How to Deal With Selfish Coworkers

Bad behavior gets paid forward more often than kindness. In the workplace, it can go viral. Here’s how to stop it in its tracks.

How to Deal With Selfish Coworkers
[Photo: Flickr user Jordi A. Sintes]

There is a science behind the skill of reading coworkers’ personalities and it goes beyond figuring out whether they are introverts or extroverts.


Understanding it can make our work lives easier and more productive and our decisions more effective. But it’s a complex thing, requiring both a knowledge of yourself and what sets you off, then applying certain communication styles depending on who is involved in the conversation. Dealing with toxic coworkers is an even bigger challenge.

Science also tells us that one of the most common workplace ills–selfishness that leads to unkind, exclusive behavior–is one that can infect an entire staff. As Michael I. Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues discovered after observing how hundreds of people behaved when they thought others were being generous or stingy with a small amount of money, those who got shorted tended to pay that greedy behavior forward. The researchers had a hunch that this happened because negative feedback tends to loom larger in our minds than positive, and it’s the same with emotion.

In another scenario, they studied how a set of tasks doled out to people affected the way they assigned tasks to others. Not surprisingly, those who got a lot of fun stuff to tackle were more generous in their assignments. For those who felt like they got the short shrift, Norton writes, “If I can’t pay you back for being a jerk, my only option for feeling better is to be a jerk to someone else.”

How Can We Combat A Culture Of Jerks?

When we get dealt a bad hand, one natural reaction is to blow off steam, sometimes to the person nearest us. Jeffrey Lohr, a professor at the University of Arkansas, observes: “Venting anger is an emotional expression. It’s similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong.” Instead, he says, it can make you angrier.

What you can do is focus on fostering generosity and a more inclusive community. Norton points out research by Stanford sociologist Robb Willer, who studied the Freecycle community that generates a feeling of “groupiness.” No money is exchanged on the site, only goods, and you don’t have to give in order to receive. Surveying members, Willer and his colleagues noticed that those who felt really tied in to the community were much more willing to contribute goods to the network.

At work, where we do have to give in order to receive, this still can hold true. Managers can take a page from Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin, who oversaw the contributions of millions and kept them engaged.


Martin believes it is important not to spend too much time on a smaller subset of people, even if they are very vocal. “Just remember, most people are reasonable. And the ones who don’t seem to be are often just angry at something else going on in their world,” he says.

His other three tenets are:

  1. Be kind and courteous.
  2. Be responsive.
  3. Be empathetic.

For Erin Barnes, cofounder and executive director of Ioby, who works directly with people in neighborhoods who often don’t see eye-to-eye on anything, it’s all about creating community by finding common ground.

That takes a big shift in thinking, says Barnes, but she believes that going from thinking of others as adversaries to thinking of them as potential collaborators who also have something to gain from working together is a powerful connecting point.

Barring a manager’s intervention, Norton says that having people focus on something positive can reverse the negative energy that comes from believing we’ve been dealt a bad hand. Looking at funny cartoons, or singing along to a favorite song are just two suggestions. Just don’t forget to share.



About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.