Beware the Workplace Parasites

In my first blog of the year I shared how we can prioritise our workload to be more productive. I continue that theme this month, but with a focus on who we should work with (and who we should avoid) in order to deliver our work objectives.
As a scientist (yes psychology is a science albeit a “social” one) I love it when other disciplines can shed light and offer alternative points of view on my own field of expertise. Cross-discipline input is not blinkered by groupthink and occasionally it offers a paradigm shift in how to comprehend and resolve a problem. In the past I have referred to the Workplace Zoo, recognising we are different “animals” with different needs. If we continue the analogy of the workplace as a living system, after-all biomimicry is on-trend, and if we focus on our relationships and interactions then logically we should also consider the relevance of symbiosis

Since 1989, microbiologists have defined symbiosis as “the living together of unlike organisms” (usually of different species) but, interestingly, prior to then it referred to people living together in a community (at least according to Wikipedia!). We often think of symbiosis as a prolonged relationship where both organisms survive together for mutual benefit. Symbiosis is actually the catchall phrase and mutualism is technically what most of us think of as a symbiotic relationship. Common examples of mutual symbiosis are 1. the clown fish and sea anemone – the territorial little fish protects the anemone from being eaten and in return the stinging tentacles protect the clownfish from its predators and 2. the Egyptian Plover bird and Nile crocodile – the little bird picks out the tiny bits of food stuck in the crocodile’s teeth, thus keeping its mouth fresh in return for a tasty meal (see image above).
We all know that a parasitic relationship is one in which one organism benefits while the other is harmed. But there is a third type of symbiosis – commensalism describes a relationship where one organism benefits whereas the other doesn’t but is nevertheless not significantly harmed. Commensal is derived from the Latin for “sharing a table” and means human social interaction.
If, in the above definitions, we replace “organism” with “colleague” then at work there are clearly mutual and commensal symbiotic relationships (and interactions). If we consider harm to include psychological wellbeing, stress or damage to career progression etc. then parasitic relationships also exist in the workplace. This range of symbiotic relationships exist between colleagues, between managers and their staff, and between organisations. For the sake of our wellbeing and performance (i.e. not wasting time or effort) we need to foster relationships of mutual benefit, evade “harm” by avoiding (or dealing with) the workplace parasites and also minimise commensal relationships which offer no long-term benefit.
The easiest way to avoid workplace parasites is to spot their behaviour and personality traits. The common behaviours of workplace parasites are that they:
  • don’t praise your ideas but will repeat them later without referring to the source
  • focus on activities that make them look good, and take credit for joint effort
  • don’t respond to your queries/concerns with a phone call, so there is no documented evidence or an email trail (unless to their advantage)
  • set unrealistic deadlines, not agreed in advance with you
  • load you up with work at end of day i.e. at their convenience
  • turn up late to meetings and appointments
  • put their career advancement above and beyond that of their colleagues or staff
  • seeks a contractor’s advice and ideas but then passes them on to a lower bidder 
In terms of personality, on the Big Five (OCEAN) Inventorythey are likely to be less Agreeable, i.e. have little empathy for colleagues. They will also score low on Conscientiousness, as they are less diligent about timescales, lack integrity and are less trustworthy etc. They are also likely to be less Neurotic (nervous, anxious) than their colleagues. Regarding Locus of Control, workplace parasites tend to Externalise rather than Internalise. In extreme cases they will display sociopathic behaviours and psychopathic personality traits (not uncommon in CEOs of large unscrupulous corporates).
In contrast, to improve wellbeing and performance look out for managers and colleagues who are team-players with a genuine interest in how all might benefit from the team’s successes. Mutualism involves reciprocation and reward/praise for input. My experienced trainer colleague, Iain Smith, introduced me to the Situational Leadership Model (see image to right). Managers who support, mentor and coach are likely to offer a more mutually beneficial relationship than those who only direct or delegate.
I appreciate that we can’t simply avoid workplace parasites but by recognising them we can at least take steps to better handle them and evaluate how much support to offer. I also recognise that we should not stifle ambition, but it should never result in “harming” others. In, contrast by nurturing symbiotic relationships (actually mutualism) then we will enhance our personal wellbeing and performance, and in turn increase team productivity.

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