Understanding How People Interact at Work

People in any workplace are affected by social dynamics.

The productivity of any enterprise is greatly affected by the level of energy that is invested by people who work on a project. Generally, these people will fall into one of two groups:

  • Those who devote a lot of energy to the project (usually 20-40% of those involved)
  • Those who devote minimal energy (usually 60 – 80% of those involved)

There are two types of energy:

      • “Synergy” is positive energy –the type of energy that is going to support the work
      • “Antagonism” is negative energy –the type of energy that is detracting from the work

Any one person involved in a project may have both types of energy –both synergy and antagonism. 

  • If a person has more synergy than antagonism, they have initiative and will always try to achieve a positive outcome, even without being asked.
  • If the person has more antagonism than synergy, they may not be totally negative, but they may try to negotiate, exhibit no significant commitment or personal views on the project.


By understanding these dynamics, it is possible to forecast the reactions that different types of people will have to different stimuli; for example: 

1. People with extra Strong/Domineering Synergy but some Antagonism

These people ensure the project will progress further than those with no antagonism. Having a little antagonism, causes them to question what is happening, look for a better way and suggest improvements.

How to Manage these People

Do not include them in delicate discussions; but recognise and use them for their strengths and level of commitment. There is a danger of them undermining positive relationships between other workers because of an intolerance of anyone exhibiting antagonism; and this can create problems. They should not be abandoned by management; but they should not be protected either; and any problems that emerge should be watched.

2. People with Strong Synergy and no Antagonism

These people tend to support the project without question, working hard, but probably not seeing a better way when it is right in front of them.

How to Manage these People 

Give them well defined, solid responsibilities. They need orders, objectives and deadlines. Try to get these people working alongside others anyone who have less synergy. They can be a positive influence on those people. Don’t get them involved in meetings. These people are so focused on getting the job done that they can view meetings as an unnecessary distraction.

3. People with equal amounts of Synergy and Antagonism

These people are reasonably involved; supporting the project depending upon the circumstances. They are not indifferent. They are fairly involved, but their involvement is conditional.

How to Manage these People

Get them involved in meetings. Empower them to participate in making decisions. Listen and communicate with these people.  Involve them, foster a sense of “ownership” in the project, negotiate with them; but do it away from others. You might say things like “Privately I agree with you,  but……”


4. People with both minimal Synergy and minimal Antagonism

Most people who work on a project tend to fall into this group. These people are not impartial about everything, but they are impartial about the project. For them, the project is a job, and no more, no less. This is very important group, because they can very easily align with positive workers; or just as easily align with negative workers. Because of their numbers and the ease with which they can shift the sociodynamic; they can be very influential upon success or failure of a project.

How to Manage these People

They are not responsive to a participate form of management; but they will be influenced by fellow workers. They see the boss as a leader, so they expect to be told what to do, and not be involved in the decision making. Do not force participation (this is a common mistake).

These people will gravitate to the stronger people around them These workers are better if surrounded by people with stronger synergy than antagonism (type 1 –above).


5. People with Antagonism that is a little stronger than Synergy (Call them Opponents)

These people are sensitive to pressure from management.

How to Manage these People

These people gain power by exploiting tensions in others and building a network of supporters. They can see openness by management as a weakness. The only way of controlling them is to destroy their alliances. Without allies they are less disruptive and may in time become useful.


6. People with strong Antagonism and weak Synergy (Call them Mutineers)

These people would rather see failure than success

How to Manage these People

They can’t be convinced. These people need to be defeated.


Behavioural Changes

Over time, the sociodynamics within a group can change; and the behaviour of individuals working on a project can change. A project manager may influence such changes, in either a negative or positive way,

It is useful to consider the following six types of behavioural change that may manifest:

  1. Magpie Syndrome –A person sees only their opponents, failing to recognize that they also have allies.
  2. Avoidance Syndrome –A person tries to avoid anyone who does not totally agree with them.
  3. Stereotype Syndrome –A person jumps to conclusions about anyone they do not know, basing their assessment of those people on sterotypical preconceptions or prejudice
  4. Frenetic Syndrome –A person changes from being self confident, to become increasingly less self assured. They can become a less effective worker, and more prone to panic.
  5. Paralytic Syndrome –A person who reacts badly to a series of setbacks, to the point of suffering “shock” and losing the ability to think clearly
  6. Fall Guy Syndrome –Managers or Supervisors can become desperate when things go wrong, and begin to deflect responsibility elsewhere (They blame others).


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