Do You Have a “Jerk” at Work?
Tessa West, author and NYU professor of psychology, provides advice on dealing with—and ultimately breaking free from—your most toxic coworkers.
By Traci Rosenthal
In college, Tessa West sold men’s shoes in a high-end department store in Santa Barbara. While this was a far cry from her eventual career in academia, the experience introduced her to different types of difficult people in the workplace and laid the groundwork for her new book, Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.
The book, which West recently discussed with Columbia Business School Professor and Bernstein Faculty Leader Mabel Abraham during an author talk hosted by The Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, identifies the seven types of jerks you’re likely to encounter at work and provides a game plan for disentangling yourself from these people. The “jerks” West references can vary greatly, from the “kiss up, kick downer”—someone who tortures their peers, but is loved by their boss—to the “bulldozer”—someone who takes over meetings, or in more recent times, video calls, and goes behind the scenes to push their agenda.
While studying social psychology in graduate school, West became increasingly interested in how people interact in awkward or stressful social situations. Enter the workplace—one of the most awkward and stressful environments humans come across in everyday life.
So how can someone strategically and ethically handle a jerk? West advises against confronting as a first step: “Before getting to the confrontation stage, collect some data and form some allyships to understand how widespread the problem is. You need to have a sense of how much this person’s behavior has permeated the organization before bringing it up to them.”
When it comes time to act, West borrows tips from research on close relationships, namely how people interact with their partners when discussing household issues such as unwashed dishes left in the sink:
- “First, open with a conversation that isn’t about their behavior at all,” said West. “Start by aligning on your goals and what you are trying to achieve together.”
- In the next phase of the discussion, lead with a strength before criticizing a behavior.
- Finally, West suggests getting specific about the behavior you want to see changed. For example, instead of telling your boss they are a micromanager—a broad generalization that might make them feel threatened—tell them that 20 minutes is not enough time to respond to an email and ask them to loosen the reins in this particular area.
West goes on to discuss gender dynamics in the workplace, an important and relevant topic that should be at the forefront for leaders and those aspiring to lead. “Women are often treated differently at work,” said West. “The same behaviors—speaking up, holding the floor, being dominant—are often perceived differently and punished more for women versus men.” This dynamic can be applied to jerks—both women and men are more likely to “target” and bulldoze or interrupt a woman because of social norms.
“Sometimes, a jerk’s behavior is unintentional, and they can be motivated to change."
If you are a boss or someone in an organization who works with a jerk, there will likely be a boiling point moment when the only plausible resolution is to throw in the towel and either fire the jerk or hop jobs to eliminate this person from your life. However, West cautions against acting too quickly. “There is a temptation to switch jobs when things get rough at work, but I’m wary of that strategy,” said West. “If you don’t learn to deal with low-level conflict at work, you won’t build that muscle, and a new job might present the same problem.” From a self-interested growth perspective, the best thing to do is stay at a company, nurture your network, and develop leadership experience. Moving to a lateral position and reestablishing yourself within a new company might be a setback in your career that can be avoided. If you want to stay at a company or avoid firing a direct report for being a jerk, have a conversation to make certain the jerk knows their behavior is disruptive and unpleasant. Sometimes, a jerk’s behavior is unintentional, and they can be motivated to change. Then, provide constructive and actionable feedback that, if absorbed, will redirect the jerk to use their behavior in a useful way. Give direct communication a try before jumping ship or passing along a pink slip.
One final reflection from West is about top-down leadership and how a CEO’s or leader’s values can poison the organizational culture. Moral contagions such as lying or cheating can filter down through a company, cause major rift, and lead to mass resignations, which is a newer concept in the workplace. “Before, we only cared about our local workplace community [our direct boss and our coworkers], but that is changing because there has been an ethical shift in how we think about the workplace,” said West. “A nasty CEO can kill morale throughout the workforce.”
The discussion—and the chosen terminology of “jerk”—certainly struck a chord. Whether you work with a jerk, work for a jerk, or through this conversation realized you might be a jerk, West’s book and thoughtful insights and tactics can turn a hostile work environment to a productive and enjoyable workplace.