upset between you and your colleagues could lead to chronic stress, depression, or more practical problems like work absences, job loss and financial difficulty.
When my clients come to me with workplace relationship problems, I work with them in the same way I do with any other client experiencing relationship conflicts. We look at what is motivating the conflict, how we show up within these conflicts, and what role we have in enabling them.
The roles we play at work
If you find yourself in a toxic cycle of workplace conflict, there could be many different things happening at the same time.
- Splitting. Splitting refers to black and white thinking, or ‘all or nothing’ mentality. If you are in a splitting dynamic at work, you could find yourself never being good enough to meet your boss’s expectations (because they only see you as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’), you could struggle to be rewarded or recognised, feel bullied, or ‘always wrong’. You can read much more about splitting at work here. An example of splitting at work is as follows:
David and Jonah sit beside each other in a call centre. Jonah has a very slightly superior position to David, but is not his manager. In this dynamic, Jonah is the splitter. Jonah doesn’t like David and allocates much of his boring admin work to David. When David cannot keep up, Jonah berates him in front of the rest of the team. Jonah has also been sending cruel emails around about David. When challenged, Jonah refers to this as a joke and claims David has no sense of humour. David has never received any praise or rewards because Jonah keeps setting him back. When David fails his appraisal, Jonah uses this to further undermine and degrade David, calling him incompetent and lazy. In essence, Jonah has only ever viewed David as ‘all bad’, and holds David in this position.
2. Transactional analysis (TA). TA refers to the unconscious influences of our various ego states that drive and motivate our relationships. There are 3 primary ego states – parent, adult and child. You can read more about TA and these ego states here. The parent ego state is the behaviours and actions that are mimicked from the parenting / caregiving behaviours we experienced as children. The child state is the reactive / feelings state, that mimics the feelings and reactions we had as a child. And the adult state is a ‘here and now’, rational and logical state, where we can sensibly and critically select and process information and take action from there. According to the theory, we shift between these ego states in any relationship dynamic, which can affect the way we respond to one another. Let’s take another look at David and Jonah.
Instead of David taking proactive steps to stop the bullying / splitting, he takes on the burden of work assigned to him and allows himself to fail. He does not seek help, but becomes more and more introverted and submissive to Jonah’s persecution. Transactional analysis will explain this as David being in his child state. He may have experienced bullying and berating from a caregiver as a child and responded by going quiet and inward as a coping mechanism. He may have learned in early life that pleasing the bully will get them off his case. In adulthood, he is still doing the same in the face of bullying.
3) The drama triangle: Transactional analysis and the Drama Triangle have significant interactions. The Drama Triangle is the theory that, in any relationship conflict, we play one of three roles – the persecutor (the person who berates and blames others), the victim (the person who feels downtrodden or always in the wrong), and the rescuer (the person actively looking to save the situation). Much like with transactional analysis, it is thought we can shift and move between these roles within seconds, and even assign these roles to other people. Only by identifying and moving away from the toxic roles can we find a resolution to the conflict. Read more about this theory here.
In our workplace scenario, it might seem clear who plays which role. But it’s not that simple. While we may see Jonah as the clear persecutor for bullying David, he may view David as the persecutor for never doing enough work and holding the team back. It really depends on how much introspectiveness Jonah has about himself. David also may be seen as the rescuer, as well as the victim, because by doing all of the excess work and not complaining, he may be trying to rescue the situation by pleasing Jonah.
As you can see, if you are in a conflict with colleagues at work, there can be much more to it than meets the eye. While you may think your conflicts are about one thing, there can be many difficult, unconscious dynamics at play.
Individual psychotherapy can help you to clear the mist from your conflict and understand the role you play within it. By doing this, you can take more control over your workplace difficulties and enjoy a happier, healthier career.
Getting the support you need
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Book a free 15 minute conversation, which is all you need to begin your journey. We will talk about where you are now, where you want to be, and how I can help you get there.