One of the most frightening aspects of working life is that we will, unless we are the beneficiaries of extreme good fortune, be required to have colleagues. The colleague is a creature who, endured over any length of time, in situations of high stress and procedural complexity, presents one of the greatest threats to calm, composure and soundness of mind. It was so much easier when we were kids. We could lie on the bedroom floor and, in a few minutes of play, build a plane, run a restaurant, or invade a country on our own. The problem with colleagues starts with the facts that they can’t guess what we want. Everything needs to be explained to them, often very slowly and repeatedly. If this were not bad enough, many colleague are at risk of disagreeing with us about many things. They turn out to have a host of contrary opinions, their own quirks, pet peeves and obsessive interests and, yet worse, they are very sensitive. If lone behold we have to manage with them, unless we speak them in the right way, they’ll become offended, develop grudges, start to cry, or report one to a superior. In the good old days, you could just shout. When most work was physical, management could be abrupt, emotional distress didn’t hold things up. One could still operate the brick making machine at maximum speed, even if one hated the manager, or clean out the stables thoroughly even if one felt the foreman hadn’t enquired deeply enough into the nature of one’s weekend. But nowadays, most jobs require a high degree of psychological well-being in order to be performed adequately. A wounding comment can destroy a person’s productivity for a whole day. Without ample respect, recognition and encouragement, huge sums of money will get wasted in silently resentful moods. If one has any concern for the bottom line, it seems one has little alternative but to try to be a bit nice. Work relationships are no less tricky than romantic ones, but at least in the latter, we have a basic sense of security that enables one to speak one’s mind and make the necessary cathartic moves, to call them fuckwits and compress a range of ideas in the occasional expletive loaded outburst. The office environment misses out on the cleansing frankness seemingly possible only when two people know they will have the option of having sex together after the bust-up. At the heart of our office agonies is the complaint that we seldom like our colleagues as people. In a better world, we would be unlikely ever to want to spend any time at all with such disturbing, and often unlikely, figures. We shouldn’t be surprised by our daily discomfort, given that these people were never picked out on the basis of psychological compatibility. We were formed into a unit because they had a range of technical and commercial competences necessary for a task, not because they were fun lunch companions or were graced with a pleasing manner. We are like the unfortunate bride in a power-marriage in the middle ages. A princess would be obliged to marry a certain prince because he owned an important led mine or the archers in his country were especially proficient. It would have been nice if the two liked each other a bit as well, but the stakes were generally far too high for this to be a relevant factor. The success of the realm depended on such matters as access to raw materials and military strength, not on whether the partner had a maddening giggle or a daunting overbite. To work well around colleagues requires not talent per se, but success at a range of dark psychological arts best summoned up by the word ‘politics’. But political skill has woefully little in common with the reasons we were trained and hired to do our jobs in the first place. We may, as part of a good business education, have spent years studying the way to navigate a balance sheet, analyse competitors, negotiate contracts, and administer a logistics chain. But life at work requires quite different skills: the capacity to quietly accept glory for things that were not truly our doing; to distance ourselves from errors in which we were heavily implicated; to subtly foreground the failings of otherwise quite able colleagues; to turn cold at key moments towards emotionally vulnerable superiors; to flatter while not appearing to do so; to mould our views to suit the currently ascendant attitudes. Our inevitable difficulties are aggravated by notions that offices are at heart really giant families, that colleagues can be friends, that honesty is rewarded and that talent will win out. Kindly sentimentality is in the end, just a disguised version of cruelty. It might be a lot simpler if, in dark moments, we could simply admit to what we know in our hearts: that it would obviously be a great deal better if we could be shot of the whole business of colleagues and could instead spend our days, as we used to do so well, on our own.