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Not Everyone Plays Well with Others

You and your coworkers must learn how to accommodate each other to work effectively as a team

Dear Nan,
What do you do when someone withholds information, doesn't lift a finger to help, remains mum when there's trouble afoot, looks the other way, and generally subscribes to a selfish it's-not-my-job philosophy? My grandma would have called these sins of omission, in contrast to sins of commission. Is this where our country is heading now? These jerks I work with may not be doing anything illegal, but I think it's unethical to hurt the productivity of the office this way. Any advice?
- Bummed in Boston

It sounds like the teamwork in your office isn’t happening. Or, perhaps the team has just put you on the bench. Fundamentally, office ethics is about how people treat each other. Treat anyone on the staff team in a disrespectful, shabby, or indifferent manner and you naturally see a breakdown in the team’s productivity. The passivity and indifference you are experiencing from your coworkers is as destructive as openly hostile opposition. You’re wise enough to know that when team members work at cross purposes, the team cannot win. “All that is essential for the triumph of evil is that good persons do nothing,” a wise man said.

Somehow, you have to rekindle the spirit of teamwork among your coworkers. Only then will they view you as someone they want to help and support. Try the following tactics. If you can’t turn the situation around, you’ll have to face the fact that the bad guys won this battle, and find another team with whom you can play. But don’t give up without making a good faith effort to make this situation work. Even heartbreaking situations can turn around dramatically.

Tactic No. 1: Talk to your boss.

It’s in your boss’ best interest to have a productive staff. She’s the coach, and it’s her role to bring the team together. Your boss might need a little help with this, so state your concerns simply and clearly, and then make some suggestions. Don’t complain that you’re being “picked on” or that “no one will play with you.” This is petty and beside the point. You’re concerned about the apparent lack of teamwork and you have observed first-hand a loss of productivity. Be ready to provide examples of withheld information, the not-my-job approach to work, etc., but avoid naming names. Unless you want your boss to mediate a one-on-one gripe session with a particular coworker, keep your observations general and job-related.

Suggest to your boss the following simple steps to unify a work team:
  • Restate the company’s primary goals and objectives relating to customer service, sales, etc.
    Suggest she say, “This is why we are all here and any attitude or behavior that gets in the way of accomplishing these goals is inappropriate and unacceptable.”
  • Encourage participation.
    Your manager needs to emphasize that “we all are in this together.” Every single employee must be made to feel he or she is an integral part of the organization and that his performance and input are invaluable to the company’s progress. Invite your coworkers to participate in discussions of how problems can be solved and progress can be made. Invite input and suggestions. It is entirely possible that those employees with shoddy behavior think their input is not important and, as a result, they have a “why bother” attitude.
  • Have some fun together.
    Plan a company event—a golf/picnic outing, a pizza lunch, etc. We all need a sense of camaraderie to perform well. Remember also not to take yourself too seriously. The ability to laugh at ourselves or find humor in a situation is invaluable. For example, a high school principal, hospitalized due to stress, received a humorous note from his staff stating: “We wish you a speedy recovery. The vote was 21-19!” From then on, he started to look at life with a different perspective.
  • Provide feedback that relates to the group’s goals and objectives.
    How revolutionary is it to let everyone on the team know what the score is? “There is one attorney in my law firm who enjoys the highest respect of all assistants in the department. This is solely because, whenever a case is completed, she calls the staff together and explains how the case has ended. In other words, we all hear the results of our efforts,” says a legal assistant in Rohnert Park, California. “She also always ends those sessions with the words, ‘Congratulations on another top job.’”
  • Provide teamwork training.
    “In the last several years, my company has invested a good deal of money and time in teamwork and facilitator training for our employees, with excellent results,” says Debra B. Perry CPS, executive coordinator at Apollo Chemical Corp. in Burlington, North Carolina. “Once the training was completed, management made it very clear that all employees were expected to work together as a team and that those not willing to do so could expect to seek employment elsewhere.”

Tactic No. 2: Set a good example.

Your attitude is a powerful force. “Continue to do an outstanding job for yourself for the company and this will reflect on everyone,” says Ernestine (Ernie) Dixon of Lubricants R&D in Ponca City, Oklahoma. “Your professional manner and willingness to get the job done will point out the ones not playing on the team.”

It’s a common misbelief that “no one besides yourself sees what is going on.” Many people see what is going on; they just aren’t verbalizing it. Even if you think you’re alone, you aren’t. You aren’t the only one who observes unethical behavior.

More employees lose their jobs today because of their lack of a professional attitude than lack of skills or abilities. Many employers say they often retain unskilled employees on the job (and let skilled employees go) because the unskilled ones have that wonderful “I want to learn” attitude. “Attitude is 90 percent of any job/career, and every day we have the right to choose our own,” says Sandra Thorpe from IAAP’s Napa Chapter in California.

One person’s poor attitude can affect the entire office. The opposite also is true. Your positive attitude can have a powerful effect on those around you. Very often, they will respond in like manner. “Ambition gets you the job, ability gets you the raise, but attitude gets you the promotion,” says IAAP Past International President Bertha Stronach CPS.

Tactic No. 3: Meet your coworkers halfway.

It’s not clear from your letter just how many people in your office are committing these offenses against you. Is everyone you work with working against you? Is it possible you could be a victim of self-inflicted injuries? Most people are basically decent and well meaning, but they tend to treat people the way they have been treated. Is it possible your coworkers are merely reflecting back to you the image you project to them?

Make the first move toward a more constructive relationship. Make a genuine effort to be helpful, and see if the person you’ve helped responds in kind. If not, try again. If that doesn’t work, try yet again. If you still sense a lack of cooperation, you’ll have to find a way to talk about it directly.

Your personal communication style is the single-most important factor that determines the kind of relationships you have with others. Are you blunt and tactless? Helpful? Do you volunteer information that may help a colleague? Do you tend to criticize? Are you known as a person who says nasty things about people behind their backs? Are you evasive or defensive?

Think about the power you carry in each conversation. The tone of your voice and the amount of eye contact you make communicates whether you care enough to listen carefully and take the other person seriously. The amount of personal information you share is directly proportional to the amount of trust others are willing to invest in you. Willingness to take on commitments to help others, and follow through on those commitments, speaks volumes about your integrity and trustworthiness. In short, you usually get back what you give.

That’s not to say a group of coworkers is always on the right side of the relationship. Every office has a unique culture, and it’s going to run the gamut from high productivity to slothfulness. If your work style conflicts with the office culture, expect to be treated like an outsider and unfairly banished to eating lunch by yourself. If this is a problem because you don’t like it or need the cooperation of your coworkers (Who doesn’t?), you have to talk about it.

One word about withholding information. Are you sure you need all the information you think is being withheld from you? Relax a bit and keep your perspective. As Gertrude Stein says: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

At the end of the day, you and your coworkers need to realize you must accommodate each other. If you can’t come to this realization on your own, you need your boss’ help. Accommodation is what is needed. Rigid coworkers often make life miserable for everyone, including themselves. No one is so obnoxious as someone who believes they are absolutely, always right. As Virginia Tower says in The Process of Intuition: “Cooperation is the intelligent function of the concept of laisssez faire—a thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there."

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars