April 2007 - Dealing with Difficult People: Workplace Jerks
Dealing with Difficult People: Workplace Jerks
For our occasional series on Dealing with Difficult People, this month our guest author talks about a problem in far too many workplaces ó workplace jerks ó with tips for dealing with them. We are very pleased to see some movement in the U.S. to recognizing that unhealthy workplaces are more than just "the way it is." ó they can do serious damage to people's physical health in addition to their emotional and psychological health. The U.K. is far ahead of the U.S. in acknowledging the challenges in this area and in working to make their workplaces healthier.
Tips for Victims of Workplace Jerks
by Robert I. Sutton, Professor, Stanford University
Iíve spent much of the last few years thinking about how what it takes to sustain a humane workplace and how employees who are stuck with nasty bosses and peers can deal with their predicament. Iíve developed these ideas in my new book and I continue to develop these ideas (using both research and the stories and advice that I hear) on my blog.
Iíve been asked a lot of questions lately about the best way to survive a nasty workplace or boss. Here are some of my top tips for victims of workplace jerks. Before I get to the rest of the tips, one is in a class by itself:. The best thing to do if you are stuck under thumb of an jerk (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as you can.
You are at great risk of suffering personal damage and of turning into an jerk yourself. Acting like a jerk isnít just something that a few twisted people are born with; it is a contagious disease. But escape isnít always possible; as one woman wrote me, "I have to feed my family and pay my mortgage, and there arenít a lot of jobs that pay well enough to do that around here."
So here are my top tips for coping with workplace jerks that you canít escape (at least for now):
1. Start with polite confrontation.
An office worker wrote me that her boss was "a major jerk" (he was a former army major, who was infamous for his nastiness). She found that "the major" left her alone after she gave him "a hard stare" and told him his behavior was "absolutely unacceptable and I simply wonít tolerate it." This is also pretty much what Ron Reagan (the late presidentís son) told me on his radio show about how he dealt with jerks, as did a fashion model who described constructive ways to confront an jerk
2. If a bully keeps spewing venom at you, limit your contact with the creep as much as possible.
Recent research suggests that stand-up meetings are just as effective sit-down meetings, but are shorter; so try to meet places without chairs and avoid sitting down during meetings with jerks whenever possible Ė it limits your exposure to their abuse.
3. Find ways to enjoy "small wins" over jerks.
Exhibit one here is the radio producer who told me that she felt oppressed because her boss was constantly stealing her food ó right off her desk. So she made some candy out of EX-Lax, the chocolate flavored laxative, and left it on her desk. As usual, he ate them without permission. When she told this thief what was in the candy, "he was not happy."
4. Practice indifference and emotional detachment Ė learn how not to let an
jerk touch your soul.
5. Keep an jerk diary ó carefully document what the
jerk does and when it happens.
Similarly, a salesman wrote me that he has been the top performer in his group until he got leukemia, but his performance slowed during chemotherapy. His supervisor called him every day to yell at him about how incompetent he was and then doubled the sick salespersonís quota. The salesman eventually quit and found a better workplace, but apparently because he documented the abuse, his boss was demoted.
Actions that workplace jerks use:
Author: Robert I. Sutton, Professor, Management of Management Science & Engineering, Stanford University, and author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isnít (Warner, 2007). His blog is www.bobsutton.net. Copyright Robert Sutton © 2007 all rights reserved. Article used with permission of the author.
Note: we changed the word "A*****" to "jerk" for this article to make it easier to read and help our corporate readers avoid triggering their Internet content filters.
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Page updated: October 16, 2023
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