Feature Story | 12-Apr-2022

Tackling ‘work demons’ in our toxic coworkers -- and ourselves

New York University

The coronavirus pandemic and other factors prompted Americans to quit their jobs in record numbers in 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported late last year.

However, some have concluded that this movement is not necessarily a sign of job dissatisfaction—sociologist Scott Schieman notes that the percentage of U.S. workers who say they are satisfied with their jobs has remained steady over the past 20 years. 

“A slice of workers are always considering leaving their jobs—and as the labor market looks brighter, the pent-up impulse to quit kicks in,” he wrote at the end of 2021. 

Regardless, the workplace has undoubtedly transformed since March of 2020, when the pandemic sent millions away from offices and to their homes to work remotely, either part-time or full-time—a circumstance that has continued into 2022. 

And the upheaval in our work life may have made us even more attuned to a sore spot that’s been there all along: the presence of challenging co-workers. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to get on each other’s nerves.

“Most of us have worked with someone who had an outsized effect on our emotional well-being,” writes NYU’s Tessa West, a social psychologist, in her newly released Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them (Portfolio), an office “playbook” that draws from decades of research in outlining ways to make us less “beholden to soul-sucking jerks at work and the chaos they inflict on your life.”

“It’s about looking out for warning signs, understanding why someone behaves the way they do, and learning how to open the lines of communication so you can solve the problem quickly and with as little stress as possible,” continues West, whose book is informed by not only scholarship, but also by her own experiences, including a high school job in a video rental store.

While West’s book centers on difficult co-workers, and offers character sketches of specific types of work jerks (dramatized, to music, in the video below), it also raises another, more inward-looking question: Am I “A Jerk at Work”? 

“For the most part, there aren’t good people and bad people at work,” West observes. “Most of us have a little ‘work demon’ lurking within us—that less-than-ideal version of ourselves that, given the right circumstances, can come out and wreak havoc on our workplace relationships.”

With this in mind, NYU News asked her to outline rules to help us spot, and curb, our own potentially jerk-like behavior in the workplace—while also diminishing the same in our colleagues. 

Rule No. 1: Learn what your Achilles heel is at work: What type of jerk are you most likely to become, and what are the circumstances that trigger it?

For some, feeling burned out and overwhelmed triggers their neglectful boss tendencies; for others, being forced to compete with their coworkers for scarce resources brings out their inner kiss-up-kick-downer. You might not be able to avoid the triggers, but you can learn to control how you respond to them.

Rule No. 2: Find out how much consensus there is around your behavior.

If you have at least a little bit of power at work, there’s a good chance you’re getting very little feedback about your jerk-at-work behavior (requests for such feedback, especially if solicited from lower power folks, are often met with brittle smiles). It can be tough to tell how localized our relationship problems are at work. It might feel like everyone hates you, but maybe it’s just one person: the bitter coworker you used to share an office with.

Before moving to fix the problem, it is critical to find out how much consensus there is around your behavior at work. Broadly connected folks who are at arms length from you are often the best at giving “global” feedback—general reputational information— that can help you scope out the severity of the problem (avoiding probing for small details at first; it feels gossipy). And if you can return the favor, all the better. It’s healthy to find a small group of people who have a “keep it real” rule—you help me improve, and I help you.

Rule No. 3: Don’t expect to outwit your work demon when times get tough. Put guardrails in place.

If you’ve identified your triggers and you realize that, indeed, you are a jerk at work, the next step is to put guardrails in place to stop you from falling off the wagon. Often the most effective strategies go against intuition: Micromanagers benefit from having short frequent meetings with their employees (not fewer ones); bulldozers, who have a tendency to take over, need their fellow group members to pick up the slack for thankless jobs that no one wants to do (they gain power early by doing these jobs). Put the guardrails in place, and check on them often. You will not only curb your own jerk-at-work behavior, but also the naughty behavior of others with similar tendencies.

Rule No. 4: Help others solve their jerk-at-work problems to avoid inadvertently contributing to them.

Few things kill morale faster than a jerk who tortures their coworkers while everyone sits back and watches. Jerks at work aren’t just doers—they are also passive observers. In my book I talk a lot about how to be an effective ally. If you suspect that someone is being targeted by a jerk, do some probing. For example, if you suspect they’re being gaslit and cut off from others, start with, “I noticed that you stopped coming to our weekly brainstorming meetings. Is everything okay?” For people who don’t feel comfortable opening up, drop a note with some resources they could use. A light touch is often the best approach at first. It benefits everyone to fish out jerk-at-work problems early, even if it feels awkward in the moment.

Rule No. 5: Don’t hand over the reins to jerks at work, no matter how tempting it might be.

Some of the most well-intentioned bosses inadvertently hand over power to jerks at work. Micromanaged bosses are happy to offload work to conscientious team players, like their weekly one-on-ones with the new interns. Kiss-up-kick downers will use moments like these to become the sole communicator between the boss and their employees. Neglectful bosses who are pulled in a million directions are often clueless about how much freeloading is going on in teams. They walk by the conference room and see everyone laughing and having fun, and they assume all is well (ironically, freeloading occurs most among teams of friends of conscientious go-getters). Learn what circumstances make you fall prey to the exploitive behavior of others. Then use rule three—put guardrails in place to help you from handing over the reins to them.

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