I read a couple weeks ago that jerks are everywhere. I thought I was just an over-sensitive person, but it turns out it’s not entirely in my imagination. Jerks are so common that The New York Times ran an article, “How to Deal With a Jerk Without Being a Jerk” by Adam Grant.
Indeed, I’ve experienced at least a few iterations of jerks in the workplace. I’ve experienced the insecure middle manager who belittles and smears you to your shared boss, and another version of the insecure middle manager in which you’re not undercut in such an obvious way, but are undercut by being road blocked. In addition to insecure middle managers, there are jerks who exist laterally to you, and are just as insecure as the middle manager. Their jerk-selves present by being cold and unfriendly, making it clear that they view you as a competitor, rather than as a friend and ally.
What all the iterations of jerk have in common is insecurity. At one job, I had both an insecure and jerk-ful middle manager and an insecure and jerk-ful lateral colleague. The two of them got along together famously, though, because the one who was lateral to me stroked the middle manager’s ego, slavishly making the middle manager believe she was idolized—and I think it might have been the truth that it was a case of one jerk admiring another. Is brown-nosing, whether genuine or not, the answer to managing jerks? Is dealing with jerks as colleagues, managers, and customers a skill all employees should be taught? You try your best to train Human Resources and hiring managers how to screen for toxic personalities, but inevitably in every organization, at least a few squeak by. Most organizations have at least a handful of employees who are jerks.
If you were creating a training program to promote successful jerk interactions, where would you begin? Is brown-nosing a suitable strategy? I think it could be if it’s genuine. It worked for my lateral jerk colleague because she appeared to genuinely be impressed with the middle-manager jerk, and probably didn’t think the middle manager was a jerk at all. One strategy is to look for something you sincerely admire about the jerk. In the case of the middle-manager jerk who undercut me by smearing me to our boss, I honestly could say I admired her discipline in getting work done consistently and on time year after year, magazine issue after magazine issue. She was incredibly stoic and pragmatic. I also was (and am) able to make my deadlines, but at that time in my career, it wasn’t with ease. I tended to make a bigger production of my articles than was necessary, and often would wait until the last minute to begin working on them. I could have learned from the plodding way she got her work done, so there was rarely a last-minute scramble or chaos. Maybe there was a way I could have expressed those admiring feelings, so she could see we weren’t enemies.
With the irksome middle manager I currently work under, I admire that he gets people to like, and believe in him, with ease. He’s wholly incompetent in his work, from my standpoint, but aside from me and anyone else who has the misfortune of being managed by him, he gets people to like him. He knows how to work a room and has a high threshold of tolerance for small talk that I find anxiety inducing and irritating. There’s tremendous bad blood between us now, but if I could (can) get past the negative feelings and anger, maybe I could ask: “How do you find common points of interest with all those people? How do you sustain conversations with people you may not be in the mood to talk to?”
Learning can come from many sources, even jerks. The trick is teaching employees to be resilient and resourceful enough to find the one or two things they can learn from the jerks in their work lives, whether colleagues, managers, or customers, and then use those things to get the jerk to become less of a jerk.
Is there such a thing as jerk-resistance training? How do you teach employees jerk-coping skills, and to create productive relationships with people who may not initially wish them well?