Most of us have dealt with a toxic co-worker during our career. Psychologist Tessa West got inside their heads and has broken down the different types of jerks at work.
Most of us have worked with someone who had an outsized effect on our emotional well-being. To cope, we've tried a few tactics: venting to friends, disengaging from the social scene at work, gossiping about the person in the hopes that our bosses will learn — via the grapevine — just how miserable we are.
The boldest among us try direct confrontation. But these interactions often end in more conflict, since most people don't enjoy having their flaws spelled out to them in excruciating detail. When confrontations fail, we often go to the next person in charge and beg for help. But even the most sympathetic bosses are often ill-equipped to handle problem people at work. Some are too dependent on your jerk to act against them. Others agree there's a problem, but they feel helpless to stop it. Yet others are so averse to confrontation, the very thought of standing up to a jerk at work makes them weak in the knees.
When direct feedback fails, we tend to turn to all-out avoidance. I once rearranged my work hours to avoid sharing a bathroom with a jerk at work. It was inconvenient and bad for my sleep, but at least I got about six stress-free hours a day to myself. And I don't think I'm alone.
Thankfully, it doesn't have to be this way. You no longer have to be beholden to soul-sucking jerks at work and the chaos they inflict on your life. By learning what motivates them to do what they do, and by applying the research-based strategies found in this book, you can equip yourself to handle those who deplete your energy and cost you emotional well-being and—finally—take back your peace of mind.
As a social psychologist, I've studied how people communicate for nearly two decades. I've observed the strategies we use to negotiate, collaborate, argue effectively, and successfully avoid one another. I've measured the stress people feel when interactions go poorly, how that stress manifests in the body, and how quickly stress can spread from one person to another.
I've also seen what happens when relationship problems at work go unresolved and leak into every aspect of our lives — from how we interact with our kids to how connected we feel to our romantic partners. And by leveraging social science, I've helped people, from new employees to C-suite executives, solve their jerk-at-work problems.
Getting a handle on your jerk at work is a little like profiling a serial killer. In other words, you first need to get into your jerk's head to learn what makes them tick. How do they pick their victims? How have they avoided capture? Do they have a boss who (secretly) benefits from their behaviour?
To help you on your profiling journey, I've created a taxonomy of jerks at work.
Kiss up/kick downers have a singular goal in mind: to climb to the top by any means necessary. To get there, they treat everyone who is at the same level or below them as competition. They reserve their good manners for the people in charge.
Credit-stealers are wolves in sheep's clothing—they are our teammates and mentors who look out only for themselves. Credit-stealers seem like friends, but they will betray your trust if your idea is good enough to steal. They help with a project but undermine your contributions when presenting it to the boss. They help you work through half-baked ideas only to take credit for them later. They are the leaders who offer to help you thrive but are secretly jealous of your success. They tend to be good at covering their tracks.
Bulldozers are seasoned, well-connected employees who aren't afraid to flex their muscles to get what they want. They have two trademark moves: they take over the process of group decision-making, and they render bosses powerless to stop them through fear and intimidation. Most know how to go over the boss' head to get what they want—they know who, at a level or two above them, will take them seriously. Truth be told, a lot of workplaces value this type of "leadership behaviour" — the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But for those of us stuck working with a bulldozer, decisions often grind to a halt until this person gets their way. These jerks have no interest in compromising.
Free-riders are experts at doing nothing and getting rewarded for it. They often take on work that has the veneer of importance but requires very little effort. They thrive in well-functioning teams, such as those with conscientious people who pick up their slack and those with a strong sense of cohesion. Most of them are well-liked and friendly, making them difficult to call out.
Micromanagers are impatient taskmasters who disrespect your personal space and time. Some do it because they used to have your job and they're having a hard time moving on, others because they're under the false impression that more monitoring equals better performance. Micromanagement isn't a scalable strategy, so micromanaging bosses often put people in rotation. When you're out of rotation, don't expect to hear from your boss for days, sometimes weeks on end. Micromanagers also tend to be neglectful bosses.
Neglectful bosses hate being out of the loop. But for lots of reasons (micromanaging is one), they often are. Most follow a three-step process: long periods of neglect, a build-up of anxiety from not having a handle on things, and finally a surge of control over you to alleviate their anxiety. If you have a neglectful boss, you live in a world of chronic uncertainty, making these jerks at work one of the most difficult to handle.
Gaslighters lie with the intent of deceiving on a grand scale. They isolate their victims first, then slowly build an alternative reality that suits their needs. Some gaslighters isolate by making victims feel like their position at work is precarious, others by making their victims feel special, like they are part of a secret club. Gaslighting is often a means to an end; it allows co-workers and bosses to get away with things such as cheating and stealing that they could not do alone.
• This abridged book extract is from Jerks at Work by Tessa West, an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, published by Penguin Random House, RRP: $40.