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It would be lovely if jerks at work were an at-risk species.

The pandemic remote office experience did evict them from their natural habitat. But these are persistent and adaptive pests. The hybrid office will allow them to fully flourish again – perhaps better than ever, if they take advantage of the social stresses it presents. For those who toil outside of offices, of course, there was no respite from jerks at work and they remain active.

New York University psychology professor Tessa West has developed a taxonomy of jerks at work, seven versions who you may have encountered at some point:

  • Kiss up/kick downers: They are determined to climb to the top and view anyone at the same level or below them as competition. They reserve their good manners for the people in charge.
  • Credit stealers: They help with a project, but then undermine your contributions when presenting to the boss or help you work through preliminary ideas and then take credit afterward.
  • Bulldozers: These well-connected employees will flex their muscles to get what they want. She describes two “signature moves”: They take over the process of group decision-making and they render bosses powerless to stop them through fear and intimidation.
  • Free riders: They are experts at doing nothing while getting rewarded for it.
  • Micromanagers: These impatient taskmasters disrespect your personal space and time. Sometimes you may not hear from them for a long period as they oversee others while facing pressures on their time, but then that changes and you find yourself repeatedly under the gun.
  • Neglectful bosses: They hate being out of the loop, but often allow that to happen. You may experience the following three-stage pattern: Long periods of neglect, followed by a period of anxiety from not having a handle on things, and finally a surge of control over you to relieve their anxiety.
  • Gaslighters: They lie with the intent of deceiving on a grand scale.

“Getting a handle on your jerks 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 do they avoid capture? Do they have a boss who (secretly) benefits from their behaviour?” she writes in Jerks at Work.

Kiss up/kiss downers are very skilled. They can read a room and know how to get powerful people to like them. They are high in what is known as social dominance orientation. They love hierarchies, even when at the bottom.

If you’re struggling with one, she recommends finding an ally – someone within your social network with broad connections – to help you gain perspective. If your assessment is correct, reach out to targets of this villain. Then talk to your supervisor.

When Ms. West tried this strategy, she began by acknowledging the person’s strengths before getting to her fears of the impact on the workplace environment. Key words: “And I don’t think it’s just me. A handful of people are having issues with him. I’m a little worried that if things don’t improve, some of our top talent might leave.” Then she waited, which can be hard, but just because you don’t see action doesn’t mean things aren’t happening behind the scenes.

She says credit stealing is one of the most common causes of work conflict. You must confront the individual, sharing your perspective. Not all are doing this deliberately. Identify what you feel each person accomplished in the situation of concern. Try to create a shared reality with your credit stealer, and then discuss what can be done to avoid repeats. In some cases they will accede to your concerns, if you keep it from being emotional, you versus them. In other cases they won’t and she advises you must distance yourself from them.

Jerks at work usually won’t go away magically if you simply wish upon a star. You will usually need allies and then approach the nuisance or a supervisor, depending on the situation.

Quick hits

  • When sales trainer Steve Keating was hawking Dale Carnegie courses, he refused to sell to anyone who seemed to expect the course to do the work – that merely completing the course would be sufficient to experience positive growth and change. He warns you not to invest money or time in training programs without committing the effort required to make the training effective.
  • Consistency is the enemy of change, observes executive coach Dan Rockwell. Repetition congeals the past. Stopping the behaviour is a beginning. Try one new thing today.
  • Show people your open hands when giving a presentation. Executive coach John Millen says people want to see your hands; it’s a matter of trust. Showing them indicates your openness to others and creates a connection.
  • Mahatma Gandhi didn’t speak a word on Mondays, an attempt to find calm in his turbulent life. He didn’t live like a monk that day. He would meet with people and carry out activities. He just didn’t speak. Justin Zorn, co-author of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, urges you to try not speaking for a day and see how your mind changes and your relationship to the world.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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