Why is that co-worker so … (obstinate, devious, boastful, greedy, aggressive, et cetera)? The question is usually posed at the water cooler and is rhetorical, meant to solicit an affirmation of your judgment (“I must be right in thinking that so and so is bad because my friends agree”). Gossip is not so much about telling secrets as it is about group reassurance. But why, really, is that person behaving in a way that seems dysfunctional for the larger team and/or the business?
Depression, anxiety and stress are obvious possibilities. A legitimate personality disorder is a more difficult burden. Ruling those out, what is up with the normal neurotic (i.e. everybody and anybody)?
All of us are striving to be relevant and effective while staying within our comfort zones. This struggle is played out with the highest stakes in the workplace, the milieu in which we are applying our highest, most valuable skills. At the job is where our self-esteem and our very identities are on the line. I suspect that the more advanced you are in a trade or a profession, the more this is true. The business and teamwork are nice but I’ve got to prove that I matter! Otherwise I don’t have a meaningful narrative for my existence, which everybody needs.
When you observe your co-worker being difficult, get out your compassion heart-lens and see the person in a desperate struggle to matter. Win your victories with humility and never induce shame in your rivals.