The Impact of Pettiness on Workplace Culture and How to Coach Employees to Rise Above It

By Brittanie Young posted 05-10-2024 09:59 AM


An employee walks into your office to report that Jennifer’s behavior is giving them “bad vibes” but doesn’t offer any additional context. A senior executive is upset that you didn’t immediately respond to the email they sent at 11:59 p.m. and accuses you of being unresponsive or questions how much you are really working.

Pettiness is an attitude that derives from a perceived need to be right and to show excessive concern about matters that add no value. Pettiness is also a divider that creates unnecessary walls and rifts in the workplace. As flawed human beings, we have all been guilty of attitudes and behaviors that cause us to view others and their circumstances through lenses of our own design. 

Petty attitudes and behaviors in the workplace divide teams, create distrust, and hinder growth. They also have a significant impact on employee retention and can be very harmful and unfair to those on the receiving end.

As HR professionals, how many times have you found yourself feeling frustrated over how much time you have spent trying to weed through “he said, she said” scenarios in the workplace? Does workplace pettiness make coming to work feel like an episode of “HR: 90210”?

While the behaviors may seem small and trivial for now, if left unresolved, workplace pettiness can become like a parasite to your company culture, and it won’t be long before work performance is impacted. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

HR professionals are in a unique position to empower employees to rise above attitudes and behaviors that are counterproductive to their success in the workplace. Here are three principles that you can use to help employees rise above workplace pettiness and build healthy relationships.

Discipline Your Attitude Through Self-Reflection

The temptation to demonstrate a petty attitude or behavior toward someone at work usually comes after the unhealthy side of our pride has taken a hit. After our pride has been hurt, we often want the person we perceive to be responsible to suffer the consequences. It’s tempting to want to deliver the consequences ourselves through petty behaviors and attitudes since they can be easily disguised but hard to prove. Those behaviors can show up in the workplace through intentional avoidance of a colleague, subtle attempts to humiliate someone publicly, eye-rolling, gossip, and sarcasm. 

The key to overcoming these attitudes and behaviors is by learning to discipline our attitudes through self-reflection. Petty behavior is harmful and can lead to bitterness and unresolved anger if allowed to linger. How can you help employees and even managers recognize their tendencies toward pettiness, rein in their unhealthy pride, and move forward? Here are some questions that you can talk through together.

  • What is it about this person’s actions or words that have hurt in such a way that it has resulted in behavior that’s contradictory to your character and values?

  •  What value does this behavior really add to your success?

  •  What is the real goal here, and do you think your behavior is hurting or helping?

Are these easy questions? No, they are certainly not, but self-reflection often involves asking ourselves difficult questions. When employees can successfully discipline their attitudes through self-reflection, the need for pettiness decreases. Employees need to feel psychological safety where they are free to express their frustrations in healthy ways while still feeling empowered enough to help create solutions that stick for the better.   

Resist the Temptation to Assign Your Own Narrative

Our brains love to tell us stories about other people and why they do the things they do. Challenging circumstances in the workplace and the challenging people that come with them make it easy to be a low-key judge and executioner. 

“I’m not saying Peggy did anything wrong. I’m just saying that’s not the way I would have designed that PowerPoint presentation.”

“I consider myself a perfectionist and an overachiever, but I wish I could say the same for David. I know it’s not required, but he never does any work on weekends! What a slacker!”

Do any of those comments sound familiar?

Petty attitudes and behaviors usually derive from the stories we have written about others and the circumstances around us that don’t always tell the whole story. A petty perspective of others in the workplace can come in the form of subtle judgements and comments about their appearances, lifestyle choices, workstyles, etc.

Resentment of colleagues and leaders in the workplace makes it tempting to create a narrative about who they are as people that can contradict the truth. Petty attitudes and behaviors come from a distorted view of people and circumstances that were shaped by lenses of our own design.

When pettiness enters the workplace, it’s important to coach employees on how to shift their perspective and focus on the bigger picture. To rise above the need to write someone else’s story in the face of conflict, remind them to refocus on what is true about those they work with and the circumstances that may be driving the behavior.

Be transparent about the realities of their struggles, but also help them to see that while their feelings may be valid, it may not be the whole story. It may also be beneficial to help them remember what they enjoy about working with their team while recognizing their own achievements and offering support. Most importantly, remind them that we are only human and empower them to have the courage to drop the pen when they are tempted to write their own narrative.

Foster a Culture of Confident Relationship Building

We are conditioned to figuratively wear masks at work because we want others to see the best parts of us, which sometimes comes at the expense of honesty and transparency. We don’t want the people we work with or the people in the C-suite to know what we’re really afraid of. People often exhibit petty behaviors and attitudes to mask their true emotions, faults, and struggles. Our fears and insecurities sometimes lead us to create broken solutions even when we don’t realize it.

When a culture of pettiness creeps into the workplace, it may be a sign that psychological safety is lacking in your organization and employees are lacking the confidence to build healthy relationships. By helping employees to discipline their attitudes, resist the temptation to write their own narrative, and by fostering a culture of confident relationship building, you can nip workplace pettiness in the bud. We may not always feel like it at times, but as HR professionals we still have the influence to change the narrative of the workplace culture.

My hope is that you keep these principles in mind the next time you feel that a culture of pettiness may be creeping into your workplace and be confident in knowing that you can rise above it. Members can learn more about managing workplace culture by reading this Employers Council guide or by contacting us at

Brittanie Young is a human resources consultant for Employers Council.