Strategies for Working with Jerks

In my last post, I wrote about people and systems within organizations. I mentioned I would dedicate an entire post about jerks so here it is. This is such a touchy subject and has taken me a long time to write. I’ve taken classes, training and have also done some research by interviewing people in the corporate world. And of course, I’ve had many many personal experiences. So I wanted to put all that together. Because really, the more I work, I feel like the hardest thing is not the tools and craft, but the people. Everybody has their own personalities and motivations.

If you’ve worked in a team environment, I’m sure you have at one point encountered someone who just rubs you the wrong way. Some people are so toxic, they can make your job difficult. And since we spend 1/3+ of our waking ours in our workplace, I think it will be hugely beneficial to our mental health to know how to navigate these difficult situations.

Identifying jerks

In order to talk about jerks, we must first define what it means to be a jerk. In my experience, it is rare to find people who are actually trying to be jerks on purpose. But you can tell those bad actors at work exhibiting toxic behaviors like the egotistical divas, dictators controlling everything, or someone who is dishonest and lies. There are many ways to describe this type of person. I’m sure ya’ll know what I’m talking about. I like to use the term “jerks” because my professor had a class dedicated to this topic and it has stuck with me ever since. In real life though, don’t call someone a jerk. It’s important not to label people and create cliques or invisible walls that separates “us” (the good guys) and “them” (those nasty jerks). This only stews up an ocean of negativity and an unhealthy environment.

Find what makes them tick

Most conflict is a direct result of an activating event that triggers an emotional response, which in turn triggers a series of behaviors that we use to cope with what we believe may be the problem. Think about your last encounter with a jerk. What was the activating event in your opinion? Did you feel like you were treated unfairly or overpowered? Is there mutual respect? Do you feel like the other person is being dishonest?

If you understand the WHY people are jerks, you can use appropriate principles and approaches for the circumstances.

Whatever it is, it’s important to remember to try to separate the individual from their behavior because it’s the behaviors you want to weed out, not the person itself.

Assume positive intent

Let’s pause here and take a breather. Before you write off someone and start hating them, give them the benefit of doubt and assume positive intent. They might not be aware that they are doing something wrong.

So if you’re wondering ‘why did he leave me out of that meeting?’ or ‘is he stealing my idea?’ know that sometimes people make mistakes unintentionally so take a second before quickly judging someone and hating them.

Strategies for manipulation

Call it conflict management or influence or whatever. I’m just going to call it what it is–manipulation. Yes, there is a way to work with these prickly pears–it’s not just about controlling yourself.

Basically, there are 5 different strategies people tend to take in the face of conflict:
• Collaboration
• Competition
• Compromising
• Retaliation
• Domination
• Isolation

Obviously, there are many advantages to being collaborative and should be the first option to pursue. Collaborating with the other party promotes creative problem solving, and it is a way of fostering mutual respect and rapport. However, collaborating takes time and energy, and many conflict situations are either very urgent or too trivial to justify the time it takes to collaborate. Which is why it is more common to see people ignoring people or bending over to accommodate, or use power. Avoiding people is the easier route to take and most people choose this route rather than collaboration.

Managers who are very skilled at conflict management are able to (a) understand interpersonal conflict situations and (b) use the appropriate conflict management strategy for each situation. This is why in some cases, it is a good idea to lean on your manager to help resolve the issue. Sometimes it helps to have a more senior and neutral person to defuse the situation, look at both sides, and make a call.

Escalations are not a bad thing, and there should be a process for it.

Caveat though, I say “some cases” because it’s not always good to tattle tale to their managers or cc them in their emails. It’s like throwing someone under the bus or backstabbing them. It may be more difficult, but it is always best to first talk to your the person directly. It can get hairy, but I think these are healthy tensions.

It’s a conversation, not a confrontation

When managing friction, it’s important to have a mindset that it really is as simple as starting conversation. No need to get your boxing gloves out. Disagreements should be welcomed and the company culture should allow for a safe environment to have a healthy discourse.

But for people who are nice and generally agreeable, this can feel very uncomfortable.

Some people go the passive-aggressive route. I’ve seen people use memes in chatrooms, make a funny joke and laugh it off. Humor does help mitigate some situations and it’s important to not take everything so seriously. But still there are things that matter deeply and being passive-aggressive doesn’t address the issue completely. It is only a short-term solution.

I’ll tell you a story. One day, Joe (not his real name) the manager, invited his employee, Sara, to give a critique and chat about a bad issue caused by her. After the conversation, she thanked him repeatedly and went away with the discussion thinking that she got a promotion!

It’s a true story. You might have heard of the phrase, “kill them with kindness”. Well, it doesn’t work. It’s just a weak approach that just ends up being confusing. That’s why sandwich feedback (hiding the criticism between positive statements) doesn’t work either.

So be clear and direct. The key is to be tactful. It’s okay if you don’t come out of the meeting with actionable next steps or agreement. Changing hearts and minds doesn’t occur overnight. The first step is to have an open and honest conversation and listening to each other. Once you let it surface, at least you have made the issue aware.

Giving feedback is like an art form. I’ll have to write my next post dedicated to this. So more on that later..

Right place / Right time

So far we’ve covered HOW to give feedback. Now let’s talk about the WHEN. There is a right place and a right time to give feedback. The general rule of thumb is early and often. It is always best to talk about it right away. Don’t hold grudges and wait until the annual 360 review to write a shitty feedback or set up a meeting a week later to talk about it. It’s always better to start the conversation like “can I talk to you about what happened in that meeting we were just in?” rather than “about what happened 4 months ago…” Nobody remembers trivial things like that.

When giving negative feedback, it is best to do it in private like 1:1 meetings. It could be more casual and friendly by going outside of the building/call and go to a coffee shop or take a walk.

Align on common goals

Ultimately, the key to working harmoniously is to align on common goals or a mission. You may not like who you’re working with but you have to at least be a professional and do your job. What you don’t want is to have a group of people outcasting someone or continuing to spew negativity around and create a toxic work environment.

One of my favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt is, “small minds talk about people, great minds talk about ideas.” Gossiping or finger pointing, or throwing people under the bus is a sleazy thing to do.

Focus on the bigger picture and think about how you can align yourself to OKRs and solve for business needs. Remember, the real enemy is your competitors, not your co-workers.

Final Thoughts

Please know that most of the world isn’t overflowing with jerks. There are only a few crazies out there. But they do exist and when you do encounter them, it’s good to know what to do and how to deal with them.

While this is a very complex topic and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the main thing I want to impose upon you is that when you encounter jerks, don’t ignore them–work with them. It does take emotional time and effort, but it is worth it. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is a necessary skill to have wherever you work. Building relationships and working together as a team is always going to be required. People call these soft skills, but really, it’s the hard skills.

Leaders are agents of change. Change can create discomfort and tension.
That’s okay. These are healthy tensions to have. It’s all part of the relationship building and moving the organization, team, or individual closer to the preferred outcomes. It’s a long journey but it can be rewarding. So get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Designer, Writer, Thinker @hannahKimBrooks

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