Jerks at Work: A Better Approach

Before you blame and shame, try to name the cause of jerky behavior.

Jerks at work: A sad but stubborn fact of office life. Office jerks cause all sorts of havoc, from minor annoyances to full-blown office showdowns. These experiences slowly deplete our energy, drain our emotional well-being, and make it downright unpleasant to show up for our jobs.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Tessa West, a social psychologist at NYU, joined me on I Wish They Knew to provide some insights and instructions on how to handle office jerks — without losing our standing or sanity. (You can listen to our full conversation below.)

When dealing with jerks, people tend to fall into two camps: direct confrontation or passive acceptance. We either take a forceful stand or simply stand down. But relationship science may offer a more nuanced and optimal path: detached deliberation.

Detached deliberation is the process of analyzing another person’s intentions and assessing the larger context in which it occurs. Before we blame and shame others, we need to name the behavior and its origins. Every big problem begins as a small problem, and it’s worth considering how an organization’s culture, values and norms may be contributing to the way people act towards others.

Not all jerks are made equal. In our podcast, West identified several “profiles” of office jerks and provided guidance on how to deal effectively with each one. Here are her tips for handling some of the classic offenders:

1. The Kiss-Up/Kick-Downer

Kiss-up/kick-downers get to the top by any means necessary, which may mean sabotaging you. Bosses love them because they’re top performers.

Jerks may do this:
  • Belittling you in front of higher-ups: They start out small, often with comments questioning your expertise: “Do you really know how to land that client? You only have two months’ of experience.”
  • Reserving nasty behavior for one-on-one time: Expect little acts of sabotage, inappropriate favor asking and misdirection.
  • Offering favors to overwhelmed bosses: If your boss needs a job done off-hours or someone to serve on that dreaded committee, the kiss-up/kick-downer will step up.
What you should do:
  • Find allies who can give you a reality check: The best allies are well-connected at many levels of the organization, and can give you an accurate picture of how widespread your “jerk-at-work” problem is.
  • Approach your boss wisely: Because kiss-up/kick-downers know how to charm the people in charge, there’s a good chance your boss is on their side. Collect detailed data on your experiences. Make your report about their behaviors, not about your feelings.
  • If you’re the boss, create rules that give everyone an equal shot: These rules will reduce the likelihood that people will kiss up and kick down to get ahead.

2. The Credit Stealer

Credit stealers are notoriously two-faced. They may seem like your friends, but will betray your trust if your idea is good enough to steal.

Jerks may do this:
  • Waiting for moments of ambiguity to take credit: Group meetings, company lunches, informal feedback sessions are prime times for stealing credit when informality is high and accountability is low.
  • Pretending to be someone you can trust: They can be mentees, allies and so-called friends. New bosses who feel threatened by your success are also likely candidates.
  • Not always being intentional: Credit stealers can also be regular folks who have biases that make them overestimate their role in decision-making. What feels toxic to us feels justified to them.
What you should do:
  • Become someone your boss goes to for advice: In meetings, focus more on contributing solutions than on identifying problems.
  • Make sure the right people are heard: This is just as important in combating credit stealing as it is weeding out individual credit stealers.
  • Decide what each person will do before starting a project: Credit is determined by the discrepancy between two questions: What did you agree to do, and what did you actually do? When people know these questions are coming, they’re less likely to steal credit.

3. The Bulldozer

Bulldozers are seasoned, well-connected employees who aren’t afraid to flex their muscles to get what they want.

Jerks may do this:
  • Asserting power early: They might take over during the first five minutes of a meeting when everyone is introducing themselves, or when the team is trying to come up with a plan.
  • Finding teams that can’t function without their expertise: A bulldozer is the only person who can work that new software everyone hates. They also know all the passwords.
  • Bullying vulnerable bosses into submission: Bosses who are overworked, out of touch and hate conflict make ideal targets.
What you should do:
  • Don’t wait for everyone to establish their voices before you: When you do speak, get to the point quickly.
  • Inform your boss about the bulldozer: Use the “loss frame” approach: Express concern for those who aren’t getting a chance to speak up. Whose perspective are you missing out on by letting one person dominate the conversation?
  • Help other people get their voices heard: Some bulldozers are truly clueless about how much time they take up, and can often be persuaded to use their skills to encourage contributions. Focus on ways you can help amplify those other voices.

We spend too much time at work to be chronically unhappy or uneasy about our workplace relationships. By practicing detached deliberation, we can get to the core of what’s driving jerky behavior — and find better alternatives to the approaches we’re using now.

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