Workplace Road Rage: How Mislabeling Colleagues Decreases Productivity and Encourages Animosity

Amber Johnson Ethics, Leadership, Values

Amber Johnson is the CVDL’s corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist. 

A few years ago I was part of a sales team that did a lot of work at large conferences. And while I was a senior team member, I felt it didn’t excused me from the physical labor of hauling our organization’s trade show booth and collateral materials into convention centers: a task made all the more difficult because I was several months pregnant. But I’m a team player who didn’t want to let my colleagues down, so I schlepped and carried and scooted our boxes into position, then unpacked and arranged them myself.

On one particularly long day, my boss at the time, whom I’ll call him Dan, was present. He sat at the side of the room, chatting casually and showing off his new Kindle to another colleague while a team of his direct reports worked for a few hours.
I’ll give you three guesses on how I felt about this, but it will only take you one: of course I was angry. Very angry. And in my frustration, as I pushed my way through yet another box full of packing peanuts, I labeled Dan with all sorts of character flaws: lazy, chauvinist, uncaring, irresponsible, thoughtless.
Those labels stuck,
in my mind and occasionally in conversation with teammates, for months. To hold on to them, I ignored all sorts of signs that Dan was actually a fairly hard worker, and at times seemed genuinely concerned about his colleagues. I knew he was a loving husband and dad too.
So why do we label others with far-reaching negative attributes? And why do those labels stick, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary? Researchers call it fundamental attribution error. To me, it’s the equivalent of workplace road rage.
Workplace Road Rage
You know the rush of anger that floods you when a careless driver cuts you off in traffic. You also know the words you mutter under your breath – or maybe yell out loud – when it happens: idiot, bastard, jackass, jerk.
Recently I was rushing to a restaurant to meet a friend from out of state for brunch. I pulled into the crowded parking lot, saw the one open parking spot, and made a beeline for it – ignoring the car coming from the other direction who was perhaps a few feet closer to the spot than I was. A few minutes later my friend met me inside the restaurant and said, “I would have been here sooner, except some idiot in a Chevy took my parking spot.”
Oops. Guilty.
We have a tendency to view other people’s situational actions (stealing your parking spot) as a reflection of their overall character. This is called “fundamental attribution error.” Gretchen Rubin, in The Happiness Project, explains it this way:

When other people’s cell phones ring during a movie, it’s because they’re inconsiderate boors; if my cell phone rings during a movie, it’s because I need to be able to take a call from the babysitter.

This is especially true of your colleagues. I defined Dan as lazy, a chauvinist, and uncaring. But the truth was he was none of those things – at least not all the time. In fact, he may have had a very good reason for sitting on the sidelines while his colleagues worked: a bad back, a personal problem he needed to discuss in private, a big call he was waiting to take from our SVP, a business decision weighing on his mind.

When you’re tempted to define a colleague as “lazy”or “irresponsible” or “controlling” or “argumentative,” remember that one circumstance does not a character make. Giving in to workplace road rage creates a hostile work environment – and you are the person responsible for preventing this. 
Fighting the Rage
Dan, who was new to the organization, had a hard time gaining the support of his team. I sometimes wonder if I contributed to this, knowing I participated in conversations with colleagues – his peers and direct reports – where the characteristics we’d labeled him with were tossed about with certainty, as if they unequivocally defined his character. Eventually he had some wins that earned the approval of senior management, and we all gave him the slack he probably deserved from day one. And slowly we came to see him as something other than lazy and insensitive, labels that were inaccurately applied from the beginning. As a whole, our team was more emotionally supportive once we moved past the criticism.
Avoiding fundamental attribution error, the road rage of the workplace, is absolutely essential to creating a highly functioning team. Without it, we miss seeing the full range of people’s capacities, and see instead their circumstantial limitations. It hurts them, and it hurts us as well.
The moral of the story? Cut your colleagues a little slack; address problems directly and with respect; and identify the best of a person’s characteristics rather than gossiping about poor behavior in a single circumstance. The result will be a happier workplace and more productive colleagues.
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