Petty People in the workplace

petty people at work

Petty People at work

Petty People like to divide and conquer – to play the ‘enemies and allies’ game.

In their eyes, you’re either with them or against them.  Side with them and life is fine. Disagree with them and they'll aim to make life miserable for you.  With Petty People you’re either with them or against them, in their eyes, that is.

So, obviously they are best avoided?

Well, yes.  Most of the time you can simply stay out of their way, especially in your social circles, in your neighbourhood, or even in your extended family.

"Enemies and Allies"

But there is one area where this is not possible - where there's no easy escape route.

Where you can be trapped.

And that is your place of work. This is where you can spend around 1 in 5 of your waking hours! And where you have to attend whether or not you like the other people there.

Most of go to work to do a job and to get along with our colleagues. Many of us even enjoy our jobs.

But Petty People play a different game - especially in the workplace.  They're not interested in being nice to, and getting along with, work colleagues.

They like power and intrigue. They like to play 'enemies and allies' or divide and rule.

Rather like the playground bully at school, if you're not in their gang and agreeing with them you're the enemy. So they tend to:

  • Be nasty, spiteful and gossipy
  • Rule others through subtle fear
  • Cause dissent and undermine morale in organisations

And they can make the workplace a miserable place to be for whoever is their current victim

What to do about Petty People at work

Usually when there are communication difficulties, we first aim to improve our own communication. And then we negotiate with the other person.  And this often works for reasonable people, but rarely for Petty People.

Why? Because they seek power rather than affiliation. They get their kicks out of their "divide and rule" games.

So the next option is to raise the matter with whoever s in charge of the workplace - the manager or team leader.  But sometimes the manager is weak and unprepared to stand up to the pettiness. Sometimes they do not have the requisite skills. And sometimes the manager is the Petty Person!

So what options are left?

Well, you can approach the HR people - if the organisation has one. Or speak to a senior manager or the owner.

And if this doesn't work look for a better job...

(Yes, you can follow the legal route. And in the case of serious victimisation or harassment this is often appropriate. The downside is that it takes a long time - and you are losing years of peace of mind in the meantime).

Find a better place to work

Life is too short to put up with this sort of unpleasantness for such a significant portion of your week – each week – month after month - for up to 1 in 5 of your waking hours.

Do your job-hunting strategically; don't simply walk out.

Happily, once you have made the decision to look out for an organisation that will better appreciate you, it's easier to ignore or tolerate the pettiness: because you know you're not going to go on forever.

And, in the meantime, don't reward the petty people by responding to them. Don't descend to their gamesmanship.

Treat them as unhappy people - to be pitied... (See this Newsletter article called Pity Petty People for some of the different types of Petty People and their impact - and for tips on handling them.)


(Original version published 8 September 2011 - this version 29 December 2018)


  1. Ruthie Culver on 8th September 2011 at 11:06 PM

    I suffered this kind of workplace bulling for two years. I didn’t fit the office stereotype so was an easy target. I tried harder, then went to the CEO for help – he told me to try harder. I realise now he was getting what he wanted, as I was delivering great results (which of course attracted more negative attention.) Needless to say, he was not a good manager. Of course it wouldn’t have been so painful if I’d had some NLP under my belt, or a coach/mentor to explore some options, but the bottom line is that the office was toxic and I should have left the job much earlier.

    Thanks Reg – it all helps remind me how much I love my life now!

    • Reg on 9th September 2011 at 8:49 AM

      Hi Ruthie: interesting ‘de-coding’ of the tactic of your ex-boss. I wonder how much more you could have achieved for him – and in a better frame of mind – if he had played a more supportive and encouraging role?

  2. Russell Ward on 9th September 2011 at 8:44 AM

    I am not very comfortable with the “keep your distance” approach. This is OK in the social sphere, I can chose who I associate with, but not an option in the world of work or with neighbours, or members of clubs and societies. Here the avoidance approach would mean changing jobs, moving house, no participating in an activity I enjoy and I find this too high a price to pay to avoid petty people.

    I know that I will not get along with everyone I meet and I don’t expect to (different values, expectations, life experiences, etc…). However, I do find it important to create a basis of understanding which allows me to work with people who’s values and attitudes are different to mine. I hoped to find some ideas on how to do this in the article. Perhaps a theme for another blog article? What do you do when the petty person is your boss, your neighbour ar the secretary of your sports club?

    • Reg on 9th September 2011 at 8:59 AM

      Good points, Russell. I could have distinguished between keeping distance physically and the more important skill of doing so emotionally, but the newsletter was already running into too many words.

      In the workplace the latter is our only choice. Elsewhere it’s often the best choice, short of hiding in shop doorways when we spot our current Petty Person approaching!

      And you’re right about aiming to create a basis of understanding at work – however difficult this may be with some people. I’d differentiate between “difficult people” and Petty People. Difficult people are just that — people that we currently find difficult and with whom we can usually find common ground or a basis of functioning together. Petty People, and I think petty may be an understatement, do not want to find common understanding. They seek acquiescence or enmity.

      Hmmm. Like you say – maybe another article or two… 🙂

  3. Karen Joergensen on 12th September 2011 at 4:22 PM

    Thank you Reg – I really REALLY like your article on this subject.
    My background: educated as a NLP psychotherapist, work as a social worker in a kindergarten with children aged 3 – 6. Been in the same institution for more than 2 years and have, despite my NLP background, tried to figure out especially 1 of my colleagues. And now I know!!! She is Petty Person! Thank you for the enlightenment. It really is hard to get around, and I regularly think of quitting – like Ruthie above.
    But I also think – isn’t there a little petty people in all of us? When is my little inner petty people approaching, asking for something needed? And can I avoid PP to get big by listening to her needs (positive intention) and taking her serious?

    Thank you and wishing you a good day – Karen.

    • Reg on 12th September 2011 at 5:17 PM

      Hi Karen: the article was triggered by two conversations and one of the people had a situation very similar to yours. Like you, she has decided to hang on in there rather than give in to the pettiness

      One key to dealing with such situations is, of course and as you mentioned, to look at what the pettiness is doing for them — to look at its function in their life. And it is usually coming out of pain and/or unhappiness. In much the same way as, at times, your young 3-6 year old charges when in pain or unhappy will lash out at anyone at all. That’s why the idea is to “pity them” as in feel sorry for them.

      Perhaps we also need to recognise that it’s frequently not just a matter of ‘lashing out’ – many of them get a real kick from recognising the effects on others of their pettiness. So I think another key is to not reward and encourage them by letting them recognise that they are on ‘getting to us’.

  4. Karen Joergensen on 14th September 2011 at 8:16 PM

    Thnx Reg – I’ll hold your last comment in mind – and respond to my feelings/emotions so that I’ll be able to act not rewarding (=ignoring??) and not encouraging (positive expressed as?) 🙂

    And last, but not least, I want (more) NLP in my workplace!!