Curtailing Workplace Pettiness

My work group recently began meeting on a weekly basis to review our progress, brainstorm, and set goals for the coming week. The good news is it’s given the head of our department a snapshot of the contentious manager I’ve worked under for the last six years. The bad news is a weekly dose of workplace pettiness.

Pettiness between employees is so common that just about everyone who has been in the workplace for a few years has experienced it in some form or another.

A column in the Huffington Post by MaryEllen Tribby, the founder and CEO of and, offers practical advice on avoiding interpersonal pettiness. Much of her advice sounds like it could fall under the umbrella of “good training,” meaning well-trained managers create workplace environments where pettiness doesn’t stand a chance. For instance, Tribby says a “daily refocus meeting” can help keep the staff focused on long-term goals or the big picture. That curtails the employee who wants to fixate instead on whether or not her colleague turned in his last assignment on time, or who got to speak the most at the last staff meeting. The immediate need to get work done, and meet the group’s overall goals, becomes top of mind instead.

Tribby notes that incorporating a set of action steps after each meeting also can help head off small, short-term thinking. Providing employees a concrete to-do list gives them an appropriate place to focus their energy, so they are not looking for unproductive outlets to fill activity gaps during the day. Sometimes I wonder if the minutia my manager likes to fixate on—and argue about—has more to do with a void, or boredom, he feels inside of himself, rather anything else. I’ve noticed that when his schedule is packed, and he has work that has to be delivered by a specific time, and in a specific condition, he tends to spend less time on the trivial.

Designating a person on your staff to be what Tribby calls a “time management operator” also can be useful. On my own staff, it’s just the two of us, so that role falls to me, but the problem is I’m technically the subordinate, so I have no leverage to keep my manager on schedule. It’s important to train managers, or department heads, to take a realistic look at how the work gets done in their group, and assign roles and responsibilities based on the reality of work processes, rather than on who is most senior, or who they have been friends with the longest. If you have just two employees, and one is much more connected to the completion of the group’s work, and the other is just in a “big picture,” or advisory role, a reconfiguration of responsibilities might be needed. The “big picture” man (who ironically often is stuck in the weeds) can continue to advise, but his authority over the person who is getting the work done should be removed, with the workhorse reporting directly to the department head instead.

Being the “bigger person,” another of Tribby’s suggestions, is hard when you don’t respect your manager or a co-worker. It’s difficult to admit, but most of us have had the experience of working with someone, who, if we had to be honest with ourselves, we didn’t respect. That might be because the person did things to us we felt weren’t right, or it could be because the person has much less experience and knowledge than we do. If a colleague has acted unethically toward you, or has been unfair, malicious, or petty, it’s OK to not be friends with him or her, or not respect the person as a human being. But it should be understood that you have to at least respect the reality that you’re relying on him or her to complete the work you need to get done for your customers.

Truth be told, I’m not the best practitioner of avoiding pettiness myself. Part of fighting pettiness in the workplace is acknowledging when we have been guilty of it ourselves. Sometimes it’s understandable why you would want to engage in pettiness with another person, but in the workplace, you have to force yourself not to resort to passive/aggressive, petty behavior.

As I’ve written about in Training Day in the past, I once worked under a manager who viewed me more as a competitor than an employee to nurture, and painted an unfavorable picture of me to our boss, rather than supporting my achievements. In some ways I was honorable in how I dealt with this problem. I spoke to both my manager and our boss about what I felt was going on, and in both cases got denials. But I also did things that were childish and petty, like refusing to look at that manager in meetings. She knew I loathed her, and didn’t want to look at her, so at one meeting she perched herself directly across from me. Little did she know how clever I can be in evading what I don’t want to see! She fumed as I looked every which way around the room instead of directly across the table at her. She, in turn, continued the pettiness, often taking the parking spot right next to my car even when the parking lot was nearly empty. In case you’re wondering, I did resist the urge to “accidentally” sideswipe her car as I pulled out at the end of the day—but it was hard.

What kind of petty workplace behaviors have you noticed? How can manager training programs, and the right corporate culture, create a workplace that is above small-thinking interactions?



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