‘I was a jerk:’ Author explores how to deal with toxic coworkers
In this age of resignation, the last thing an employer wants is a toxic work culture that can trigger more exits.
And that poisonous atmosphere is often agitated not only by the top tier executives, but also from fellow co-workers or one-up managers who manipulate and bully each day.
In her new book “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them,” Tessa West, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at New York University, divulges strategies for dealing with jerks who make work miserable. She even doles out advice to open your eyes to discover that you may even be the jerk at work.
The topic is top of mind in today’s workplace where employers are grappling to retain their top talent. In a recent study, researchers at MIT analyzed the language used by employees to describe their organization in 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews from U.S. employees to get a sense of what makes a culture toxic.
Five attributes — disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive — contributed the most to employee attrition throughout the Great Resignation,” according to the researchers.
Working with difficult coworkers and bosses is “associated with elevated levels of stress, burnout, and mental health issues,” they wrote. “Toxicity also translates into physical illness. When employees experience injustice in the workplace, their odds of suffering a major disease increase by 35% to 55%.”
In fact, 1 in 5 employees have left a job at some point in their career because of its toxic culture, according to a pre-pandemic study from the Society of Human Resource Management, and the MIT researchers report that is consistent with their findings from the Great Resignation.
West offered insights and advice in a conversation with Yahoo Money. Here are the highlights of that conversation:
What prompted you to write this book?
I was a jerk.
One of my jobs at NYU was to implement a big office move. I was hitting wall after wall and trying to get things accomplished. I didn't have the skills for figuring out how to utilize soft power, or how to confront wisely, or how to get people to do things that logically seemed to make sense to me, but didn't to them. And I'd become a real bulldozer.
It was impacting me, too. I was frustrated. I was developing unhealthy habits. I was drinking too much. I wasn't exercising as much. It was affecting my sleep.
I realized that there's a conversation to be had about these kinds of basic strategies of dealing with the low-level jerks, not the HR-level really, really terrible, but people, including myself, that others don't know how to deal with. Part of this was like a therapy session for me and then to share it with the world.
How does working with a jerk impact us beyond the job?
There’s clear clinical physiological and psychological consequences to not dealing with these people. We all underestimate it, or we ignore it. We don't think it matters like the acute stressors in life — going through a divorce, losing someone in your life, a death, things like that.
But, in reality, it's the low-level stuff that really adds up and impacts our health and ways we often don't see because it's cumulative. Every time you hear the sound of someone's shoes walking down the hall, your blood pressure is going to spike a little bit, because you know what's coming, or having someone steal your idea — it adds up.
Is learning to deal with difficult coworkers more important now because of the pandemic and remote working?
It's a critical period right now for figuring out how to handle stress at work and how to prevent it from spreading.
We're redefining what well-being is. We're trying to figure out what healthy work looks like. And we're in this constant state of uncertainty, lack of control, and not knowing what's happening next. For example, when is your boss going to say you need to show up in the office? That creates a heightened level of anxiety, and you add onto that difficult people at work, and it just pushes people over the edge.
Did working remotely encourage more bad behavior?
A lot of jerks work well when coworkers are isolated or siloed off. When you don't have informal networking and are not observing behaviors between other people like we used to at work, they are able to get away with their behavior.
What are the most common types of jerks?
The kiss up/kick downer is a person who is talented, and the boss loves them, and they are willing to do anything to get ahead. And that includes torturing the people who are the same level as them.
The credit stealer is the person who tends to be a friend, a coworker, often even a boss. And what they do is they gain your trust, so you bounce ideas off of them. Then they steal credit for your best ideas, and for the work that you do.
Next, the bulldozer. This is a person who we all got used to in the pandemic. They talk over people. They will soak up all the oxygen in the room. If they don't like the outcome of a group decision, they will question the process. They will get the leaders in charge to question that process to eventually get their way. They create a lot of disruption.
Then you have the free rider. The free rider has all the charm in the world. They're well liked. They're fun. They have gossip. They're experts in dispersing their work equally among everybody. They either don’t get caught or they create such an awkward environment where confronting them isn't worth it.
There’s the micromanager. This is the most common type of boss, period. Everything is equally urgent, and everything is equally important. They’re under the false impression that more monitoring equals better performance.
The neglectful boss is someone who doesn’t neglect all the time. They neglect. They panic, then they show up, and they micromanage you to alleviate their anxiety from being out of the loop. So you live in this chronic state of uncertainty. You never know when they're going to show up. It's usually a really bad time. It's not during the planning stage. It's during the execution stage. Then they exert control, and they disappear again. They're often inconsistent in what they say and do.
The last type is the gas lighter. This person has two trademark moves. They lie. They build an alternative reality. Their goal is to cover something up. The only way they can get a team to work for them is if they convince that team that nobody else wants them.
What makes someone become a jerk?
We tend to think of jerks as bad apples. I think a jerk is more of a description of a situation than it is a person. I think we all can be a jerk in the right situation that brings out the worst-case version of all of us.
Achieving my goal, for instance, had given me tunnel vision. I had failed to take my own advice and see through my coworkers’ perspectives. I had also made people feel uncertain about their future at work — unsure of what their day-to-day would look like.
For people dealing with jerks at work, feelings of uncertainty and a lack of control over their own outcomes are common psychological experiences.
A jerk is someone who has a tendency, or an inclination, towards a certain type of behavior when they're feeling the most anxious, the most uncertain, the least in control. You know, that's typically what brings out these behaviors in people.
It can come down to how they're being managed. For example, neglectful bosses, most of them have micromanagers as bosses, so they have very little time for their own direct reports, which turns them into neglectful bosses.
What should you do if you're the jerk?
The good news is, jerks at work can change their ways, and I was able to repair my relationships using a handful of tactics I cover in this book.
If you think you might be the one who's the jerk, don't ask people if you're a jerk, because they will lie to you. You will get unrelenting, positive feedback. People don't tend to give critical, negative feedback for lots of reasons. It's scary, it's costly. It can backfire.
You need to ask more indirectly. Ask people what behaviors you should do more of and what behaviors that they think you should do less of. Instead of asking, ‘do I come across as someone who's controlling?’ Instead. say ‘when we were in that last meeting, I interrupted people a few times. Did you notice that I did that?’ They're going to be much more honest about specific behaviors.
And know your triggers. I worked with a micromanager who every time she got anxious, she had an impulse to email everyone on her team to check in. I told her, like most acute emotions, this lasts about three minutes. Go for a walk, go do something else until you can regulate the emotion and calm down.
Use a 30-minute window to not do the thing that's jerky. Do this over and over again, and you'll see your work jerky go down.
What are your top tips to deal with a jerk at work?
Learn how to confront them wisely. We're afraid of confrontation at work. We don't have it, or if we have it, it's usually we blow up. But confrontation is a positive thing. You have to learn how to do it in a way that's productive.
Don't lead with the criticism. Open with something that you want the person to do more of.
It's not about feelings. For example, ‘you make me feel like I'm not trustworthy.’ That might work in therapy, but in the workplace, lead with what they did, not with how you feel about what they did and why you think they did it.
Short, frequent communication is key to keep you on track with dealing with a jerk. We hate these conversations so much that once we have them, we like to disappear for a month and not see the person again.
Use your social network. I know that sounds vague, but most of us have a couple good friends at work, if we're lucky, who we go to for everything, and we complain to. But most of our problems with jerks are not solved by using our best friends. They're solved by using people who aren't that close with us, but who are super well connected.
These are people who know a lot of people, but they're not necessarily in power. Where I work at NYU, these are the IT guys. They know who's in trouble. They're very well networked.They don't have a lot of power, and they're a little bit distanced from me at work because they're not professors, but they can hook me up with other people who might be experiencing similar issues who could potentially help solve a problem with a toxic coworker or manager, or connect you to other leaders who might give you advice.
What are the biggest misconceptions about jerks at work?
One is that my boss does not care and that is why they're doing nothing about it. Bosses often have no idea this is going on. There's this illusion of transparency that our boss knows what's going on in our head, in our lives. But unless we've told them, they probably don't know.
Another misconception is no news is good news. If you're a boss, or manager, and you're not hearing complaints from people, that means everything's fine. If it was bad, somebody would've told you it was bad. A boss can go years without knowing there's a toxic person on a team because there's a norm to not complain or to sell people out.
You write in the book that gossip is a powerful tool, how so?
Gossip gets a bad reputation because we assume that gossip means saying negative things about someone. But gossip is saying positive things about people as well. It's how reputational knowledge is spread. And so, if you are excellent on a team, and people hear that in the organization, say, during a meeting of who we should promote, that's technically gossip.
That's people talking about you behind your back and talking about your traits. We have to remember that gossip isn't always bad. One way you can defend yourself from jerks is having good gossip spread about you.
What's the biggest takeaway from the book?
The strategies in my book are not meant to be quick fixes. They're not meant to solve all your problems in five minutes. It's a small behavioral change every day to improve the workplace culture.
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon
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