The Snowball Effect: When Small Workplace Offenses Grow Out of Control

by Jennifer Miller on February 7, 2011

in Communication, Personal Effectiveness

In my blog post, Avoid Snappy Comebacks with Snarky Comments, I advised workplace professionals to resist the urge to lob snarky retorts in response to a co-worker who’d just dished up the same. Human Resources executive Jay Kuhns remarked, “Small comments can turn into big problems so quickly. Great advice, Jennifer. ” Jay’s comment brought to mind this image: The Interpersonal Snowball Effect. One snide comment leads to another slightly ruder comment, which leads in turn to another verbal barb and so on.

While it’s unlikely you’ll see an Interpersonal Snowball the size of Pee Wee-versus-Francis in the workplace (“I know you are, but what am I?”), I’d be willing to say that there are many people who’ve had this sort of exchange in their minds.   That’s the thing about The Interpersonal Snowball Effect. People in a professional environment know that it would be unacceptable to engage in an all-out back-and-forth verbal sparring match. But that doesn’t mean the issue has gone away; it’s just gone underground.

When a co-worker takes the high road and chooses not to respond to a verbal barb, resentment or anger might still grow larger and larger, like a snowball rolling down hill. And that’s where the potential for interpersonal conflict looms. Once that snowball has grown to a size so large that even a highly professional person can’t tolerate it—look out!

What types of comments or situations at work cause you to create the “private snowball”? 

What have you done to help prevent the snowball from forming in the first place?

photo credit: © S. Barkovskiy

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