The Co-Worker Quotient

Co-workers can make or break a work environment as much as a good or bad boss can. Instead of being supportive, they can undermine their colleagues, or in moments of terrible stress, they can bolster the beleaguered employee, offering problem-solving solutions.

BenefitsPRO featured an article by Katie Kuehner-Hebert last week that highlights the great difference the right co-workers can make in avoiding burnout. The author cites findings from the report, “Well-being in the Workplace,” by Martin Boult, a psychologist and senior director of Professional Services and International Training at The Myers-Briggs Co. Boult conducted a three-year study of more than 10,000 people from 131 countries, and found that co-worker relationships are the leading contributor to workplace well-being (7.85 out of 10). Other leading factors that contribute to workplace well-being are meaning (7.69), accomplishments (7.66), engagement (7.43), and positive emotions (7.19 out of 10).

The complicating factor is that some people have natural chemistry with co-workers while others struggle to make the smallest of talk. The source of this difficulty often is the hiring process. When you add a new employee, how important is input from the people who will be the prospective employee’s co-workers? I’ve heard that many organizations make it a policy notto introduce a potential new hire to employees for fear of a Human Resources law violation. When you introduce an applicant to employees, you risk one of those employees asking an illegal question, such as whether the applicant is married or has children. An innocent question that otherwise would be a conversation starter could lead to legal trouble. But getting input from the people who will be the new employee’s co-workers is important from an interpersonal chemistry perspective. What is the best way to do this?

One idea is to have a few of the employees the applicant would work with sit in on the second or third interview. They would be there just to listen and add input, rather than leading the interview. Before the applicant comes in, the employees could review the questions they would like to ask with the hiring manager. They also could be given a primer on questions notto ask. 

The most important part of having employees in the room with the hiring manager and the applicant is to see how the potential new hire interacts with the employees. Is conversation easy and fluid, or is there an awkward feeling in the room like you might experience at a bad dinner party? At one of my sister’s past companies, she was invited to go out for a happy hour at a bar with the people who would be her co-workers. Is that too fraught with possible legal peril? My mother and I discussed it at the time because we were so impressed with the intelligence of making sure the new hire would fit in socially with the other employees. Is there a way to invite a potential new hire on a social outing with employees and the hiring manager without running afoul of Human Resources law?

Another idea is to use personality assessments. That would give the hiring manager an idea, on a theoretical level, of which employees will get along with which others. But there is a non-scientific aspect to interpersonal chemistry in which you just have to see who hits it off with whom. The personality assessment results can tell you places where there are potential problems. I would be less worried about introverts versus extroverts and more worried about Myers-Briggs Intuition and Feelings people interacting with Sensory and Thinking people. I’m an INFJ who works with people who seem very ESTJ (or P), and it’s hard. I find that our thought, decision-making, and problem-solving processes differ. I operate from a place of logic, but tend to communicate in a more sensitive, conscious way, so I’m often left irritated and angered by what comes across to me as snippy or brusque. Unlike my co-workers, I also tend to be more focused on solutions than on critical commentary. I would rather focus on ideas for improvement, with no need to voice my critique first. My way would be to back into the critique by offering the improvement ideas first—as in “Here’s how we can make this even better,” versus “Here are all the things that are wrong with this.”

What other personality tendencies can interfere with interpersonal chemistry at the office? And what is the best way of determining those personal tendencies? I wonder if it’s always a personality assessment, or whether observation of applicants and employees interacting might be better. I remember a personality assessment I tried to rig years ago. I assumed my true personality type, a sensitive introvert, wouldn’t be desirable, so I tried to answer the questions the way I thought an insensitive extrovert would. I didn’t get the job, even though I seemed to be well-qualified. I always wondered if they figured out I had not answered the assessment questions honestly, or if, ironically, they were looking for someone with just my personality, and I ruined it by pretending to be other than myself.

What role do co-workers play in the happiness and productivity—or misery and inertia—of your employees? What’s the best way to build effective workplace teams?

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