Storms in a coffee cup

Little things can mean a lot at work, as Kate Hilpern found when she opened the files on office politics, Nineties-style
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The Independent Culture
It was the coffee that did it. Simple tasks like making a pot of the stuff were beyond Natasha Cohen, a receptionist who was sacked three weeks into her new job.

Natasha, who lost her case of sexual discrimination at an industrial tribunal last week, was accused by her employer, Chancery Estates, of not putting enough coffee or water in the pot. Alternatively, they said, she brewed it so weak that the bottom of the cup could be seen.

"I was the main coffee drinker in the office, and by the third week she still couldn't make a cup of coffee, and I had to do it myself," lamented one employee.

Welcome to the office politics of the Nineties.

Petty irritations have long been a source of warfare in the office environment. But, say psychologists, modern pressures at work mean they are more likely than ever to affect staff relations and to prevent company objectives being reached.

"Job insecurity is at a peak and the only people it's safe to take out one's frustrations on are colleagues and subordinates," explains Dr Marilyn Davidson, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at the School of Management at Umist, Manchester.

"These people who might have been your friends are now in direct competition with you. And because these feelings are deeply personal, the arguments also tend to be." Natasha Cohen was certainly quick to claim that her colleagues had taken a dislike to her.

So while office politics used to focus on organisational matters, you are now more likely to bicker over whose turn it is to buy the sticky buns. It is like a marriage. Your partner's failings in putting the lid on the toothpaste are rarely the real reason you are angry with them.

"Even where there is job security, the typical pyramid of work status is flattening out as a result of downsizing," adds Dr Davidson. "So people are doing the work of one-and-a-half people, which often means making the tea for the first time in years."

In terms of job status, tea and coffee making is the lowest of the low - a rationale that Natasha Cohen's ex-superiors clearly adhered to if their attitude to making their own cuppa is anything to go by. Lower than photocopying, lower than sorting the mail, it is the last vestige of an old system of top dogs and little women. Let's fact it, without their little women, Cohen's ex-colleagues might find it a little more difficult to consider themselves as top dogs.

According to Jenny Harris, who works in a major bank in the City of London, the preparation of beverages is exceptionally symbolic, and the cause of many a dispute. "People are trying desperately to juggle their desire to appear as too important to be a maid with their willingness to do that bit extra to help out. So you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."

Then, of course, there is the gender issue. Sorting out tea and biscuits has got that bitterly domestic tang to it, and not surprisingly women get more than a little upset when it is assumed to be their vocation.

"Having researched gender issues in management, I'm convinced that there remains a very strong wish to keep women in a certain role," stresses Neil Crawford, psychotherapist and consultant to various organisations. "I certainly haven't found that the days of food preparation in the workplace being `a woman's job' have completely disappeared."

In fact, say some experts, provided that it is not an expectation related to their sex, women are generally more prepared than men to help out in the less glamorous chores because they tend to be less concerned about climbing the ladder than with delivering results.

According to Dr Davidson, "Women tend to adopt a much more team-orientated style at work and so they feel especially let down when people don't pull their weight within that team."

Apart from issues relating to the stomach, the biggest cause of aggravation in the office focuses on space - especially since open plan set-ups have become the norm.

"If we use her computer, we are literally terrified of moving her notepad even half an inch," says Judy Whitney of one of her colleagues at a London brokers.

"To borrow her Sellotape dispenser would simply be out of the question, in case you forgot to return it. I'm sure she must memorise the position of everything on her desk."

Struggling for an established identity in a field of seeming anonymity, employees mark out their territory in a variety of ways. Some surround themselves with enough plants to fill the jungles of South America (especially, for some reason, people in advertising), while others customise their workspace with photographic mosaics of their offspring in varying stages of infancy. This, it seems, offends colleagues more than ever. It was even the subject of an entire opinion column in a recent issue of Ms London.

Christopher Early, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, says: "People react to uncertainty at work in one of two ways. There are those who become super-professional in an attempt to secure their position, and they tend to leave all matters personal when they leave home in the morning. Then, there are those who surround themselves with as many familiar things as possible as a reassurance in stressful times. When the two come together, the potential for clashing is enormous."

Today's office designs mean people are forced to sit closer than ever. Partitions are getting smaller, and, in many cases, so are offices.

"Not only is that offensive because people are invading your space, but if there's something about your neighbour that is irritating you have no choice but to put up with them day after day, month after month," says Neil Crawford.

"To make matters worse, this all takes place in an environment where you're not supposed to speak out over trivial matters."

It's enough to drive a person round the twist. So it becomes possible to see how something as unimportant as a colleague eating cornflakes loudly at his desk every day can cause a clenching of the fists.

In her recent book Confronting Company Politics (MacMillan), Beverly Stone, corporate psychologist for Nicholson and McBride, approaches office politics as a matter of individual power and control. She suggests that it is only when personality types and power structures within the organisation are analysed that companies and their employees will get rid of office friction.

But these power differentials all too often remain unspoken. Subtleties such as the whereabouts of people's desks can say a great deal about power and status, and consequently act as salt in the wound when your colleague is moved to a window position in the corner. Additionally, your status can be revealed by who you sit next to - just as it was in school. And when you are situated next to the office nerd, it doesn't do much for your image. Small wonder there are grinding teeth behind partitions throughout offices nationwide.