INTERVIEW: How to deal with Jerks at Work (with Tessa West)
Issue 42: An Interview with "Jerks at Work" author Tessa West
We are excited to feature an interview with Professor Tessa West this week. Tessa is a social psychologist, and one of Jay’s colleagues at New York University. She loves to study tricky social situations, like how we give feedback to someone more powerful than us, how we confront people who offend us, and why we have a tendency to bend over backwards to look friendly when we are at our most anxious.
Tessa has published a fascinating book, called ‘Jerks at work: Toxic coworkers and what to do about them’. It is the definitive guide to dealing with—and breaking free from—the overbearing bosses, irritating coworkers, and all-around difficult people who make work and life miserable. We all know that jerks can destroy group morale and productivity, so dealing with toxic coworkers is one of the most fundamental steps for building an effective team.
In fact, a recent study found that a toxic corporate culture is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry. This is why dealing with difficult coworkers is essential to making organizations smarter, happier, and more successful.
Tessa’s book describes how most of our go-to tactics don’t work because they fail to address the specific motivations that drive bad behavior. In this book, she describes seven of the jerks you’re most likely to encounter at the office (e.g., micromanager, bulldozer, free rider, gas lighter), drawing on decades of original research to expose their inner workings and weak points—and ultimately deliver an effective game plan for stopping each type before they take you down with them.
Jay also makes a cameo in the book—but, thankfully, not a as a jerk *phew*. Instead, Tessa claims he’s a common victim of the “time thief”. So you’ll have to check out the book to see about his alleged weakness and ensure you don’t fall for the same traps. (Also, please don’t use this insight to exploit Jay’s weakness.)
What does your book teach us about group dynamics?
Most people at some point will work on a team at work. And we tend to think that strong teams—those that have cohesion, collective rewarding, and are full of conscientious team players—provide a barrier against jerks. If we work together and the right reward structures are in place, what could go wrong? But jerks at work are sneaky, and the smart ones know how to exploit strong teams. Ironically the best teams are often the most vulnerable to jerks at work. For example, there’s some great research showing that teams with free-riders work even harder than teams without them. Why? Because conscientious people are like busy little bees repairing a hive after a bear attacked it; they make-up for the lack of work one person does by doing even more work than they would have done otherwise. What’s the outcome? Bosses see how productive these teams are, and give them even more work (which of course they do well). The free-rider is in this optimal place: do nothing, watch their team members go above and beyond, and get a bigger bonus because they are part of the kick-ass team.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about jerks at work?
When I started writing this book I thought I would find evidence of different jerky “personality types” that cut across situations. But what I found was different. Most of the time, jerks at work are born out of bad situations, sometimes created inadvertently by well-intended bosses. Almost all of us have some inner jerk lurking inside of us. For many of us, that inner jerk comes out when we are stressed out, feel like our goal is being blocked, or aren’t getting guidance from above. Sure, there are some bad apples, but most of the time people behave badly at work because situations bring out the worst in them. When people ask me, “how can I tell if someone is a jerk so I can avoid hiring them?” I respond with something like, “tell me about your workplace and I’ll tell you about the types of jerks that can thrive there.” If we want to reduce jerk at work behavior, we need to think deeply about things like is it clear what it takes to get ahead here, does the management encourage “cut throat” competition, and do leaders have any training on how to manage every day conflict?
What is the biggest unanswered question in this area going forward?
Sometimes we try all of these tactics and they don’t work. Not every jerk at work problem can be solved. I'm expecting to get a handful of people who come to me and say, "I tried all of your tactics and they didn't work. Now what?"
So the next unanswered question is how you break up with a jerk at work, and what a good exit strategy looks like for switching bosses, teams, or even jobs. When can you tell that enough is enough? How do you leave a job where the jerks go either unchecked or rewarded for their behavior. And what responsibility do you have for being honest at those exit interviews (and is it worth it)? Those are the big ideas I’m currently studying.
Do you have any practical advice for people who want to apply these ideas?
There is no shortage of advice out there on how to handle difficult coworkers. But a lot of it is anecdotal (based on the successes of top leaders and what worked for them). My book steps outside the box a bit and provides advice based on tried and true relationships science. A lot of these tactics—like how to effectively criticize someone without threatening them or harming your relationship—have been developed by scientists who study marriages and family relationships. We rarely use these tactics on our workplace relationships, but it turns out that relationships aren’t so different in kind. No one likes their flaws spelled out to them in excruciating detail, whether that be your husband or your employee.
A lot of the advice in my book is counterintuitive and goes against our gut instincts of how to handle difficult social situations. Things like, start off complimenting your kiss-up-kick-downer to your boss before you complain (Why? Your boss loves them, and you need to show you understand why). Focus on the specific behavior the person engaged in, not how you feel about it and certainly not on what it says about their personality. For example, you wouldn’t want to tell a micromanager that they have trust issues or that they are smothering you. Instead, you would want to focus on the thing that feels smothering: they only give you 20 minutes to respond to an email before they prod you again.
Because effectively managing conflict requires us to perspective take and sometimes hand an olive branch to someone we dislike, people will read some of it and think, "Yuck! I'm not telling my boss that Larry is an asset to the team when he's a total a**hole to me and everyone else." But trust me! My advice is based on tried and true science. It might feel uncomfortable at times, but it works. And none of it requires you to be get down in the mud with your jerk at work. It will show your boss and other leaders how mature and effective you are at managing conflict—two things that will get you raises and promotions.
To learn more about Jerks at Work you can watch the short video below from her interview yesterday on Good Morning America and find her book or do Jerk at Work quizzes on her website: tessawestauthor.com.
News and Updates
Speaking of toxic, Jay was harassed by about 1000 strangers for fact checking a bit of misinformation shared on the Joe Rogan podcast. Specifically, he (along with several other experts) debunked the claim that people who are following public health guidelines during the pandemic are suffering from “Mass formation psychosis”. In fact, there is no scientific basis for this term. Yet, it led to a massive backlash from conspiracy theorists. If you want to learn more about this topic and the fallout, you can listen to his interview with the Tech Policy Press podcast.
Did you ever do the famous TIME Harry Potter Quiz? We did. Dominic explains why people are suckers for the sorts of non-scientific personality tests that sort us into different identity groups.
Jay recently did an interview with Yahoo sports about why social media debates about the Baseball Hall of Fame become so toxic.
Dominic did an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio about rethinking political tribalism in the USA. It was inspired by our recent article in The Atlantic on ‘They Myth of Tribalism”. You can list to the full interview here, where Dominic goes into greater depth on the topic.
Finally, we’ve been noticing that several people who are reading ”The Power of Us” are sharing lessons, stories, and studies from the book on social media. If you find something insightful or have a “Eureka” moment as you are reading the book, please share it online and tag us. We will amplify your thoughts with the rest of our followers.
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