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How to survive the office shark

There’s a dark side to ambition that lurks beneath the waters of most workplaces. What are the best ways for working with and managing co-workers who will do anything to get ahead?

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The 30th edition of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel just called it a wrap, but it’s not that easy to be rid of sharks in the workplace.

For many professionals, stepping into the office every morning feels like a swim in shark-infested waters. They’re circling all around — co-workers gossiping, competing for the same things you are: a paycheck, promotion, or the next big project. Not to mention workplace bullies, who can make work like seem like a scene from Jaws.

And there are sharks at every level in the workplace: According to a survey by staffing firm Accountemps, 48% of employees say civility declines as professionals climb the corporate ladder.

So, how can you avoid being shark bait in today’s workplace?

Jim Jeffers, metro market manager of staffing firm Robert Half and Accountemps in Madison, says co-worker conflicts in the workplace typically arise when colleagues participate in gossiping, bullying, belittling, backstabbing, sabotaging, or glory hogging.

“Some professionals, especially those in competitive fields, may feel pressure to stand out from their co-workers to move ahead,” explains Jeffers, “and making others look bad may be one tactic they use to promote themselves. They may exaggerate accomplishments, blame others for their shortcomings, interrupt others, take credit for other people's work, and lash out when anyone questions them.”

Behavior that brings on workplace conflicts and decreased office morale can disrupt productivity, alienate workers, and have an unfavorable impact on employee retention, Jeffers notes.

In another survey conducted by Accountemps, CFOs said they spend six hours a week, on average, managing conflict between staff members. The more time managers spend dealing with conflict between colleagues, the less time they have for getting work done and making progress on projects.

Managers can minimize staff conflicts by showing empathy and acting quickly. “Not everyone is going to see eye-to-eye, and leaders should try to understand the situation from each person’s perspective,” advises Jeffers. “Just being there to listen can help settle the dispute. Try to promptly handle the disagreement so issues don’t fester and disrupt others.”

If needed, Jeffers continues, bring in a third party. Ask a human resources representative to mediate, as they can offer an outside perspective and suggest a productive resolution.

“It’s best not to hold a grudge once all parties have come to an agreement,” adds Jeffers. “Learn from the experience, discuss how to avoid potential issues in the future, and put the matter to rest.”

Jeffers offers five tips for managing bad workplace behavior:

  • Calm the gossipmongers. The key to curbing office rumors is direct, honest, and frequent communication. Instill trust in your team by sharing what news you can — good and bad — in a timely fashion. Doing so will help quell concerns and insecurities. Also give workers tips for navigating office politics, such as walking away from corrosive conversations.
  • Keep an eye on the bullies. First, consider whether you’re giving too much power to the bully. If so, curb it immediately. Next, hold confidential meetings with all victims and witnesses. Gather written documentation of the bullying behavior should you decide to take the problem to a higher level or to human resources. Give a verbal warning in private to the bully and let him or her know you’re watching and expecting behavioral changes in the workplace.
  • Speak to the slackers. As with other behaviors, if an employee is chronically making errors, you’ll want to take the time to meet with that person. You might find that the root causes explain the behavior, which can lead to workable solutions.
  • Confront the glory-hoggers. Some people pull double duty: They take the credit from others and hoard the limelight during team projects. The best management advice to conquer this behavior is to hold a private meeting with the individual stealing the spotlight to discuss the difference between “collaboration” and “idea theft.” Sometimes self-absorbed employees just need a direct and honest intervention followed by self-assessment.
  • Manage the campaigners. People who participate in such political undercurrents in your workplace should be shown that the way to success at your organization is through building positive relationships. As a manager, reward colleagues who treat each other with respect and don’t throw each other under the bus.

Six survival strategies for swimming with sharks at work

  1. Know your office shark. From credit-takers and gossip-lovers to backstabbers and saboteurs, office sharks can range in their level of treachery. Know the best way to handle them. If you’ve been paired with a credit-taker, for example, document each person’s contributions to the project so it’s clear who did what.
  2. Move gracefully. In the workplace, this means always remaining professional. A workplace bully might try to goad you into reacting to a snide comment, for instance. Don’t take the bait.
  3. Be vigilant. Don’t be paranoid but keep your eyes and ears open. If you spot an office shark, track its movements and keep well clear. Change the topic when office gossip swims your way.
  4. Swim in a group. Build solid, healthy work relationships with your non-predatory co-workers so you always have a support system and friendly colleagues who can toss you a lifejacket if needed.
  5. Recognize aggressive behavior. You can sense when a spotlight-stealer is ready to attack, for example, when he or she starts dominating the conversation during a team meeting. If you’re running the meeting, step in and make sure others have a chance to offer their opinions, too.
  6. Avoid provoking sharks. Don’t poke them or back them into a corner. Don’t adopt their tactics. Always take the high road and the long view. An office shark looks out for himself or herself — a valued employee looks out for the company.

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