Author Talks: How to handle your work jerk

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Tessa West, an NYU associate professor of psychology, about her new book, Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them (Portfolio, January 2022). Whether it’s a freeloading coworker or a credit-snatching boss, everyone has had an encounter with a jerk at work—sometimes, the jerk might even be you. Tessa West shares strategies for maneuvering these tricky interpersonal situations. An edited version of the conversation follows.

As a consultant on the side, do you find more jerks in the C-suites?

My book, Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, is about breaking the mold and developing new strategies for handling that everyday conflict at work that gets in the way of your well-being and productivity.

The C-suite is the place where, if there’s going to be a cultural contagion of jerks, that’s where it happens.

In the past, if the C-suite had a lot of jerks and you worked, say, in middle management or below, it didn’t really affect you so much. But the workplace has changed a lot now, where if the C-suite is behaving one way, even if it doesn’t directly affect you as an employee because you never interact with that C-suite, you’re very intolerant for working for a company that embraces this behavior culturally.

The C-suite is in a prime place to either turn that jerk behavior on or off because they decide whether that company’s going be a breeding ground for jerk behavior. They decide how fertile it’s going to be for certain types of jerks at work.

If anyone in the C-suite embraces any of these jerk behaviors, it’s going to fall through the company and trickle down really effectively and efficiently because jerkish behavior is contagious at work. That’s often where we see it starting.

Why does a staple remover represent jerks at work?

There are a lot of different objects that we talked about in the making of the cover of this book. At one point, there was a pushpin, but it felt a little too sharp. With this idea of a staple remover with teeth-like imagery, I think people can immediately relate to that. They know what it means to feel like you’re working with someone who’s like, “Rah,” coming at you with sharp fangs, so to speak.

Has the pandemic brought jerks at work into our homes?

Absolutely. I think one thing we’ve learned during the pandemic is that we feel like we can avoid the people that are difficult to work with much more, but the reality is, they’re just as effective at destroying our well-being and our productivity at work as they were before.

This is mostly because we’re siloed off from other people at work, and jerks at work have gotten even more clever in the strategies they use to do things behind the scenes.

When we’re not interacting with each other, having watercooler conversations, walking to the coffee shop, or stopping by the office of our neighbor, we’re not getting all of the information that we used to get. This information signals who’s difficult to work with and what the strategies are for dealing with them. A lot of us are going it alone in dealing with jerks at work now—now that many of us are working from home by ourselves.

Why do we need a taxonomy of jerks? Aren’t all jerks just jerks?

Why would we use a metaphor of serial killers to profile jerks at work? Why do we need this taxonomy to think about jerks? Aren’t all jerks just kind of terrible people at work? I would say absolutely not.

Jerks at work have skills. They have things that they’re really good at that allow them to get away with this behavior—a lot like a serial killer who’s able to do something bad over and over again and never get caught—that’s actually often the case with jerks at work.

They have a skill set, we often underestimate it, and that allows them to get away with this bad behavior. But they also have a set of weaknesses. Each type of jerk that I talk about in my book has one set of skills and another set of weaknesses. You need to understand both in order to develop strategies for coping with them.

How do we solve our jerks-at-work problem?

The only real way of solving for jerks at work is to have friends at work, but often not the types of friends that we’re thinking about—not our best friends, not the people that we like to have drinks with and complain about difficult people with, but allies.

Allies at work take a different form. Think about someone you work with who you’re not best friends with, you’re not that close with, but they have knowledge about the workplace and a whole bunch of social connections that you don’t actually have.

The best allies can help you expand your social network and introduce you to potential other targets of your jerk at work, or other people who can pull levers of power to help you understand what it will take to convince your boss to care about your jerk at work. These allies can give you novel pieces of advice, but critically, they can introduce you to new folks who your best friend probably doesn’t know.

What are our common misconceptions about jerks at work?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions we have about thinking about jerks at work is that they don’t have any social skills, that they can’t read a room, that they aren’t paying attention to how other people are supposed to be treating them, and those kinds of things.

The reality is, most jerks at work actually have incredible social skills. Think about, for example, the “free rider.” They tend to be very charismatic. They utilize their social skills to get ahead. The same is true for someone like the “kiss up, kick downer.” They know exactly the right ways of complimenting you behind your back so that the boss won’t suspect them.

This conception that our jerks at work don’t really know how to read people, that they don’t really know what’s appropriate, is actually wrong. In fact, it’s the opposite—they usually have this skill in spades.

Another misconception is that they know how their behavior makes other people feel. Most of us assume that if we’re dealing with a jerk at work, this person is doing this intentionally and they know it makes other people feel badly, but the reality is, almost no one gives negative feedback at work.

It’s nonnormative to give people negative feedback. We feel uncomfortable doing it, so we often avoid it, but we assume these individuals really know how their behavior’s affecting others, even though they rarely do.

The last misconception about jerks at work is that they enjoy doing what they’re doing. Sure there are some jerks at work who are Machiavellian and love watching people beneath them or at the same level as they are struggle, but most of the time, the behavior that jerks are engaging in that harms you actually also harms them.

It doesn’t help them to behave this way, but they’re doing it for lots of reasons, ranging from poor management skills to doing whatever it takes to get ahead, or maybe that’s just the culture of the company. A lot of the time, they don’t actually enjoy the behaviors they’re engaging in, and the behaviors are detrimental to their own success as well.

Why should we ask ourselves if we are jerks at work?

Why is it important for us to consider whether we are the jerk? Most of us are a combination of good and bad. We can be amazing at work, we can be difficult at work, and I think it’s important to think about “what do you look like at work when you’re at your absolute worst, when you’re sleep-deprived, when you don’t have resources?”

I think we all have the potential when we get overwhelmed to be someone who’s not ideal, who’s a micromanager, a neglectful boss, a credit stealer, or a freeloader.

Half of the battle in dealing with jerks at work is detecting your own inner jerk, and not just stopping that behavior, but looking at what the behaviors are that precede it. What is it that really turns you into that less ideal version of yourself? Then develop strategies for what you’re going to do instead.

In my book, I try to be really honest about the times when I’ve been a jerk at work because I want it to become normative for people to talk about their own behaviors that have contributed to negative cultures at work and demonstrate what it looks like to succeed.

People in leadership roles, especially, need to talk about this not by pointing fingers, but by admitting their own mistakes and their own jerk potential. As we go through this process of cleaning out our jerks at work, we have to admit to ourselves when we’re contributing to that problem.

Why is it important to assess our allyship?

I study interpersonal interaction, I study relationships, and there are very few jerks at work who can really thrive without their own allies helping them through the process. Sometimes that means that someone just lets the behavior go and they don’t say anything because they feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, they’re actually encouraging the behavior.

There are all these ways that we allow jerks at work to thrive, and we can really fail to help those in need. When you’re not necessarily a jerk, what are you doing instead? Are you sitting back and letting this happen? Are you stepping in and trying to create change? And are you doing it in a way that the targets of your jerk at work are comfortable with?

Some of us have this lay theory that standing up and making a really big deal out of things or going to social media to talk about it are the best, most effective strategies for being an ally, but a lot of people actually don’t appreciate that. They want a more subtle, behind-the-scenes approach.

Knowing exactly how you’re going to combat the jerks at work and what you’re going to do when you witness these things is just as important in dealing with jerks at work as actually targeting the jerks themselves.

What surprised you the most about writing Jerks at Work?

I thought I knew what I was doing, but I learned a lesson in humility, which is it doesn’t matter how expert you are at your job or how long you’ve been doing it.

I study interpersonal interaction for a living, so I should have been better at that, but it’s really hard to deal with these issues. We have a lot of lay theories of how we should handle conflict, and I did too, so I’m just as guilty of this.

What I found in writing this book, as I talked to different people, is it doesn’t matter what you do for a living—you could be a hairstylist, you could be a CEO—and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working. You can be right out of graduate school, right out of college, right out of high school in your first job, or you can be working for 30 years—no one learns these strategies, people don’t get better with practice, and they don’t get better with time. They get better when they learn science-based strategies of how to deal with these things, myself included.

I had to teach myself some new lessons when I was doing research for this book. I would say, “Oh, I thought this strategy worked really well, but in fact the research goes against that.” I had to force myself to embrace my own advice in this book, and I was constantly surprised at how off my own lay theories were—even as a researcher—when it came to dealing with jerks at work.

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