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How To Be A Great Coworker

Your job is important. Who you do your job with – your coworkers – is just as important. In every job, your coworkers are looking for a few general things from you.[1] Today, I’m going to outline what the research demonstrates (and what I think), can make you a great coworker.

Don't Suck Up to the Boss

No one likes a suck-up. Other suck-ups don’t even like suck-ups. It’s like they don’t value the competition or something; it’s strange but true. I once worked at a great place for six years. The boss was a wonderful woman. Then she left and a new guy took over. He wasn’t so great. Among his many shortcomings was the fact that he was extremely susceptible to flattery. He loved it. Like pumping up a bicycle tire, I’d watch him get inflated every time it happened. I could literally watch it happen in real-time. But he especially loved it because he worked with a majority of women. The women, being emotionally intelligent as women generally are, exploited this weakness very quickly in an effort to win favor with the boss. It was only a handful that participated, but boy did they give it their all. A sort of disgusting suck-up Olympics ensued:

You look nice today! (He looked the same as every other day.)

Have you been working out? It looks like it.

OMG! Your kids are sooo cute!

That’s such a good idea! You’re so smart!

Did you get a new truck!? It’s so nice! Can you show it to me? (They had no previous interest in cars whatsoever.)

It was gross. Within a year of this guy starting, the sucking up got so in-your-face obvious that many of us anti-suck-ups were asking each other, “Are the suck-ups actively trying to see how outlandish their sucking up gets before he tells them to tone it down!?”

Only he never did. It got worse.

And so, a type of parallel society emerged. Several of us anti-suck-ups began making fun of the suck-ups behind their backs – mimicking them in a crazy, over-the-top type of way. I was a ringleader. Many times, I made some of my coworkers laugh so hard they cried. By month six several of us were professionals at roasting our suck-up coworkers and having a ridiculously entertaining and viciously good time while doing it. The suck-ups were playing their sleazy, say-anything-to-make-the-boss-like-them game, but we were secretly playing our own corrupt game at their expense.

What neither side saw – I certainly didn’t see it at the time – was the toll that willingly corrupting our work environment was taking on both sides. A cold, unspoken divide emerged between the two groups. When I resigned two years after he took over, the divide was massive and still in its ascendancy. Everything was political. Several people quit or transferred. Trust between the two groups of coworkers had evaporated. Morale plummeted. Confronting a coworker on the other side about a needed improvement in their job performance was twisted into anything that they thought would help them get ahead with the boss. Real-world consequences were felt by both sides. Every day was like navigating a minefield. And that’s the lesson:

Sucking up to the boss can bring a terrible world into being that should never exist at all.

Develop Thick Enough Skin to Take Some Joking with Grace

Thin-skinned people are intolerable. In most jobs, coworkers are always looking for some humor. Your job is tough, or exhausting, or demanding, or any number of other things so any bit of relief is welcomed. In his book, 12 Rules for Life,[2] Jordan Peterson details a story about a coworker while working on a railway crew. A rough overview of the story is as follows:

One summer, Jordan, along with several others, were hired to work on a rail crew. Working that job was hard work and the people who worked it were tough characters. It was a desirable high-paying job and the application process was competitive. The veteran workers always assigned a ridiculous nickname to the newbies. One of the new hires brought a shiny new lunchbox that looked like his mom packed it. The other workers immediately zeroed in on this and began calling him “Lunch Bucket.”

This greatly irritated Lunch Bucket. He didn’t take the ribbing well and in turn the ribbing intensified and evolved. Everyone on the job wore hardhats, so the game became who can anonymously hit Lunch Bucket in the hardhat with a pebble. This annoyed Lunch Bucket more. The pebbles got bigger and more frequent, and a week later Lunch Bucket was gone. His coworkers had run him off.

Some people might think, “It’s so sad that Lunch Bucket was treated unfairly.” That way of thinking is shortsighted. Let me explain why. It’s a bad idea to try and make reality bend it’s knee to you by eliminating all the suffering in your world that you can. Suffering is an inescapable reality. It’s an inevitable part of life. That is, if you are alive, at some point in your life you will also suffer. Therefore, it’s a better idea to prepare yourself for the suffering that will inevitably befall you, rather than try and avoid it at all costs.[3] And by successfully navigating mild irritations you’ll have a higher probability of successfully navigating serious suffering. Subconsciously your coworkers know all this. So, get yourself up to speed and realize:

It’s a test.

Your coworkers are testing you. The test is straightforward: can you take it? Can you handle someone poking fun at you? Can you handle this small amount of suffering? If you can, your coworkers will most likely deduce that you can handle other, more seriously irritating situations and they’ll want you to stick around because every job has their irritating and challenging times. If you have thin skin and can’t handle the joking, they won’t want you around. They’ll exclude you. The fun they’ll poke at you will intensify. Subconsciously they’ll think to themselves, “If they can’t handle this small amount of ribbing what else can’t they handle?”

Instead, handle the joking with some humility and grace. If you can, you can develop a tremendous amount of comradery and deep friendship with your coworkers because you’ve proven that you can take it, that you’re dependable in irritating situations. And you want to be known as a dependable person.

Possess Enough Competence that Your Coworkers Won't Have to do Your Job

First, let’s define competence. Competence is the ability to do something well. To think of competence correctly, you have to understand that it’s not black and white; it’s not like you have it or you don’t. Instead, think of competence like a ladder: there are some people who are immensely competent (high on the ladder), others who are immensely incompetent (low on the ladder), and many in between.

There are three attributes that make up competence: intelligence, conscientiousness, and stress tolerance. No one possesses these three attributes equally; one will always be less than the other two. For example, one person might be very intelligent and have lots of stress tolerance, but they just don’t get people very well. Another person might be intelligent and conscientious, but just can’t seem to handle much stress. You get the picture. How does this apply to you? It means that your competence will only grow as much as your weakest attribute will allow. In other words, you’ll top-out at your weakest link.

From time to time, everyone needs help, and if you’re mature you won’t mind covering for your coworkers once in a while. I worked in an elementary school for eight years. I watched teachers help each other all the time. But sometimes a coworker went too far:

“Could you print these worksheets off for me?” (For the 87th time)

“I’m going to be late this morning. Would you watch my class?” (For the 87th time)

“Would you cover my recess duty?” (For the 87th time)

“How are you teaching this section of math?” (For the 87th time)

You’d have to be blind not to notice the pattern, and the solution to the problem is as direct as the problem:

Up your game and stop asking your coworkers to do your job for you. Do you need to put in more hours? Then do it. Do you need to learn more about a specific area of your job? Get on it. Stop being a problem generator and start being a solution creator. If you don’t, you’ll wear your coworkers slick and they’ll get tired of you. You having a tough job (dare I say, you choosing a tough job) isn’t an excuse to do your job poorly. All meaningful jobs are difficult to some degree. Decide you’re going to grow in your job-related competence and determine to be the person that your coworkers can depend on.

That’s it. There’s really not a lot of other giant concepts that you need to be aware of in order to win at work with your coworkers. Bosses are another story entirely…

[1] The three subpoints of this newsletter have been adapted from the following excellent podcast: [2] Peterson, J.B., 2018. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Random House Publishing, Canada. [3] Ironically, avoidance is more costly that trudging through the suffering.



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