Are You Talking About Me?

17 Jan 2013

As experts warn professional paranoia could be harming our careers, we explore the thorny issue of office politics...

You know that moment when you head to the kitchen for a mid-morning coffee and suddenly, the only sound is from the kettle? Perhaps it was an awkward silence by the photocopier that left you stumped. Or a lonely lunch hour when your colleagues were too busy to leave their desks. We’ve all been there. The question is, did that quiet kitchen leave you with a sense of unease? Rather than believe your colleagues when they said they were snowed under, did you feel excluded? Did you ask yourself, were they talking about me?
If so, it could be you’re one of a growing breed of workplace paranoids, a group of professionals so keen to be liked that they could well be scuppering their own chances of success.
For, while wanting to fit in is perfectly natural, a new study from Canada’s University of British Columbia suggests workers who find themselves continually worried about the opinions of others are less likely to be accepted by their colleagues. The research suggests that, when we’re feeling anxious, we’re more likely to seek out signs that we’re on the receiving end of negative vibes. But in turn, we’re making those around us less likely to trust us.

Ear to the ground
Professor Karl Aquino, the researcher behind the study, put his subjects in exactly the scenario many of us dread – when they walked into a room full of laughing colleagues, the laughter stopped. While some participants were able to shrug off any negative feelings, others later indicated they believed the joke may have been at their own expense, indicating that they were among the growing herd of workers deemed to be at risk of paranoia.
“It’s a matter of degree, of course, but one way it can present itself would be if a person obsessively thinks that others are out to harm them or is continuously worried that people might be trying to undermine them behind their back” he warns. “Those participants demonstrated more suspicious behaviours, checking up on others to see if they were saying bad things about them or maybe eavesdropping on others’ conversations or reading documents on their desks.”
Aquino’s team dubbed such activity ‘MARTI’, the motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information. In short, that means trying your damndest to find out what your colleagues are really thinking, whatever the cost. The problem? It seems paranoia is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Clinical and Forensic Psychologist Dr. Raymond H. Hamden, from Dubai’s Human Relations Institute, warns: “Expectations will return the same anticipated actions.  When a person mentally expects certain behaviours, they recreate what they anticipate.  For example, just reading your horoscope can be justified by unconsciously making what you expect to happen, happen.”
Of course, it’s not surprising that distrust can backfire, but Aquino noted that when those participants adopted paranoid behaviour, their colleagues not only noticed – they acted on it. “Some react to these people with anger and by trying to reject them socially. Some were less likely to say that they wanted to work with them in the future or have them as part of the group to which they belonged.”
It seems that by worrying we’re being rejected by our workmates, we may well be provoking the very harm we are trying to avoid.

Desktop distrust
While everyone has days where they may feel a little more sensitive, expert opinion suggests some of us are far more likely to give in to suspicion than others. Aquino admits that, while there’s no hard and fast rule, “some people could be predisposed to paranoia, either as a result of genetic factors or past experiences which make them worried or anxious. It is also likely that people in certain environments that are highly competitive or where there is a norm of people undermining each other become increasingly paranoid over time.”
Marie G. McIntyre, PhD, author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics, concedes environment can be a trigger for paranoid behaviour, saying, “Some workplaces are simply toxic. If management makes all employees feel paranoid or if cliques are common and co-workers are shunned, then you have a poisonous work environment.”
However, she says if others in your office seem happy with their environment, it’s more likely you’ve brought your problems to work yourself. That might sound harsh, but finding an effective way to handle others in the workplace is a key part of achieving professional success. And if you’re failing where your colleagues succeed, perhaps it’s time to examine your own behaviour  patterns for the tell-tale signs of paranoia.
Those who find themselves in the role of office victim usually fit into one of two categories, according to McIntyre, and both of them are highly likely to rub their colleagues up the wrong way.
“Needy pleasers are driven by a crippling need to be liked, so they are afraid to disagree with anyone or express any controversial opinions. They mirror the views of those around them to avoid saying anything that might be even mildly offensive. As a result, no one can  believe anything they say. And all that sucking up becomes very tiresome.”
“Suspicious sceptics, on the other hand, are always on the lookout for any sign that people may be talking about them or plotting against them. They interpret every comment in the most negative light possible and respond to any hint of criticism with immediate defensiveness. They seldom acknowledge the ideas or praise the accomplishments of others. In short, they are just not much fun to be around.”
Recognise yourself? It’s often hard to admit our own shortfalls, particularly if we feel we’re only trying to be nice or are driven by a need to protect ourselves. But failing to acknowledge our own faults could be far more dangerous than falling prey to office gossip. In fact, if you fall into either category, even unwittingly, you run the risk of being ostracised both socially and professionally.
“Because colleagues tend to avoid these folks, they lose all the benefits of collaboration,” warns McIntyre. “People don't share much information with them, so they don't know as much about what's going on. They are not included in projects, because they are either annoying to be around or difficult to work with, and career moves are difficult to make, since their reputation precedes them. No one would ever promote one of these annoying people into management. If you can't be effective as a co-worker, you certainly won't be effective as a boss.”

The online frontline
While it’s unclear why the issue of office paranoia is becoming more prevalent, there is little doubt that the growth of the digital society has put our relationships with others, or lack thereof, under a brighter spotlight. The advent of email, Facebook and Twitter mean it’s easier to communicate with our co-workers than ever before ,and the days where friendships were formed at the annual office party are long gone.
Those seeking to sound off about a colleague don’t need a quiet corner of the office – they can email their allies right over another person’s head, without taking the time to think through their actions. And while office annoyances can be ignored if you keep your head down, online friend requests or rejections are harder to turn a blind eye to.
These increasingly large social networks can be particularly hard to navigate if you’re the office newbie, as Professor Hamden explains. “When people get comfortable in their posts, the system has been set. They do not want anyone, new or old, to bother the years of sameness or psychological certainty.
“They test the vulnerable freshman, push them out and make sure they won’t try to change the workplace routine.”
It’s a trick that’s as old as time, sizing up new opponents to determine whether they are a threat. But as our work and personal lives become increasingly intertwined, being on the outside of the office loop can feel more isolating than ever and those prone to paranoia can find their fears exacerbated. However, online or in person, the key, say the experts, is to keep some perspective. Just because you’ve got a Facebook page, it doesn’t mean everyone you meet should become a friend, or that someone who doesn’t want to connect online automatically means you harm.
“If the goal is to be thought of positively by others, then it’s a good idea not to act like you are suspicious of their motives and don’t trust them,” says Aquino.
While wanting to be seen in a positive light is legitimate, his research suggests that becoming preoccupied about where you fit into the office social mix is counter-productive and, ultimately, a waste of time. The key, he says, is in realising one fundamental truth.
“People probably pay less attention to you than you might think. In reality, people are probably more preoccupied with their own personal issues than with paying attention to you.”

Make office politics work for you
“Although many people view ‘office politics’ negatively, to me it simply means effectively managing relationships with others in order to achieve your goals. In fact, any time you have more than two people working together, you will have office politics,” says Dr McIntyre, who insists that by embracing your inner democrat, you can make your office environment work in your favour. Here are her top tips for getting positive, not paranoid.


● The real key is learning to respond to situations with logic instead of emotion. For example, instead of agreeing with a stupid idea, the pleaser might suggest an alternative proposal. Or the suspicious sceptic might respond positively to constructive feedback.
● Self-confidence comes from success, so you need to first choose a job that matches your talents and abilities then do the best possible job you can.  You also need to develop the habit of congratulating yourself when you do something well.  If you are always waiting for praise from others, you may be waiting a long time.
● When you come into an office where cliques exist, you need to walk a fine line and try to get along with everyone. Don’t align yourself with one group or another. You want to be known as someone who can work well with anybody.
● Try to associate with positive people.  If you spend too much time with people who focus on your flaws, you will eventually begin to internalise their critical comments. And if you have a boss who has a “no news is good news” style, ask what he or she feels is going well with your job.  Just don’t do this too often or you will look needy!
● In almost any job, you will encounter some people you like and some that you don’t – but you have to work well with all of them. It’s simply part of your job. This means that you need to be pleasant, co-operative and helpful with everyone. Your boss will greatly appreciate this, because managers absolutely loathe dealing with squabbles among employees.
● If your ‘self-talk’ tends to be all about what you’ve done wrong, find a coach or counsellor who can help you develop a more realistic and positive view of yourself. Learn to appreciate your strengths!

Dr McIntyre provides online careers advice at

You might also like…