“You burned my bagel!”: How to get rid of resentment in the workplace

How many grudges do you have at work? The workplace grudge can spring with equal force from small and large hurts. These may range – allow me to try to imagine – from the seemingly accidental negligence of the person who changed the toaster setting in the canteen so that your breakfast bagel burned, to the larger disappointment of being overlooked for a job. In my – former – workplaces, I visualised grudges as small red flags fluttering above the heads of certain colleagues. This can’t be healthy. So why are grudges so powerful, and what is the best way to manage them?

“As soon as you point the finger at someone who has wronged you, there are always three fingers pointing back at you,” says Steven Sylvester, a psychologist and the author of Detox Your Ego. According to Sylvester, all grudges predate themselves because they spring from a grudge-ready mindset.

A grudge is really “a person manifesting their frustration by pointing it at someone else. It’s a defensive tactic to explain away something we fear,” he says. “If you have serial grudges, that [shows] a strong desire not to take full responsibility for what is happening in your life.”

As a former professional cricketer who had to compete for selection, Sylvester has first-hand experience of grudges. He was also unfairly overlooked for a job once – although this was a validated grudge because one member of the interview panel thought Sylvester had been wronged, and phoned him later to apologise. The key, he says, is “to hold the mirror” to your grudge. “What does it really say about you?”

Sylvester’s job is “massaging out the pain of the grudge” in workplaces. “That’s what I do every day.” For those who can’t get themselves to a grudge spa (or to talking therapy), Sylvester advises asking three questions. First, what emotions are being evoked by the person you hold a grudge against? Second, what does that say about you? “We inherently want to avoid the truth about ourselves,” he says. This is the time to accept that you could have stepped in to readjust the toaster setting if you were less passive in social situations, or told you could have prepared more effectively for the job interview. The third step is “self-correction”, such as: “I’m going to cheerfully guard the toaster each morning until my bagel is cooked,” or: “I’m going to look at a number of opportunities in the company to upskill myself.”

When a grudge takes hold – whether it begins as a feeling of acute pain or modest resentment – that is the time to catch yourself in the act, says Phil Renshaw, the co-author of Coaching on the Go. “Most people are not out to be mean and nasty. Make yourself take the other person’s perspective.”

Renshaw thinks that role-playing the begrudged person, or writing out their supposed thoughts, is more helpful than merely thinking about them. Our heads are not always the best places to do this. “There’s too much jumping around. It’s more exacting to write down the thoughts or say them aloud. They become more real when you hear yourself.” Mind you, Renshaw says he has never had a work grudge, being “one of those annoyingly glass-half-full guys”.

A grudge can be dissipated by following Renshaw’s or Sylvester’s advice – or it can be transmuted, as in the case of the crime-fiction writer Sophie Hannah, who has written a nonfiction book called How to Hold a Grudge. A grudge, she says, is simply “an instructive story that we choose to learn from, not a lasting feeling of resentment. This enables us to honour our most significant emotional and psychological experiences and commit to our highest values.”

In any case, isn’t there a pleasure to be had from a well-nourished grudge? Sylvester describes lighter grudges as something “to be picked up and put down like a newspaper”, almost like a leisure activity. The author Joanna Cannon wrote on Twitter that she feeds and waters her grudges “as if they were small exotic plants”. And William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree is perhaps the seminal work of grudge literature. Surely it’s OK to reserve a small, manageable dose of dislike for someone? Emma Donaldson-Feilder, an occupational psychologist, doesn’t think so. “Actually, I think that’s really unhealthy for most people. I would define a grudge as holding on to something beyond the point that it’s useful … It’s a stone in your shoe,” she says.

If you have used the original hurt to motivate you, but the hurt still remains, “it may be helpful to let go” says Donaldson-Feilder. This feels vaguely disappointing. It doesn’t seem so very wrong to keep the motivation and the grudge. “Mmm,” she murmurs sympathetically. “But having negative feelings towards someone is always going to be a bit destabilising. It comes down to compassion, and being kind to ourselves and valuing ourselves.”