Dealing With Office Jerks: Stop Them Now Before Their Behavior Gets You

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Aug 8, 2013

How is it that office jerks are inescapable, insufferable, and even injurious?

Just when we thought dealing with Michael — our chauvinistic 40-something colleague who still lives in his mother’s basement — couldn’t get any worse, researchers had to go and prove that dealing with office jerks (let’s call them “difficult personalities”) can actually shorten our lives. Gee, thanks research.

I’ll try not to shoot the messenger, but let me summarize the findings for you.

Basically, a team of researchers followed 820 Israeli employees for around 20 years, evaluating their working environments and their general lives. This somewhat-intrusive research revealed an alarming statistic: of this population of Israeli employees, those who experienced consistently negative interactions with colleagues were 2.4 times more likely to die during the study.

Bad days at work can impact our non-work lives

No longer can we feel relief when we leave the office after a hellish day; now we have to worry about how each bad work day can be shaving months — maybe even years — off of our lives.

Adding his 2 cents to the research, Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote this on his blog:

As I have always said, if you are surrounded by a bunch of assholes – and people who won’t help you solve work problems and who are unfriendly would qualify – get out as fast as you can. This study suggests that, they longer you stay around such people, the more your health will suffer, and eventually, your risk of an early death will rise.”

Last week we decided to take situations into our own hands and provide a personal development webinar about the dealing with office jerks. Near the beginning of the discussion, we asked our audience to identify the most-hated characteristics of office jerks.

How we deal (or not) with office jerks

Their verdict? Rude and abrupt personalities. Though this point may not be surprising in the least, it does invite some interesting self-examination. While we may not be formally regarded by our colleagues as “the office jerk,” our behavior may still be driving them crazy — or killing them, softly.

Also during our discussion, our Director of Talent Assessment, Linda Linfield (who has extensive experience in coaching difficult personalities), made an interesting point: dealing with caustic colleagues is a choice — no one is forcing us to go through hell every day at the office. Many people opt for self-damaging approaches to dealing with office jerks, though, like staying in their current positions, becoming bitter and withering away.

I don’t know about you, but that last part sure sounds like a euphemism dying.

Bottom line: Life is already too short to let insufferable colleagues shorten it even more. Next time our not-so-friendly friend Michael starts belittling, mocking, back-biting, or insulting, we need to stop him in his tracks.

How to correct offensive behavior

Here’s a nice framework for correcting offensive behavior coming from any level of the organization:

  1. Take a step back; identify the specific behavior that is bothering you.
  2. Ask yourself if any reasonable person would feel the same way you do. (If no, then it’s your own problem; if yes, then move to the next step.)
  3. Frame your intention: “I want my coworker to stop taking credit for my work; I want my boss and others to recognize me for the good work I do.”
  4. Design a strategy that is likely to produce the intended outcome.
  5. Ask yourself,If I employ this strategy, what’s the best that could happen? What’s the worst that could happen?”
  6. If you are OK with the best- and worst-possible outcomes, then implement your strategy. If not, then redesign your strategy.

One piece of advice Linda gave during our discussion is to remove ourselves from any conversations as soon as our colleagues become offensive. Try saying something like, “I’m going to remove myself from this conversation now, until we can communicate respectfully with each other. I want to have this conversation with you, once we’re both comfortable moving forward.” You might be pleasantly surprised at the reaction you see.

I’ll admit that the above strategy isn’t omnipotent. What other strategies have you used to deal with offensive personalities at work? Share your best and worst stories about dealing with office jerks in the comments.

A slightly different version of this originally appeared on the DecisionWise Leadership Intelligence blog