Smith Brain Trust / November 8, 2022

What “The Mole” and Your Job Have in Common

A Smith Researcher Weighs in on How Workplace Dynamics Can Mirror the TV Show

What “The Mole” and Your Job Have in Common

You may remember the reality game show that aired on ABC from 2001 to 2008 called “The Mole”. Anderson Cooper was the show’s first host. Of course, we now know him as the host of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°, correspondent on CBS’ 60 Minutes, and lest we forget, son of fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt.

Netflix rebooted “The Mole'' this year and HuffPost, in How To Beat Someone Who's Undermining You At Work, According To Science And 'The Mole', asked the mole from the show, and workplace paranoia experts how to tell if a co-worker is trying to sabotage you. One of those experts is University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business associate professor Trevor Foulk.

On the show, the contestants want to win challenges to up the grand prize money while figuring out which one of them is the “mole.” The show's producers hire the mole to sabotage the other players while wreaking havoc. HuffPost says the pleasure of watching “The Mole” is knowing upfront there’s a saboteur among the competitors, and that they’re right to be sneaky and suspicious. The writer of the article goes on to say at work, we don’t have that certainty, and that can make us especially paranoid when it comes to office politics. Foulk is quoted as saying “if someone is paranoid, they might interpret a simple benign interaction as an insult. For example, if someone walks by in the hall and doesn’t say ‘hi’, under normal circumstances you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re just busy today.’ But when paranoid, you’re like ‘Oh, they’re mad at me, why didn’t they say ‘hi?’ Oh, I hope they’re not talking about me behind my back.”

According to HuffPost, feeling like you’re dealing with mole-ish behavior in the office or questioning a colleague’s intentions is a universal experience. Foulk tells the news outlet that employees from all backgrounds can experience paranoia, from managers who worry their employees are only being nice to them to get a promotion to lower-level workers fearing career-ending threats.

Foulk co-wrote research entitled Just because you're powerless doesn't mean they aren't out to get you: Low power, paranoia, and aggression. It fleshes out how having little power on the job can breed paranoia which can lead to aggression. Study co-author Michael Schaerer was also interviewed by HuffPost. His and Foulk’s research finds supportive organizational environments can lessen powerless employees’ paranoia. In that vein, Foulk tells HuffPo “since paranoia is a state of vigilance to potential threats, when we feel supported we are a little less worried about those threats.”

Foulk’s research is in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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