The author’s latest book is ‘Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition’

As the world wakes up and heads Back to Work™, while discussing furiously what this means (summary: no one knows yet), there’s a lot of buzz in the air about “toxic colleagues” and the reluctance to re-engage with them. We all have a secret list of professional connections we have not missed one bit. Never mind hybrid versus working-from-home, versus sleeping under your giant Putin-inspired office desk. The real issue is how you feel about the people you will have to spend time with.

Are co-workers: a) great because you can bounce ideas off them as you head to a well-ventilated, sanitised bar area for Thursday night drinks? b) an inevitability to be tolerated? Or c) total jerks? And if they are total jerks, how are they best avoided in this post-pandemic world?

Social psychologist Tessa West’s new book Jerks At Work: Toxic Coworkers and What To Do About Them, speaks directly to the fear that c) is the only honest answer. West identifies the worst offenders — such as the Bulldozer, the Gaslighter and the Credit-Stealer — and lists ways to deal with and outwit them.

Meanwhile in another timely book The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life: How to Thrive at Work by Leaving Your Emotional Baggage Behind, therapist Naomi Shragai blames our professional miseries on our inability to face our personal histories. The worst offences of workplace culture, she argues, are down to the fact that many of us are unwittingly acting out grievances and long-buried wounds from our childhoods. If we could understand psychological motivation better then we would be more forgiving.

There is a truth revealed by both these books that is getting lost in the narrative around the pandemic and work. It is less about where and how we work and more about “who we are” towards each other. If haters gonna hate then jerks definitely gonna jerk. And they are going to do it whether on Zoom or WhatsApp, by gossiping about you to your boss virtually or in real life, in or out of the office. To think otherwise is to delude ourselves.

Despite this obvious truth, some sort of comforting myth grew up in the early pandemic that by working from home, you are magically avoiding the worst of work. And for many people that meant avoiding the worst people. Hate your boss? Just mute them. Or be unavailable. After all, they can’t come and physically find you, can they?

These things work for a few hours or a few days. But they do not work after two years, let alone indefinitely. And there comes a point where you have to think: “Is everyone else annoying? Or am I the common factor here?” Of course, if someone is genuinely toxic, their behaviour should be reported and dealt with. But if that is not appropriate, then the only behaviour that can be changed is your own. Wherever — and however — we work, we take ourselves with us. Hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, is other people. So true. But unfortunately we are all “other people” too.

No permutation of geography, location or work habits can protect you from idiots, sociopaths and people who are basically a bit dysfunctional. These people are everywhere. Is it easier if you don’t have to rub shoulders on a daily basis? As a self-employed person, I can tell you this: only marginally. Unless you are a hermit or unpublished poet with a trust fund, all work involves some kind of human contact at some point. And many work interactions — in the office or online — will throw up disagreements and displays of ego.

If anything, being away from people who you have to work with but who you find difficult makes them assume a disproportionate bogeyman status. When you’re forced to cross paths, you can remember their bad breath or habit of sucking noisily at their coffee cup. Because of that, you can be reminded that though they are awful, they are also simply human.

And that — guess what? — you too sometimes make sucky coffee cup noises and could do with some chewing gum. Toxic status is elevated, not alleviated, when our professional connections become semi-mythical online avatars. Ultimately this is about facing — literally facing — problems instead of avoiding them. The bogey(wo)man is rarely as bad in person as they are in your imagination. You can WFH. But you can’t hide.

Pilita Clark is away

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