The Jerk at Work

July 27, 2006 at 12:00 am

It’s a familiar situation. So familiar, in fact, that anyone who has worked for a while has faced it. You work with — or worse, for — a jerk. Whether that jerk is the passive-aggressive type who rolls his eyes or grumbles so you can hear but never addresses issues directly, or a yeller who humiliates people in meetings or sends nasty group emails doesn’t really matter. A jerk is a jerk is a jerk at work, and though they come in many flavors, the solution is the same. As in most situations, you have to start with yourself if you hope to improve a negative situation — or impact it in any significant way.

This is no easy task. And it may frustrate you to even hear it. But what it comes back to is the old adage we usually hear applied to romantic relationships: no one can change anyone else! This saying holds true at work too, and thereby, you have to change those things that you can control — in other words, your own actions and reactions in relation to this problem person.

So where do you start?

The answer depends, in good part, on your position in relation to the offender. Colleagues (or those of parallel position in the office pecking order) should be dealt with openly. No matter how hard it is, approaching the subject head-on while being careful not to place blame is the fairest way to start. Assess your own role in the problem and try to modify your behavior to help a shift occur. And if all else fails and you are unable to achieve a compromise or change on your own (and with the co-worker), you can always approach your boss. In fact, if the problem is more than just a personality conflict and is actually affecting your work, you may have no choice but to do just that.

However, if the jerk in question happens to be your boss, the situation is entirely different — and requires a slightly different way of thinking.

Unless your supervisor is doing something potentially illegal, you have very little recourse in a bad boss situation according to Career Coach Rachelle Disbonnett-Lee. If said boss’s behavior is so offensive that it’s intolerable, it may be worth it to go your Human Resources Manager. But barring some sort of actual harassment, you may find you only complicate matters by doing so — now, not only is your boss a jerk, but he or she knows you think so! While there is, indeed a lot to be said for sticking up for yourself (after all, we dictate the fashion in which we’re treated most of the time), taking responsibility for the relationship and changing your behavior is usually a much better course — and it’s certainly a better first step to getting what you want: a more pleasant (possibly even amicable) working environment.

Disbonnett-Lee calls this managing your manager, and it’s something that we all need to do. Naturally this does not mean actually supervising your manager, (which obviously, we can’t do), but rather, managing your behavior so as to keep his or her jerkiness to a minimum. Among other things, it means knowing what he or she likes/responds to, when the best times to approach things with him/her are and mastering the tactics that will keep things running smoothest — mainly by doing a great job. By giving your boss what he or she is asking for, in the fashion you know he likes it, you do your best to prevent jerk behaviors. That said, you also want to try your best to keep your emotions at bay when it comes to your boss. Consider this business, which it is, and remove yourself from becoming caught up and taking things personally. In other words, no one can fault you for being courteous and professional, efficient and to the point at the office (even if it’s killing you to do it!). But whining, getting shaken or storming around will do little to improve your stature or illustrate your capabilities at the office.

Now of course, there are people with no social skills, and if you’re dealing with someone of this sort, no matter how good you are at your job, you probably won’t affect a change. This is one of the hardest situations to deal with, because there is almost no addressing it (and very little recourse). Most of us want to like the people we’re forced to spend time with, and more importantly, want to be liked in return. If you’re faced with a socially incompetent manager, your approach must be the same — it must start with you. To make that easier, consider, perhaps, that your boss is simply trying to do his or her job, too. We’re all human after all (even if boss-zilla doesn’t seem it), and a perspective shift may help you take a new approach. Remembering that your boss is human, consider what you can do to make them feel better/more confident and thereby less prone to jerkiness. After all, it’s completely possible he/she isn’t intentionally jerky, just unaware. The key here is also delivering the goods your boss need to do a good job. Make your boss look good and you increase your odds of being treated well.

That said, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make sure to be open about any changes the accommodations you’re making to deliver cause and how they affect your other responsibilities. In other words, don’t commit to unrealistic goals. The better you’re able to deliver on your promises, the better you’re going to look, the better your boss is going to look and the more he/she is going to trust you. Trust, in turn, translates to a decrease in micro-management — at least most of the time.

If nothing works and your boss remains jerky, one of the most important things to remember in this unfortunate situation, according to Disbennett-Lee, is that it doesn’t matter if you like your boss. It simply matters that you recognize he/she is your boss and you can’t change that. She also advises being very careful about complaining to co-workers. Your words will oftentimes get back to your boss… and then you’ve undoubtedly worsened the situation.

Lastly, Disbennett-Lee stresses the importance of documenting everything when you’re in a bad boss situation. By keeping track of your interactions with your boss, the work you’re doing and anything else that seems worth noting, you save yourself a lot of time and trouble if things ever do escalate to the point of a formal complaint.

Naturally, you can elect to leave if a situation is too difficult. But at least trying to rectify a problem will strengthen your skills and allow for the possibility of improvement — for everyone involved.

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