Do you have a coworker who you're pretty sure is gunning for your position? As annoying as it may be to constantly be looking over your shoulder at work, that coworker may actually be doing you a favor in the long run: According to a study published in Group Decision and Negotiation, distrusting your coworkers may improve work performance. Who knew the natural paranoia fostered by America's absurdly competitive work culture could come in so handy?
"Trust your teammates" is a common refrain in pretty much every group-based activity, and for good reason — for the most part, humans are pretty social creatures. The vast majority of research focuses on the positive aspects of trust and the negative aspects of distrust, but recently, researchers wanted to test whether mistrust is really as negative a phenomenon as we like to think. To do so, they asked volunteers in a study to perform tasks that applied previously-learned material to either familiar or new situations. However, some participants were given a note informing them that their "teams" contained someone who was specifically out to slow everyone down and lead the group to the wrong answer, aka every Type A college student's worst nightmare.
Obviously, this was meant to create distrust — and that's exactly what happened. Who wouldn't feel weird about their coworkers if they were given a shady note informing them of a mole in their midst? Rather than distracting them from their tasks, however, the mistrust evoked by the note appeared to actually improve performance in the participants who were doing "non-routine," aka unfamiliar, projects. The group that was shown the note ended up performing better than than those in the non-distrust group.
According to the Harvard Business Review, researchers theorize that this may be because a lack of trust creates an "increased awareness and need to question, which is manifested through a reduced willingness to rely on the responses of others." In other words, not trusting your coworkers to pick up the slack makes you more careful and more likely to go back and check your work. In fact, this isn't the first time research has shown that sometimes it's better to foster a little competition between coworkers. Just earlier this year, a study found that frenemies might actually increase motivation and productivity at work, despite what The Office would have you think.
Of course, researchers don't quite recommend turning your workplace into the Hunger Games. Stress at work is becoming an increasingly alarming problem in the United States, and it can have serious long-term consequences, from an increased risk for diabetes to a variety of mental health problems. An ever-growing body of research shows that no matter how we try to downplay its effects, long-term stress simply isn't good for the human body.
Besides, there are numerous other ways to increase your productivity at work that don't involve being miserable: Getting organized, learning to prioritize, and even listening to music have all been shown to help you get things done. In fact, previous research has also indicated that having work friends actually helps you out in the long run — which just goes to show why you shouldn't put too much importance on any specific study.
If you're determined to try out the "trust no one" thing, though, the authors of the Group Decision and Negotiation study have a suggestion that hopefully won't ruin any long-term work relationships. Next time a big project is coming up, try pairing up with someone new, which may "foster some distrust" without making you seem like a total Dwight Schrute. Unless that's your goal, in which case you may carry on.
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