I’ve come to define jerks simply as people who make life more difficult for other people. Kind people—the non-jerks in the world—do just the opposite. They endeavor to make life easier for others.
Working with jerks is a painful mess that is never fun nor rewarding; makes you want to give up; frustrates the heck out of you; and keeps you from doing your best work. In short, working with jerks makes kind people unhappy.
There is really only one, very short piece of advice I have to give you about how to work with jerks:
Of course, you don’t always have a choice. And you never end up working with a jerk because you want to. Jerks tend to sneak up on you, or are forced upon you by politics or the need to keep your job.
Personally, I don’t think any job is worth it.
Before I started my own company years ago, I quit a number of jobs rather than work with a jerk. I started this practice early. At the beginning of my working life, I worked as an assistant to a bully surgeon who had invented a special kind of surgical knife. He was the CEO of the company producing that knife.
One day I was taking notes for him during a meeting he was having with other company execs. They were in a quandary about how to solve a problem. The solution seemed very clear to me.
“Why don’t you try [this approach]?” I asked them. Dr. Bully Surgeon turned to me, glaring. After the meeting, he asked me to come into his office. He looked at me, angry, and said, “I’m not paying you to think!”
“Well, then, I have to quit,” I replied.
A photo of me then went up in the engineering department bulletin board, along with photos of 27 other assistants who had come to work for Mr. Bully Surgeon, and had left or been fired.
I was never afraid of quitting; I just went out and found another job.
But we don’t always have this solution available to us. If you’re stuck, I can give you some advice that will help you survive a jerk at work. But first let’s understand why jerks act like jerks.
Why do jerks act like jerks?
Why do jerks behave the way they do? I think being a jerk is a decision they make when they first start going to daycare or kindergarten. They make a choice about how they are going to deal with the cruelty of crowds. Their choice is to try to out-bully the bullies (which, of course, turns them into a bully), or to rise above the cruelty and still treat others as they would want to be treated. That’s what the kind people end up doing.
Note that no babies are born jerks. Being a jerk is a decision. Which means that the jerks know who they are. So when I say, “We don’t work with jerks,” the jerks get offended.
This is the best way to find out if you’ve got a jerk on your hands. Trying to determine this by watching their behavior during your initial interactions with them doesn’t work. Jerks are like a luscious-looking chocolate truffle with a live tarantula inside. You simply can’t know by watching outside appearances and behaviors.
But if things start to bog down, you’ll get a Big Fat Clue. Jerks will make your life more difficult. Even something simple like making an appointment will be unnecessarily convoluted.
When you’re working with a jerk at work, you will never know where you stand; the information and support that you need will never be provided when or how you need it; all of the “meet my needs” stuff will only go one way (obviously, in favor of the jerk); simple decisions will take forever to resolve; discussions will be heated and often ridiculous; and you will always be more drained than inspired after every conversation. Life gets more confusing and more frustrating the longer you work with a jerk.
As they grow up, jerks start to realize that other people don’t like jerks. So they develop sneaky methods to be more acceptable. They become actors, on stage 24/7.
This is why you can’t trust anything a jerk says to you. This is why working with, or for, a jerk is so disappointing. They will say anything they know you want to hear, and then never follow through.
But, again, if you are forced to deal with difficult colleagues or a jerk boss, you need some tools. Here we go . . .
How to succeed in spite of a jerk co-worker or jerk boss
- Don’t take anything they say personally or seriously. We have already established that they are not being truthful, and that they will say whatever they think you want to hear. So just be separate from them. Observe them from a safe distance. Don’t “take them in.” As my husband often reminds me, “Don’t internalize their dysfunction.” Because they expect you to believe what they are telling you, they won’t like your ability to keep them at an arm’s distance. They will be uncomfortable with you, which will just make them more of a jerk. This will actually work in your favor; others will see how unbalanced they have become and how calm you are in contrast, and decide they’d rather align themselves with you. While you will still be dealing with a jerk, at least you won’t be doing it alone.
- Be honest and straightforward. At all times. Jerks hate the truth, because it can unmask them. They fear that most of all. The facts are your friend when dealing with jerks. Take notes when you are talking to them; write down what they promised to do; send out post-meeting notes afterwards to everyone who was in the meeting that include their promises. Don’t let them be sneaky.
- Know that they were jerks before you got there, and they will still be jerks when you are gone. It’s so easy to fret and worry when working with a jerk. “Was I really that bad? Why did he call me out in front of everyone else? Why can’t we just get this done, and move on? Why did we spend 30 minutes in that meeting arguing over that one point?” These questions will rattle around in your brain. Kind people are problem-solvers, and you will be trying to solve a problem that you cannot solve. You need to accept that they have decided to be jerks, that you can’t save them, and the best that you can do is to succeed in spite of them.
- Stay calm. They want to rile you; they are most comfortable when everyone else is off balance. Be the exception. Be that observer who sees what’s going on and is not rattled.
- Call them at their game. This takes intestinal fortitude, but it is very powerful. I can’t tell you how many times I have done this in my revenue coaching work. Of course you don’t resort to their jerk methods when you do this; you should still be polite and decide when and where you are going to do it. It’s always most effective if you do it while the irritation is occuring, though. For example, if a meeting is getting bogged down on a minor point, and everyone is getting super frustrated, you would say, “This feels like a distraction to me. Is there some reason that we are spending so much time on this topic? Should we take this part of the conversation offline, and continue on with the agenda?” They will know they’ve been called out, and will back off. For a while.
- Don’t turn into a jerk because you’re dealing with a jerk. Yes, this is similar to not internalizing their dysfunction, but it takes it a step further. When you have a jerk running around in your head, forcing problems upon you that feel unsolvable, it’s easy to bark at your loved ones. Which means that not only has the jerk gotten under your skin, but you are spreading it to the very people who mean a lot to you. You can keep jerks out of your life and your head; it is a decision that you make, as you go on with the other parts of your life.
- Protect your team. If you are in a position of management, and your boss is a jerk, do whatever you can to keep them from having to interact with that person. Convert the chaos into carefully constructed instructions that make sense and eliminate the confusion. Keep reminding them how good they are, in spite of the challenges. Don’t drone on and on about the jerk; it will just depress them, make them feel powerless, and lower their productivity. Yes, you will all know that the person is a jerk and that nothing can be done, but it should just be a known fact, not a subject that dominates conversations. It is what it is; you all have to deal with it; and you, as the leader, must show the way.
- Leave if you can, as soon as you can. Sometimes you need to stay because you know that in some amount of time that you can stand, that person is not going to be there anymore. There are certainly times when sticking it out is a good idea. But I confess that I have never, ever regretted walking away from a jerk. I now work every day with our own jerk-free team and jerk-free client list, and it is heavenly. Life’s too short to spend your working days miserable just because of one person.
- If you work with the public, treat the jerks as nicely as you do the nice people. Customers are customers. And yes, about one out of every 20 or so will be irritating and time-wasting. But all of the above still applies, as long as those jerks aren’t making it too difficult for the nice customers (taking too much time when they finally get to the counter, for example). There are times when you do need to nicely call them at it or ask for their patience while you break from the long, drawn-out interaction to help a few other people who have been waiting patiently. Everyone in line will know that you’re doing the best you can in a jerk-filled situation.
- Be grateful that jerks only have a few games. They can obsess over non-relevant issues; they can call attention to themselves; they can say things about others or situations that simply aren’t true; they can withhold important information. In short, they use dishonesty, distraction, or a dismissive attitude to yield power over others. It’s all about power, in fact. If you understand that, you’re way ahead of the game and it’s easier to see them for who they decided to be, years ago.
That’s about it. I wish you the most jerk-free life you can possibly have while living on this earth.