AITA at work?

Tina Nguyen

Tina Nguyen LinkedIn

5 min read · Mar 7, 2024

Suppressing our emotions causes us to become inadvertent a-holes at work because they leak and leads us to act in ways that create toxic workplaces.

How does it happen that someone becomes an a-hole at work? It’s hard to believe that anyone would begin their day gleefully planning how they might destroy someone else’s. Yet a-holes certainly exist — we’ve all worked with them at some point.

You know who they are.

What made them that way in your eyes? Did they take credit for your work? Have no regard for your time by scheduling or canceling meetings at the last minute, expecting you to drop everything? Did they throw you under the bus or engage in blaming when things didn’t go well? Spread lies about you behind your back? The a-holes that I’ve worked with wielded their power like a cudgel and expected me to fall in line.

Whatever their transgression was, I bet you remember how they made you feel. I felt dismissed and disrespected. Whatever enthusiasm or motivation I had was sledgehammered until I dreaded work. A short 10-minute drive to the office became a slog toward Mt. Doom. Easy things became hard. Hard things made me weigh how much my sanity was worth. Sleep became a casualty. My sense of well-being nosedived, making it difficult to enjoy much of anything, even outside of work.

Despite their harmful behavior, a-holes are tolerated or, worse, celebrated or promoted. No one calls them out. Sometimes, they’re our bosses or someone higher up in the management chain — they only behave like a-holes to peers or those lower on the totem pole — which makes accountability for their behavior even more unlikely. They create unsafe environments where we are on guard, forcing us to adopt a CYA (cover-your-ass) attitude. Work is miserable because of the toxic environment that they create. We intuitively recognize toxic culture when we dread coming to work. Our mental health erodes the longer that we are there. Toxic behaviors, as defined in “Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture,” are disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and/or abusive. Yet how can work be toxic if it’s not something any of us want to create?

Most of us aspire to be rational, logical, and data-driven (especially in tech). We tend to seek numbers and hard evidence and disregard intangible things like feelings. We control our emotions — often by denying that we have them — and are proud that we can hide them.

Can we though?

Whether or not we admit to them, we have feelings. Those seemingly controlled emotions leak despite our best efforts. Others are often aware of our emotional state, even if we are stone-faced. They may not be able to pinpoint the reasons for our feelings but will sense it. Think about the last time you realized something was “off” with a colleague despite their not having said anything specific. Our repressed emotions run amok and cause us to act in ways antithetical to creating the safe spaces we desire. They can cause us to become unwitting a-holes. While it is easy to recognize and eschew unethical and abusive behaviors such as screaming at a colleague or intentionally harming others, more insidious are disrespectful or noninclusive behaviors that erode trust.

Some examples of behaviors that have unintentionally negative impacts:

  • A founder requires the entire in-person team to do their work in complete silence for 3 continuous hours every day. No chat messages, checking email, or otherwise talking, regardless of whether or not the conversations are about work — makes one wonder if this is work or kindergarten.
  • A CEO expects engineers to be in the office (before remote work was prevalent) by 9a sharp — because productivity only happens between 9-5.
  • The head of design cancels usability testing sessions that a designer has scheduled without discussing it with them.
  • A manager delegates work to a team member, only to then question their every move and repeatedly course-correct despite professing trust and the importance of ownership.
  • Copying a colleague's manager on an email when asking that colleague to complete a task.
  • Engineers take the initiative to make a product or design decision without communicating their intent.
  • A team member disagrees with the product or company direction but doesn't say anything during team discussions, only to later express frustration to selected colleagues.
  • A team member vents about colleagues behind their backs instead of addressing disagreements directly with them.
  • A product manager lobbies to fire a colleague who is not pulling their weight instead of giving them feedback about their performance.
  • A leader creates an unhealthy team bond by engaging in an us versus them mentality, resulting in cliques and private group chats.
  • Trash-talking clients, competitors, peers, etc., to pump up the troops.
  • Believing what a colleague tells you about what another colleague thinks, says, or feels without checking with the source.

The list goes on as we can all add our experiences to this. These behaviors likely seemed reasonable to the people who committed them. On the receiving end, we call them a-hole behavior.

A blue Lego figure with a distressed expression.

What impact does suppressing our feelings have?

The leader who required silence may have meant well and might have been trying to help improve team productivity by creating an environment conducive to concentration. They may have had any number of feelings that led to acting the way they did, but those were not communicated. By jumping to implement a solution without speaking to those who would be impacted, they tried to solve a non-existent problem, creating confusion, stress, and resentment. Their actual feelings and intentions remain unknown, but the impact of those unspoken feelings was felt. Sometimes their impact is so painful that we are unable to even wonder about intent and instead brand those who have hurt us as a-holes — I have.

In more instances than I’d like to admit, whenever I’ve tried to repress my frustration or anger about a perceived a-hole, I’ve acted in ways that likely prolonged the conflict, sometimes exacerbated it. In the face of perceived authoritarian behavior, I’ve reacted with passive aggressiveness or open defiance. I felt wronged and excused my ensuing behavior as that of an unjustly injured party, even though that behavior likely caused injury to others. Situations like these create a chicken-and-egg cycle. Sometimes, the transgression might be minor, but when left unaddressed, small things compound. The only possible outcome then is for one of us to quit when our misery becomes intolerable.

So AITA at work?

Labeling ourselves or others can provide temporary relief, but reduces everyone to caricatures. Vindication is short-lived and we are eventually left with lingering resentment. It might be comforting to rest in self-righteous indignation, but in doing so, we risk not exercising our curiosity and avoiding attempts to connect. Resolving conflict is hard and consuming, but ultimately rewarding work that builds trust.

One of my most transformative experiences was experiencing Stanford’s Interpersonal Dynamics while in school. It gave me the knowledge needed to address interpersonal conflict. Still, it took me years to effectively apply the lessons learned at work. Execution is hard in environments that may not feel safe but can be done with selective risk-taking and practice. Learning to speak frankly about my feelings and attempting to understand the underlying problem has opened me to different perspectives, helping me to engage in collaborative problem-solving. In doing so, I have moved from barely surviving at work to thriving and finding joy in what I do.

By not acknowledging and addressing our feelings, we act in ways that might be unfathomable to others and trigger similar behavior from them. Learning how to hold constructive conversations, even when it feels unsafe or impossible because of power differences, will help us to achieve outcomes that may have seemed out of reach. Aside from not being miserable, our success as leaders (we all are, regardless of title) depends on recognizing our feelings and appropriately expressing them (Bradford & Robin, 2021). Learning how to effectively communicate and resolve interpersonal conflicts improves our mental health, builds stronger work relationships, and helps us to grow personally and professionally.

Learn more about how you can improve team communication.

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