Tessa West, PhD, associate professor of psychology at New York University, New York City, and author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do about Them. NYU.edu
If you have a job, chances are you work with a jerk or two, people whose sneaky or abrasive behavior undermines your efforts, ruins morale or just makes your working hours a bane.
You’re not alone. Soul-crushing low-level conflicts are often the reason people quit their jobs. Luckily, there are strategies besides quitting for dealing with these jerks. Bottom Line Personal asked Tessa West, PhD, author of Jerks at Work, about how to thwart the five most common types of jerks…
Free rider. Free riders are the office jerks you’re most likely to encounter. They often don’t seem like jerks because they’re charismatic and fun. People love having them on their teams. But—they don’t do any work. Because they are socially savvy, free riders can sniff out and join a conscientious, self-driven team, where they can soak up accolades by association. Their key play: Dividing up their tasks among multiple colleagues—a little here, a little there—so that no one person feels unduly burdened.
To thwart the free rider: The antidote to free riders is well-documented workflows. After every meeting, a team member (this can be a rotating role) records who was assigned each task and follows up later to confirm that each person has completed his tasks. Also: Have frequent check-ins with either the boss or the member in the rotating role to share the assignments log. Even better: Have each team member check in with the boss independently to share two lists of tasks—those he was expected to do and those he actually ended up doing. The boss won’t need to be a great detective to realize that everyone except the free rider is doing the work.
Bulldozer. Bulldozers take over meetings, talk over people and suck all the oxygen out of a room. A bulldozer wants things to be done her own way, and if the group makes a decision she doesn’t like, she wages a stealth campaign to reverse that decision, often by subverting the organization’s processes and procedures.
To thwart the bulldozer: Don’t hand too much power to someone who shows bulldozer-like tendencies. They often take on thankless tasks to make themselves indispensable to the group. If you find yourself and your team becoming reliant on a bulldozer, pull out—it’s a trap. Bulldozers love to override procedures, but you can preempt this by ensuring that your group establishes clear, iron-clad processes that don’t allow for meddling. And if the bulldozer does try to rewrite history (“People were unprepared for that vote so we need a do-over!”), align yourself with other witnesses who can counter the false narrative.
Kiss-upper/kick-downer. These jerks torture everyone at their own level or below while sucking up to their bosses and supervisors. Even more infuriating: The boss often loves the jerk thanks to his talent and uncanny ability to conceal his toxic behaviors. Example: If you work on a retail floor selling shoes, the kiss-upper/kick-downer might hide the size 10s to prevent you from making a sale and preserve his status as the top salesperson. He might question your competence in front of customers or new employees, doing whatever he can to make you look bad.
To thwart the kiss-upper/kick-downer: Don’t confront him directly, and don’t go immediately to the boss (neither approach will work). Instead, find some “arm’s length” allies and undertake some gentle questioning to find out if there are other victims. Once you’ve established that the problem is widespread, your boss no longer has an interpersonal he-said/she-said on her hands—she has a threat to team morale and productivity. When you undertake the discussion with the boss, begin with an acknowledgement of the kiss-upper/kick-downer’s positive qualities—“I understand that Jack sells a lot of shoes, but there’s an issue that we think needs to be discussed.” Lay out what’s happening, using any evidence you’ve gathered and relying on your allies for corroboration.
Gaslighter. Gaslighters are the most dangerous work jerks. They lie to you with the intention of creating an alternative reality, usually to some nefarious end such as cheating or stealing. They’re essentially small-scale cult leaders, applying their charisma to pull you into their service. They lure followers by making them feel special, in particular by inviting them onto a secret project. They will either inflate your ego, citing your incredible talent and potential…or deflate your ego, telling you to keep a low profile because your head is on the chopping block. It’s hard to recognize gaslighters because, by definition, they’re warping your sense of reality. But the telltale red flag is that they’re intent on isolating you socially at work.
To thwart the gaslighter: Do the very thing that the gaslighter doesn’t want you to do—build a broader social network. Start small, with some relationships at your level, and gradually build out and up. This will make you start to feel normal again and less under the gaslighter’s sway. Gaslighters also hate having their activities recorded and avoid paper trails whenever possible. After each meeting, send an e-mail that says, “Great meeting. I took some notes and wanted to send you a quick e-mail to cover everything we talked about.” See how she responds. If she freaks out, that should worry you—but you’ve protected yourself by documenting the meeting.
Micromanager. Bosses that meddle in every aspect of your work are one of life’s major annoyances. Most do it because they’re highly conscientious people who have been moved out of roles that they were good at and thrust into management positions that make them feel less competent.
To thwart the micromanager: The remedy is…even more interaction with him. You need to reassure your micromanager that you’re on task and doing things correctly, so frequent check-ins and shared documents that allow him to “look over your shoulder” to check on specific, short-term goals will go a long way toward soothing anxieties. Ask for a direct conversation about your boss’s management style, but be careful how you frame it. It should not be about things the boss does “all the time” nor about how that all makes you feel. Instead, talk in terms of alignment of goals. “Clearly we’re not aligned because you keep asking me to do things that aren’t helping me meet these goals.”
Neglectful boss. Ironically, neglectful bosses often are also micromanagers—a neglectful boss usually is someone who is overwhelmed by her role and may be ignoring you while she micromanages others. Spread too thin, she disappears for long periods, then crashes in right before deadlines and undoes your efforts.
To thwart the neglectful boss: Volunteer to offload some of the tasks she is finding so distracting. Often these take the form of “time thieves”—people wanting a piece of the manager for this or that little matter that could be done by somebody like you. Simply ask, “Is there anything I can do to help you get some of your time back?”
Credit stealer. Credit stealers pass your ideas off as their own and often get away with it because we feel foolish demanding recognition. Cleverly, credit stealers sometimes publicly give you credit for things you had no part in, making you feel even more conflicted about speaking up when they do steal your ideas.
To thwart the credit stealer: Take careful notes in meetings, making sure it’s clear who thought of what, and share them with the team. Eschew the “Hey, we’re all on the same team” mentality, which is less conducive to success than it’s cracked up to be. Instead, foster a culture of “credit branding,” in which individuals are acknowledged for their ideas and contributions to the work. The more you credit others for their input, the less likely that your own input will go unnoticed.