Evolution in the Workplace

Over the last couple of weeks a lot of the bloggers I read seem to have written about issues related to people in their workplace. Maybe it’s because we’re all back from summer vacation and in the full swing of work again that there is a renewed focus on work frustrations.

Work relationships are funny. Because we’re grown-ups, (for the most part) and because we know that we’re going to have to work 8 hours a day with a certain group of people for maybe years and years and years, somewhere deep within our  sub/unconscious we decide that we are going to get along with these people.

I think it’s some sort of modern-day survival instinct that allows us to shut off our usual like/dislike radar when we’re at work. Because you can’t afford to let your personal feelings get too engaged in your work relationships. You can’t afford to feud with someone you are forced to sit next to day in and day out. And you really can’t afford to get too intimate with  someone you are forced to sit next to day in and day out either.

So, humans have evolved a peculiar compartment in their psyche especially for work relationships. All the usual stuff that attracts you to or repels you from people is muted and you adopt a generic work face. So now you can work together in relative harmony; laugh at stuff together none of you would laugh at outside of work;  bitch endlessly about stuff about which you couldn’t give a crap once you’re away from the office.

And it works. Yes, some people will always irritate you and there are people you enjoy working with more than others, but you have no real emotional life invested in any of these relationships. It’s nice so we can complain about our families and friends at work and gripe about people at work to our friends and families knowing the two will never meet – at least not in any sustained, bonding kind of way.

But we do get to know our work-mates pretty well within a certain context. We probably spend more waking time with them than we do with anyone else. We can often talk to workmates about stuff we can’t talk to anyone else about – stuff we don’t often get such a captive audience for. They get to hear all the minutae of our lives – how the commute was, what we had for breakfast, how the kids pissed us off that morning, the crazy thing the spouse did,  how your pantyhose is binding, why your head is aching more this afternoon than it was this morning, what should you make for supper?

We share meals with workmates, celebrate holidays and special occasions with them, drink with them (occasionally…rarely, really…ha), travel with them if work demands it, laugh with them, cry with them, etc., etc. – but for all that they really only occupy a very small, and often superficial place in our heads. Because if we get laid off  or retire or get promoted or move on to a new job or new town, we’re gone from their lives.

We take a lot of things into consideration when thinking about a new job, but the people we work with are usually far from the top of that list. We can’t afford to let them be any more important. Yes, we’re sad not to be working with them anymore and we keep in touch, furiously –  for the first few weeks. And then we move on. And 99% of the time, we never see or hear from them again. At least that’s been my experience.

I find the whole human work relationship adaptation thing strange, don’t you?


26 responses to “Evolution in the Workplace

  1. You know, you’ve touched on the one thing that was painful for me about getting laid off. I honestly believed that after working there for 18 years, some of my co-workers were my friends. Real friends. And it hurt me when I didn’t hear from them again. It may have been complicated by the fact that I got the cancer diagnosis right after I got laid off, which may have made them feel even more uncomfortable. But still. To this day (which is exactly six months later, btw), I still choke up when I think about it. (Although I must add, a couple of them did stay in touch the whole time, and a couple have gotten in touch for the first time just recently, as they’ve since been laid off too.)

  2. I do. Find it strange. I was so close to a colleague for so many years, and when I left, it was over. I’m the one who “broke up”; I just found myself uninterested. But then, after I left my next (and last) job, the same thing happened to me. I’m over it, but it was just…… odd.

    It’s all timing I guess, like most things in life.

  3. I think most of us distance ourselves from coworkers and office/corporate culture, as you describe.

    But there always seems to be a small minority of coworkers that really “drink the koolaid”, as it were, and don’t compartmentalize their work relationships into the work box.

    I suspect their coping mechanism is to create community where there (arguably) isn’t really one, and form emotional relationships where perhaps it’s best not too. Maybe it makes them think they’re less likely to get laid off? But I’ve seen these folks get laid off or fired, and they don’t take it very well.

    I prefer to leave work at work, and for me work includes all my coworkers. Though I might also mention I’ve never worked for the same company for more than 2 years, so I’ve never really had any reason or time to develop an attachment or feel a sense of community.

  4. 1000 years ago, the person on charge (King, Baron, War-Lord, Village Chief, whatever) would get to that position by earning it.

    They’d fight their way to the top. Typically, they’d be the strongest warrior and/or the smartest. They’d have to have a loyal following, as well.

    It was your best interest to do what they said, or you’d get your A$$ kicked.

    And if you didn’t agree, it was always your prerogative to challenge them and take over yourself (if you could pull it off).

    Fast forward to today. We’ve developped an artificial environment, where people are “leaders” who really shouldn’t be.

    Micro-managers and administrators, with toxic personalities, who aren’t that bright. And they tell more qualified people what to do. And we have to listen.

    Good thing they’re protected by the Office Environment, because in real life, there is NO WAY their staff would would put up with that kind of crap.

    Too bad we can’t challenge them like in the olden times.
    Mabye have a ring and face each other off, with battle-axes.

    (*Insert Star Trek dramatic fighting music here*)


  5. Really? I’m still in touch with people I worked with more than 10 years ago. Some are dear friends, even. And I know my parents have dear friends that they originally met through work too.

    Naturally, I’m not friends with everyone I have worked with in the past. (Some I wouldn’t even acknowledge in an elevator!) But anyone I’ve had a strong connection with or even just someone who was a strong mentor for me … I keep in touch and so do they.

    I don’t think this means that I’ve “drunk the cool-aid.” And zoom, that is really sh*tty what’s happened with you. I’m sure it’s not personal, but rather their own inability to deal with not-so-happy things like cancer and layoffs.

  6. I know I do it. I wouldn’t hang out with my colleagues on a Friday evening for example. They’re nice enough people, but I have very little in common with most of them. And honestly, I’m not particularly interested either.

    There are three ex-colleagues from this job, I keep in touch with. We have dinner together 2-3 times a year and have a blast. But still, we’re not best friends and outside those 2-3 times we hardly have any contact.

  7. Many of our close friends are people we met through work; I married one of my colleagues. I asked him to be my date to my going away party when I took a new job in Montreal. He spent the next year commuting to see me every weekend ;0)

    Think it was easier for us in our work as consultants. This dilutes the ‘working together for years and years’ aspect.

  8. “Because you can’t afford to let your personal feelings get too engaged in your work relationships. You can’t afford to feud with someone you are forced to sit next to day in and day out”

    Yeah admittedly I have trouble with this but I’d like to think I’m getting better at faking it.
    Its very hard NOT to feud though when you have one or two co-workers who try their darndest to piss you off and run squealing to your boss over the smallest things.

    Ah well, guess I’ll just have to kill them….with kindness! LOL

  9. Being back to work as a contractor — for the second time — from the place I retired from, I’ve found some new things about some of those workplace relationships that evolved over time.

    For example, one fella who was a real hard charger retired about a year after I did. While I got along with him rather well, I’ve found that some people absolutely hated him. Perhaps the reason that I got along with him was that we had some prior history. We had first met in the mid 70s halfway around the world, but that’s another story.

    When you say that you might end up working with people “for years and years and years,” matches my experience. I’ve known some of the people in the classes that I am teaching for many years. I worked with the father of one of the them when I first started working there in 1980. Another guy in the class is married to the ex-wife of a guy I worked with in 1980 and the sister of a fellow retiree. One of the guys in the class first went through the program in the first class I was responsible for 17 years ago. (He dropped his license several years ago and is working on getting it back.)

    It’s just a little Peyton Place.

  10. I’m going through this right now. And I find it kind of exhausting making new friends at the new place. I’m a loner, but it is still nice to have people to talk to when I need a diversion from work. I have to say working at the Portrait Gallery was the best for workplace commraderie. We all knew how to work really hard, but also knew how to have fun. It was the saddest day ever when the news broke that the Gallery was to be canned, once and for all – people were crying and hugging and the support for each other was so evident. We had become very involved in each others lives.
    My first day at the new job my manager took me out for coffee and warned me that alot of internal people applied for the job I am in now, were really put out that they didn’t get it, and that some people might go out of their way to make life unpleasant for me. What a great way to start (so far everyone has been very kind, but I’m not putting my lunch in communal fridge, yet).

  11. Yeah, I was 20.5 years at BMO before leaving to go to Alterna. Any “friendships” I had weren’t even considered when I made the decision to leave.

    I keep in touch with the occasional one via LinkedIn or Facebook, but as to ongoing meaningful contact – Nope, not happening.

    It’s been 10 months now, and the only thing I miss are the 5 weeks’ vacation I had.

  12. I’ve got to learn how to do that whole ‘compartmentalization’ thing … I let it get to me way more than I should, unfortunately. 😦

  13. XUP, while my post about artificial work-relationships may have been one of the ones that sparked your post, I am just continually baffled by the whole thing. Sure, the woman I spend all day with and have a great professional relationship with doesn’t share any personal interests with me, that’s no problem.

    I just learned today that a coworker whom confided in me first (before other coworkers) that she was pregnant, and inspired me to throw her an elaborate internal baby shower, invited other coworkers to a private shower at her home that I was excluded from. Why? I have no idea.

    It’s important to try to get along with everyone because we do share projects, and I’m envious of work-groups that befriend each other outside the office to see movies or have book-groups; but, I personally need to put up some larger mental dividers and exclude all my coworkers from my circles of friends. It’s toxic for me.

  14. It’s true -when I leave my job and move on it’s like a bereavement. I miss my old work colleagues so much, and almost pine for them. Then within six months really that’s it, we’ve all moved on.

    I would love to blog about work anonymously- it’s where all the laughs come from really- the arsehole boss, the work slut-bag, the mid life crisis middle manager. But that way redundancy lies. Best never to go there…shame though.

  15. Zoom – That IS sad. And you’d been there such a long time, too. I think it’s difficult for people when someone gets laid off. If they visited with you, could they talk about work they wonder? They feel guilty for having their job when you no longer have yours. And there is also sometimes the thing where you all feel very close while you’re working together, but the reality is that that closeness ONLY exists while you’re actually working together. That’s what I’ve always found at places I’ve worked. We’re all great pals while we’re in the same office, but once you move (even to the next floor) suddenly you never see anyone anymore and you’re never included in stuff anymore.

    Ellie – I think people form friendships at work to make the place more tolerable, but when they’re not working they don’t want to think about work or be reminded of work in any way.

    Dave – “Drink the KoolAid”. Good analogy. And you can develop some good work relationships in 2 years – as good as you can in 20 years…whatever that means.

    Friar – What about Aethelred the Unready and others like him, that inherited leadership because they happen to have been born to the current leader? There was a lot of that 1000 years ago, too. Obviously Aethelred was not considered much of a leader, judging by his moniker. Also, I think there is still a great deal of battle axe swinging and toppling of regimes going on in boardrooms all over the free world. I don’t think human beings have changed all that much through the ages. It seems like it sometimes, but we seem to have had the same motivations, fears and temperament forever.

    Julie – You’re lucky I think. I wasn’t suggesting that this never happens; I’m sure it happens all the time. People marry people from their workplace. I’ve met friends at work that stayed friends long after we left the workplace. I don’t think it’s the norm though. How can people be so close at work and it means nothing outside of work? That I find strange. Of course there are also some very good friends of mine that I would never in a million years want to work with. Hmmm

    Jazz – Ya, if someone from my work in Halifax comes to town we’ll get together for dinner or something, but that’s it. We don’t keep in touch in between — maybe a bit on FB.

    Grace – Oh ya, consultants. They’re a whole different breed. They are “of” us, but not one of us. That’s another dynamic as you say. Were you the one that proposed, too?

    Hannah – It IS tough. There are some damned weird people in the world and unfortunately you don’t usually get to choose whether or not you have to work with some of them, but you can choose whether or not you’re going to let yourself get sucked into their weirdness.

    Mike – Why don’t you people ever retire? ha ha. We throw you a big retirement party, give you gifts, say good-bye, clear out your office, find someone to replace you, train them, cry about how that damned Mike didn’t leave enough instructions for the next guy and then you keep coming back at more money. When I retire, I will never set foot in my workplace again. I can promise you that.

    Meanie – That was a really shitty thing for your manager to tell you. From my experience no one is going to blame you for winning that competition. They might blame management for putting it out to competition when they feel like they could have done the job as an appointed employee, but they can hardly blame you for getting the job. Unless they’re really stupid and petty in which case you don’t want to befriend them anyway. And how could anyone not like someone with a face like yours? You’re too damn cute to be unpleasant to.

    Ken – Ouch – you gave up 5 weeks of vacation? That would be a huge factor for me in deciding whether or not to take a job. Couldn’t you have negotiated extra vacation time? What do you get now?

    Quack – See my note to Hannah.

    Nylon – Yes, yours was one of the posts I read on that and similar topics. That’s weird about the baby shower. Were all the same people from the work shower at her home shower? Because I could see it would be kind of rude to invite them/you to another shower since you’d be expected to produce another gift?? Who knows. The point is, I’m sure it had very little impact on you aside from being a bit miffed. It’s not like your best friend or sister didn’t invite you to a party, right? That would be way more upsetting.

    MisssyM – If you like you could do a guest post on my blog and do all your work venting here. That would be fun!! I stay anonymous on my blog so that people I know that I might want to blog about don’t know about the blog. But seriously, let me know if you want to guest post. Send me an email: urbanpedestrian@gmail.com. The offer is open to anyone else who might like to write something they don’t want to post to their own blog.

  16. I think I’m at the point where all my radar is kicking into overdrive again and all these years of craziness are driving me batty. I am ready to trade this crew for a new batch of crazies! I’m tired of the boss who can’t handle stress at all yet has chosen to remain in this field for 20 years. I’m tired of the berating, the name calling and the stupidity.

    (Sigh. Sorry. Didn’t mean to hijack your blog! This is what I can’t write over on my own!!)

  17. I used to really want to have Mary Richards’ worklife. She made good friends with all her colleagues, even the silly ones like Ted and the ones she didn’t particularly like. Even Mr Grant became a boss/friend. But, in real life I could never quite manage that. And in the end any friends made from the office amounted to nothing. Now I work alone. I miss the office camaraderie, but not the sniping and the politics.

  18. I’m still in touch with at least one person from each of the places I have worked – not in a constant, come-round-to-my house sort of way, but certainly keeping up with them, having the occasional lunch etc. Mind you, I don’t have any real friends……….

  19. One more rant: I gave a coworker a baby gift (different coworker, 3-month-old baby) three weeks ago and it’s still sitting on the floor in his office. Is this a guy thing or is he just an ingrate? It infuriates me because I see it everyday and his or some other kid could be playing with it! Grrrr. Thank you, XUP!

  20. Mo – That wasn’t a hijack, just a comment. If they’re driving you that crazy, move on. You can almost never go wrong by changing up your work environment every 5 years or so.

    Violetsky – I never liked Mary’s clothes. And I was always curious why she only had friends that were either from work or that lived in her apartment building, but she managed to find dates with men all the time. Remember one show where she was calculating how many dates she’d been on and she said she averaged 2 dates per week? Where did all these guys come from? Where did she meet them? She worked 20 hours a day and then came home to hang out with Rhoda, Phyllis or the people from work. I think that same date episode was when she went on a date with Lou.

    Loth – It’s tough to have real friends as a grown-up isn’t it? Unless they’ve been your friends from young and you still see them all the time. I hate that about being a grown up — no more bestest friends.

    Nylon – Once you give a gift you have to let it go. Still, it IS pretty rude of the guy not to even pretend to be interested in your gift. I would go in and say HEY – when are you going to take that damn thing home?

  21. Interesting topic, and something that I struggle with in my current job where we are all supposed to be ‘family’ as well as co-workers. Um, if they knew how I feel about 90 percent of my real family, I doubt they’d be jumping on board that train.

    Which sort of brings me to my thought here. I think it’s a social evolution issue. Meaning, years ago, in many industries people mostly ‘worked’ with family members. Even parenting was done in a larger family network, as women stayed near home and often lived with relatives. Obviously, the industrial revolution has changed both family and work relationships…. still not sure we traded up.

  22. Yeah 5 weeks. I get 3 now, but my gross pay increased by 22%, and my net increased by 30%, so I’m okay with the loss of the two weeks.

  23. AT – Ewww…they want you to be “family” at work? That’s kind of an outmoded concept in business these days, isn’t it? I hope there’s no inappropriate touching from the hairy old uncle going on??

    Ken – Vacation time is very precious to me and I’m not actually sure that I would give up 2 weeks for extra pay. I AM interested to know how you manage to get a higher percentage of net pay than gross. Usually whenever I get a pay hike, the extra deductions eat up the entire raise and I end up with the same or less net pay than I had before.

  24. When I left my sales job a few years back, I didn’t look back. I worked there for fifteen years. I still have some very good friends from there, but they are the friends I did things with outside of work also, not the ones I made nice with working along side for years.

    p.s. I worked with Daily Piglet there. We didn’t work together but we ran into each other within the same company. We turned out to be friends now, years later. Funny how things work out.

  25. Dunno – that’s just how the numbers worked out. It could be related to the amount of benefit deductions. After 20 years, there would be life insurance, share-purchase plan, etc etc. I’m not even one year on the job here, so I’m not fully eligible for some of those yet.

    As for the vacation – I looked at it that 2 weeks is worth about 4% of my pay. When they offered that much of an increase, it seemed a good idea to take the job.

    The intangible part is that doesn’t show up in pay: stress levels. Yes, I have 40% less vacation, but my stress levels have been reduced by 50%, if not more.

    I also get personal days and actual sick leave, so if push comes to shove, I can call up another 10 days.