Anyone who has ever worked for a manager who is terrible knows the pain and difficulty it can cause. And when we are on the same team or staff with a colleague whose behavior is negative, demeaning or disruptive, it can make our work lives miserable and prevent us from succeeding. Study upon study has shown that when people leave an organization, it’s more often than not about their manager, not the work or role itself.
In a recent SHRM study, for instance, the findings supported the age-old workplace adage that employees leave managers, not companies, as 84% of U.S. workers say that poorly trained managers create a great deal of unnecessary work and stress. One phrase I’ve personally heard countless times over the past 16 years in my work as a career and leadership coach is this: ”My boss is a complete jerk.”
To learn more about the key types of jerks at work and how to deal with them successfully (and not get fired doing it), I caught up with Tessa West.
Tessa West is a Professor of Psychology at New York University, and leading expert on interpersonal interaction and communication. West has published over 60 articles in the field of psychology’s most prestigious journals, and has received multiple grants, including from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She is the recipient of the Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and writes regularly about her research in The Wall Street Journal.
She is also the author of the book, Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, which explores the seven key types of “jerks” or difficult and conflict-creating individuals in the workplace and offers a definitive guide for dealing with (and ultimately breaking free from) the overbearing bosses, irritating coworkers, and all-around difficult people who can make your work-life miserable.
Here’s what West shares:
Kathy Caprino: Tessa, can you share a bit about why you decided to write a book about jerks at work?
Tessa West: I’ve been studying the ways we handle conflict in our relationships for two decades. Five years ago, I noticed a trend: People were quitting jobs because they didn’t like the people they worked with, but the same problems cropped up at their new jobs. Most people don’t learn how to have healthy conflict conversations at work. They either try and fail to address issues or do nothing and stew in anger. I thought a guide would be a good starting point to help people.
Caprino: In your book, you explore the 7 types of jerks. What are they are what are their key hallmarks?
West: Here are the 7 types of jerks I’ve identified that are most common:
Kiss-up/kick-downer: They climb to the top by any means necessary, which includes sabotaging the people who work at the same level as them and below. They question your expertise in front of a client or insinuate to the boss that you could use more “hands-on training.” But they are top performers who can read the room, so the boss loves them.
Credit stealer: Teammates, friends, and bosses who gain your trust, and then steal your good ideas or take credit for your hard work. Some cover their tracks by complimenting their victims publicly. The credit-stealing occurs behind the scenes.
Bulldozer: In meetings, these folks talk over people and control the agenda, but the sneakier ones go behind the scenes to overthrow group decisions they don’t like. Many do this by claiming that the process through which decisions were made was either unfair or unclear.
Free Rider: Charming and well-liked coworkers who are experts at doing nothing and getting credit for it. They distribute their work equally, so no one person feels the burn. Teams full of conscientious people and those with “hands off” bosses make great targets.
Micromanager: Impatient taskmasters for whom everything is equally important and equally urgent. If you have a micromanager, you struggle to meet long-term goals. You also work the hardest and get the least done.
Neglectful boss: Bosses who follow this cycle: a period of neglect, a build-up of anxiety from being out of touch, and a surge of control to alleviate their anxiety. If you work for one of these, you’re in a constant state of uncertainty. When will they show up, and how disruptive will they be?
Gaslighter: Bosses with two signature moves: Lying with the intent of deceiving on a grand scale, and socially isolating their victims. The reasons why bosses gaslight people vary—from covering up their own unethical behavior, to convincing people to do work that they later claim credit for.
Caprino: Which type is the most common and why?
West: Free riding is the most common; it’s a human universal to slack off. Smart free riders target conscientious people who are slow to complain. People freeride because they’re pulled in too many directions, suffering from mission creep, or work for a boss who doesn’t measure contributions.
Caprino: What are your top three strategies for dealing with jerks and toxic coworkers?
West: These are some helpful first steps:
Embrace small conflicts
Most of us are terrified of conflict; we see it as a red flag that a workplace is toxic. But social science has shown that having no conflict is the red flag—it means that you aren’t communicating. Frequent, small conflicts are a normal part of the working process; the key is in learning how to do them well.
When you confront, focus on what the person did, not on why they did it. Be as specific as possible and avoid broad generalizations. “I felt like you interrupted me three times in that last meeting” is better than “Why do you constantly talk over me?”
To move forward, frame the behavior around a shared goal you both have instead of what they need to do to change. And at the end, ask the person, “Do you have any advice for me?” Conflict conversations go more smoothly when they feel like a give-and -take.
Feedback should be small and frequent
No one likes giving or getting feedback that is negative. It’s uncomfortable for both involved. If you take issue with someone’s behavior at work, bring it up immediately, and focus on the behavior in question—not on why you think the person did what they did. People feel a lot less threatened when we focus on small acts, not big issues, and we don’t make assumptions about their cause. From your perspective, reducing that threat is key to getting them to hear your perspective.
Create a network that is broad not just deep
Most of us seek advice from a few close coworkers who we know and trust. But distant social contacts—people who aren’t our best friends, but we do consider potential allies—are important sources of information and support.
Imagine that you’re having a conflict with your boss, and you don’t know how to get them to care about your issue. A distant tie, like your boss’s colleague, has some insight into what tactics will on your boss. Most of us work in little silos—we know how our jerk treats the other five people we work with, but we have no idea what this person’s history was like before they showed up. Distant social ties will help you get the lay of the land.
Caprino: How about when your immediate boss is a jerk or a narcissist (which I’ve experienced directly as have many of my coaching clients). What’s your take on the best approach to deal with that personality type?
West: Narcissists have self-esteem that’s unstable; they’re very sensitive to rejection. When dealing with narcissists, I recommend a very utilitarian approach. How can you frame your requests in a way that will appeal to their self-interest? It doesn’t feel good, catering to the needs of a narcissist, but just focus on your end goal.
Caprino: You write about the importance of having a network of allies at work which is different from having a lot of friends at work. How is it different and what are the best ways to build that ever-important network?
West: Distant ties give us reputational information about people; they also can connect us to other “central nodes” at work (people who have a lot of influence). The best way to form these relationships is informally. Ask a distant tie out to coffee or lunch just to chat and hear their perspective. Offer advice to newcomers at work to help you network.
Caprino: As a former therapist and now in career and leadership coaching, I’ve written and trained extensively about the 6 toxic behaviors that repel people and opportunities and how to recognize these damaging behaviors in ourselves and others, and also how to protect ourselves against narcissists in life and work. From your view, what are some tell-tale signs we might ourselves be a jerk at work?
West: Honest, negative feedback is rare at work; the absence of positive information is more common. If you suspect you might be acting like a jerk, ask for specific (behavior-based) feedback, and ask broadly—think lots of people who’ve been around you at work, not just one or two. We all have a worst-case-scenario version of ourselves lurking deep within. It’s important to know what brings out this version, so we can watch out for the warning signs. We often can’t control those signs, but can we control how we respond to them.
Caprino: Any last words about how to overcome (and even bypass altogether) the pain and challenge of working with jerks?
West: Most of the approaches I advocate for are uncomfortable at first; they take time to perfect. Be patient and try not to jump to a new job until you’ve tried them. If your jerk isn’t motivated to change, or there is a climate at work that encourages their behavior, then I would consider thinking about the exit plan.