When dealing with a toxic coworker, one of the first lines of defense is to limit your contact and communication as much as possible, Stanford management professor and office bullies expert Robert Sutton says. One of the most effective ways to do that is to put a little physical distance between you, as Sutton explains in his book The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.
At the heart of this strategy is the “Allen curve,” named for MIT researcher Thomas J. Allen’s observation that the closer people sit, the more they communicate, both in person and through other media. Allen found that people are four times more likely (paywall) to communicate with a colleague who sits six feet away than with one who sits 60 feet away. Coworkers who sit 150 feet or more away from each other communicate as often as colleagues in separate cities.
Allen did his research in the 1970s, but more recent studies have found that the curve holds even in the era of email and instant-messaging services like Slack.
Proximity to a difficult colleague puts you in increasing contact with his or her irritating behaviors. One veteran of the Steve Jobs era at Apple told Sutton that he purposely chose the chair farthest from the late CEO whenever his team met with him, because “the closer you were to Jobs, the more likely that something bad would happen to you.”
But there’s another downside to rubbing elbows with jerks: the increased likelihood that you ape their behaviors, consciously or not. Humans transmit emotions “like a common cold,” Sutton said, and bullying behavior is one of the most contagious types.
“With assholism”—Sutton’s preferred term for office bullying—”there’s another issue that I think adds to the contagion,” Sutton tells Quartz At Work. “If you feel threatened, you’ll feel anxious, and to defend yourself you feel like you have to throw [it] back.”
In one study of workplace seating, employees who sat next to toxic colleagues were themselves 150% more likely to be terminated for poor conduct, data scientist Michael Housman told Fast Company in 2016.
So if you’re stuck next to a jerk and you don’t want to change jobs, at least see if you can change desks.