Democracy Dies in Darkness

On Leadership

A field guide to jerks at work

By Jena McGregor

September 22, 2017 at 7:47 AM

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post (Brian Taylor for The Washington /)

Ten years ago, the typically ­sober and staid management book genre welcomed an off-color title to its shelves. Despite a name unable to be printed in a family newspaper, Stanford professor Robert Sutton’s “The No A--hole Rule” became a runaway bestseller, selling 800,000 copies and sparking translations into languages including Polish and Japanese.

It was based on a simple idea, brought to life by crude language but grounded in academic research, corporate case studies and an entirely relatable idea: Companies that adopt a no-jerks policy simply perform better.

But if that book was largely written for managers and human resources wonks as a warning against hiring creeps, Sutton’s newest one is for the rest of us who actually have to deal with them. Over the past decade, Sutton says, he’s gotten emails — 8,000, he estimates — asking for advice about coping with jerks on the job.

There was the retail worker whose boss whispered insults and sexual innuendo in her ear. A pastor asking about how to manage nasty but non-paid volunteers. The young attorney suffering through a corrosive clerkship.

“The A--hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People who Treat You Like Dirt” is his answer, offering ways of spotting and coping with the various kinds of jerks we encounter at work. After all, the abusive bosses, uncivil co-workers and tyrannical teammates who populate office cube farms are not all the same — and require different responses. In their natural habitat, they inspire fear and loathing, dysfunction and even depression. And as with many unwelcome pests or predators, outright avoidance is typically a good strategy.

But quitting often isn’t an option. To help identify the various breeds of difficult co-workers — and how to survive them — we spoke with Sutton, as well as a few other experts on hostile co-workers and toxic bosses he cites in his book. They are our field guides to coping with five types of jerks at work.

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post

The lone "bosshole"

Who they are: Research finds that rudeness in the workplace operates almost like the common cold, infecting a “carrier” who spreads it to others. Sutton cites University of Maryland researcher Trevor Foulk, who found that when people experience even a single instance of rudeness at work, they become more aware of it — and are more likely to respond in kind.

“You start seeing it, you start responding to it,” Foulk said. “You become more vigilant, more discerning, you tend to interpret things as rude.” That’s why, he says, it’s important for organizations to oust a single pompous jerk quickly.

What to do: One strategy is to try to switch teams within the company, Sutton says, pointing to Salesforce.com, which he says allows engineers to change teams without getting permission from their current boss. If that’s not an option, he suggests documenting the problems — and doing so with other people who may also feel victimized — and then reporting the problem to human resources. In a professional and amiable culture, “your chances for using the power structure are much higher than if you’re working in ‘jerk city’ ” — his name for cultures where problematic people are everywhere.

Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University who wrote a recent book on incivility in the workplace, says it’s also important to remember how damaging those dysfunctional bosses can be to your performance. She suggests investing more time in the people who are respectful.

“You have to build up those positive relationships to help buffer or neutralize the negative one,” she said.

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post

The powerful bully

Who they are: The engineer with hard-to- replace skills whose creepy overtures get overlooked. The rainmaking dealmaker whose boorish behavior goes unpunished. Whether they’re explicitly in charge or simply influential, too many organizations look the other way when top performers or top bosses behave badly. Sutton points to Roger Ailes — the powerful Fox News chief who left the media empire amid a swirl of sexual harassment allegations. “Going to HR didn’t seem to help anyone for years,” he says.

What to do: Tread carefully. “You’re fighting the cool kids,” Sutton says. In such cases, getting out is really often the best advice — especially if the behavior goes beyond milder incivilities. “This is one when you often leave, or when you hide, or when you lie in wait until their power diminishes,” Sutton said.

Bennett Tepper, a professor at Ohio State University who studies abusive bosses, said that while he’s not suggesting a blame-the-victim mentality, it may be possible to make yourself less vulnerable.

“Bosses who are jerks are usually pretty strategic about who they target,” he said, and may go after underlings perceived as weak. “If you present yourself as competent, capable and connected to other people, it may make you a less desirable target.”

Making yourself indispensable may even trigger the jerk’s selfish streak: “Most bosses understand the success of their employees also shines a bright light on them,” Tepper says.

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post

The clueless jerk

Who they are: Many of us. Sutton says his mantra is to be “slow to label other people as a--holes and fast to label yourself one.” That’s ­because many people are simply not aware how much their rude remarks or short-tempered outbursts can hurt other people. He contrasts them to what he calls “strategic jerks” — people who’ve heard the stories about how Steve Jobs pushed and pushed employees and think they too should unleash their verbal wrath on co-workers to achieve success.

What to do: If their intentions seem good, talk to them — or have someone they trust do so instead. “Sometimes awareness is enough, especially when the last thing they want is to be seen as a jerk by others,” Sutton says.

Porath agrees, but cautions to start by listing a fault of your own. “Instead of putting them on the spot and making them feel defensive, treat it like feedback,” she said.

For those who are aware — and are doing it on purpose — Sutton says they have to be convinced that “treating the other person that way is detrimental to their career. If they’re really strategic that way — and I always say the emotionally controlled a--hole who knows how to turn it on and off is the most difficult to deal with . . . you have to prove to them there are negative consequences to their behavior.”

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post

The petty tyrant

Who they are: The office administrator who approves the expense reports. The HR coordinator who slows the hiring process with added rules. These “rule Nazis,” as Sutton calls them, are people who lack prestige but have influence over the day-to-day details of work. Research, he says, has shown that when people have moderate responsibility but low levels of respect on the job, “they tend to take it out on other people, both to make themselves feel in some control and perhaps to exact a little bit of revenge.”

What to do: Unless you have the power to ignore them — or get rid of them — the best tactic is to give them some of the prestige they crave, Sutton says.

Tepper agrees. “The person you’re describing sounds like someone who is desperately wanting respect from other people,” he says. “The word ‘ingratiation’ has some negative meaning attached to it, but there are occasions where it costs you nothing to be pleasant. It’s incredibly disarming to other people.”

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post

The overbearing client

Who they are: The rude customer who's far too demanding. Or the selfish client who cruelly ignores your needs. This is another tricky one. The power structure works differently, after all, when you’re managing a jerk on the outside rather than the creep within the organization. It’s not easy to fire the people who pay the bills.

What to do: That's why both Porath and Sutton suggest that managing the overbearing client is really more about managing yourself. Try not to answer angry emails quickly and stoop to their level. Set down the phone and let them rant without listening. Remind yourself that the project will last only a few months. In other words: “Find ways to reduce the amount of damage you take in.”

Read also:

The worst kind of boss is not the one who's always a jerk

Your mean boss is secretly miserable

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Jena McGregor writes on leadership issues in the headlines – corporate management and governance, workplace trends and the personalities who run Washington and business.

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