Too Much Cooperation Can Turn a Workplace Toxic

Photo: Hero Images Inc./Getty Images

Obviously you don’t want to spend most of your waking life stuck in an office with people who make you miserable, but working in a place that’s too buddy-buddy can be frustrating, too. Maybe you have a co-worker who won’t stop spilling their guts to you, or you feel obligated to go to an endless stream of work-related social events when you’d really rather not, or everyone’s so wary of confrontation that they’re all too polite to actually get anything done.

Or maybe all the focus on teamwork and getting along, a culture fostered to help everyone do their best work, is actually having the opposite effect. In a study recently published in the journal Applied Psychology and highlighted by Alex Fradera at BPS Research Digest, a team of researchers found that for high-performing employees, places that stress collaboration can make for a pretty miserable experience.

In the first part of the study, the researchers focused on a chain of 105 hair salons in Taiwan, asking salon managers at each branch to share the performance reviews for the workers they managed and then interviewing 350 employees about their work environment — how collaborative it was, how much they felt supported (or threatened) by their colleagues, whether or not they felt their colleagues held them back.

Based on the answers they collected, the researchers concluded that being a standout employee could go one of two ways: “Hotshots experienced more negative treatment in the form of belittling and criticism when they were surrounded by co-workers who felt threatened,” Fradera explained, but “received more help and support if their colleagues saw them as a benefit.” The odd part, though, was that high performers actually felt more ostracized in salons with more of a collaborative culture.

The same thing happened in the second part of the study, when the authors recruited 284 college students for a team-based problem-solving task. Some teams were told to emphasize cooperation, while others were told to take a more individualized approach, working separately towards the same goal. When the students were given the chance to discuss how they felt about their teammates, those who saw the strongest players as a threat were more likely to make nasty comments about them – but, again, only when they’d been in a more collaborative setting.

As Fradera explained, the findings highlight a key misunderstanding about what collaborative really means in the workplace context. “A cooperative climate isn’t about sweetness and biscuits, but rather a culture where group solidarity is paramount,” he wrote. “Under these conditions, a stand-out performer is simply a nail that needs to be hammered down, like the 1940s factories whose unionized workers gave a hard time to ‘rate-busters’ whose performance made the rest look bad.” It’s nice to feel like your co-workers have your back — which, paradoxically, means you may be better off when things are a little more uncomfortable.

Too Much Cooperation Can Turn a Workplace Toxic