7 Types Of Jerks At Work And How To Handle Them Successfully
Part of Kathy Caprino’s Building a Better, Happier Career Today series
Anyone who has ever worked for a terrible manager knows the pain and difficulties it can cause. And when we are with a colleague whose behavior is negative, demeaning, or disruptive, it can complicate our work life and prevent us from being successful. Study after study has shown that when people leave a company, it is mostly about their manager, not the job or the role itself.
For example, in a recent SHRM study, the results supported the age-old work ethic that employees leave managers, not companies, as 84% of US workers say poorly trained managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress. A sentence that I have personally heard countless times in my work as a career and leadership coach over the past 16 years is this: “My boss is a complete idiot.”
To learn about the main types of jerks at work and how to deal with them successfully (and not get fired) I caught up with Tessa West.
Tessa West is a professor of psychology at New York University and a leading expert on human interaction and communication. West has published over 60 articles in the most prestigious journals in the field of psychology 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 Award of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and regularly writes about her research in That Wall Street Journal.
She is also the author of the book Idiots at Work: Toxic Colleagues and What to Do About Itwhich examines the seven key types of “idiots,” or difficult and conflict-causing people in the workplace, and provides a definitive guide to dealing with (and ultimately getting rid of) the overbearing bosses, irritating co-workers, and all-around difficult people that can make your work life a drag .
Here’s what West shares:
Kathy Caprino: Tessa, can you share a bit about why you decided to write a book about idiots at work?
Tessa West: I have been studying how we deal with 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 were working with, but the same problems were showing up at their new jobs. Most people don’t learn how to have healthy conflict talk at work. They either try to address issues and fail, or they do nothing and simmer with anger. I thought a guide would be a good place to start to help people.
Caprino: In your book you explore the 7 types of idiots. What are they, what are their main trademarks?
West: Here are the 7 types of jerks I’ve identified that are the most common:
Kiss up/kick down: They climb to the top by any means necessary, including sabotaging the people who work at the same level as them and below. You question your expertise in front of a client or suggest to the boss that you could use more “hands-on training”. But they’re high achievers who can read the room, so the boss loves them.
credit thief: Teammates, friends, and bosses who gain your trust and then steal your good ideas or acknowledge your hard work. Some cover their tracks by publicly complimenting their victims. The loan heist takes place behind the scenes.
Bulldozer: In meetings, these people talk about people and control the agenda, but the sneakier ones go behind the scenes to overturn group decisions they don’t like. Many do this by claiming that the process by which decisions were made was either unfair or unclear.
Freeriders: Charming and popular colleagues who are experts at doing nothing and getting credit for it. They distribute their work evenly, so nobody feels the burn. Teams full of conscientious people and those with hands-off bosses are great targets.
Micromanager: Impatient overseers to whom everything is equally important and equally urgent. When you have a micromanager, you struggle to achieve long-term goals. They also work the hardest and get the least done.
Negligent Boss: Bosses who follow this cycle: a period of neglect, a build-up of anxiety from lack of contact, and a surge of control to ease their anxiety. When you work for one of these companies, you are in a constant state of uncertainty. When will they appear and how disruptive will they be?
gas lighter: Bosses with two distinctive traits: lying with intent to deceive on a grand scale, and socially isolating their victims. The reasons why bosses outgas people vary – from covering up their own unethical behavior to convincing people to do a job for which they later claim credit.
Caprino: Which type is the most common and why?
West: Free driving is most common; it is a human universal to slack off. Smart free riders target conscientious people who are slow to complain. People freeride because they’re being pulled in too many directions, suffer 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 co-workers?
West: These are some helpful first steps:
Accept small conflicts
Most of us are afraid of conflict; We see it as a red flag that a workplace is toxic. But social science has shown this having no Conflict is the red flag – it means you are not communicating. Frequent, small conflicts are a normal part of the work process; the key is learning how to do them well.
When you confront, focus on what the person did, not why they did it. Be as specific as possible and avoid generalizations. “I felt like you interrupted me three times at the last meeting” is better than “Why do you keep talking about me?”
To move forward, frame the behavior around a common goal that you both have, rather than what they need to do to change. And at the end, you ask the person, “Do you have any advice for me?” Conflict talks go more smoothly when they feel like give and take.
Feedback should be small and frequent
Nobody likes giving or receiving negative feedback. Unpleasant for both parties involved. If you object to someone’s behavior at work, speak up immediately and focus on the behavior at issue—not on it why You think the person did what they did. People feel much less threatened when we focus on small acts rather than big problems and don’t make assumptions about their cause. From your perspective, reducing that threat is key to getting them to hear your perspective.
Create a broad and not just deep network
Most of us seek advice from a few close associates we know and trust. But distant social contacts—people who aren’t our best friends but whom we see as potential allies—are important sources of information and support.
Imagine you have a conflict with your boss and you don’t know how to get him to take care of your problem. A distant tie, like your boss’s colleague, has some insight into your boss’s tactics. 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 that person’s story was like before they showed up. Distant social ties will help you get the lay of the land.
Caprino: How about if your direct boss is an idiot or a narcissist (which I have directly experienced, like many of my coaching clients). What do you think is the best approach to dealing with this personality type?
West: Narcissists have unstable self-esteem; They are very sensitive to rejection. When dealing with narcissists, I recommend a very utilitarian approach. How can you frame your requests in a way that appeals to their self-interest? It doesn’t feel good to cater to a narcissist’s needs, but just focus on your end goal.
Caprino: You write about the importance of having a network of allies at work, which is different than many friends at work. How is it different and what are the best ways to build this increasingly important network?
West: Distant ties give us reputation information about people; You can also connect us to other “central nodes” at work (people who have a lot of influence). The best way to build these relationships is informally. Ask a distant connection for a coffee or lunch just to chat and hear their perspective. Offer advice to young professionals to help you network.
Caprino: As a former therapist and now in career and leadership coaching, I have written and trained extensively on the 6 Toxic Behaviors That Repel People and Opportunities and how to recognize these harmful behaviors in ourselves and others and also protect yourself from narcissists in life and work. What do you think are some telltale signs that we might be an idiot at work ourselves?
West: Honest, negative feedback is rare at work; the absence of positive information is more common. If you suspect you’re acting like an idiot, ask for specific (behaviour-based) feedback and ask in general – think of many people who have been around you at work, not just one or two. We all have a worst-case scenario version of ourselves lurking deep within us. It’s important to know what’s spawning this release so we can look out for the warning signs. We often can’t control these signs, but can we control how we respond to them?
Caprino: Any final words on how to overcome (and even bypass entirely) the pain and challenge of working with jerks?
West: Most of the approaches I advocate are uncomfortable at first; They need time to perfect. Be patient and don’t try to jump to a new job until you’ve tried it. If your moron isn’t motivated to change or there is a work environment that encourages their behavior, then I would consider considering the exit plan.
For more information, visit Tessa West at tessawestauthor.com and hear West speak at length on this topic here.
Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, executive trainer and author of The most powerful you.