Culture   //   May 13, 2022

Bookshelf: Tessa West on how to identify 7 types of jerks at work

This article is part of the WorkLife Bookshelf series, which features interviews with authors of recently-published, notable books tackling topics relevant to future of work trends.

Do you work with a jerk? Maybe a “kiss-up/kick-downer” or a “bulldozer.” You might even exhibit some jerk-like behaviors yourself.

To get a better grasp on what challenging personalities you may be up against in the office, Tessa West has written a new book – Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, in which she identifies seven of the most prevalent work-jerk types.

West is an associate professor of psychology at New York University and the principal investigator at the school’s West Interpersonal Perception Lab and is recognized as a leading expert on interpersonal interaction and communication.

The need to do something to address the problem of jerks at work, the author writes, is necessary to prevent a workplace from becoming intolerable and to control the impact of stress on the body and the mind. We spoke to West to find out more about these, well, jerks.

This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

What inspired you to write about this issue of certain people having bad attitudes toward others at work?

I realized that after many years of studying social interactions — and the things that make them uncomfortable — most of us don’t receive any type of training on dealing with conflict at work. We go through training on how to deal with the big stuff (like how to report a sexual harasser to human resources), but not the everyday stuff. I do a lot of consulting work, and you’d be shocked at the number of senior leaders who’ve come to me and said, ‘This is embarrassing, but I have no idea how to deal with these two people on my team who don’t get along.’ No one ever taught them.  

Management training is often focused on the technical aspects of our jobs, not on the interpersonal aspects. My book is designed to be a guide for anyone dealing with difficult people at work, no matter what your level in an organization, or how many years you’ve been working.

Being a psychologist gives you a better understanding of why an individual may choose to have this kind of personality, what are those reasons? Are they looking for attention?  

I actually don’t think most jerks at work have bad personalities. Some do, but on the whole people are responding to systems that either encourage them to behave this way to get ahead, or at the very least, create fertile ground for doing so. Take the kiss-up/kick-downer for example. This person is willing to do anything to climb ahead, including stepping on people. But without hyper competitive workplaces that encourage or model this behavior, they wouldn’t get away with it. And some types of jerks – like micromanagers – actually have good traits, like being conscientious and detail oriented, but put in the wrong context can turn into major pains to work with. Cultures with a fear of failure, no training in how to manage people who are now doing their old job, or being micromanaged themselves can turn these would-be good managers into jerks.

How severe could the damage be for those coworkers affected by someone’s bad attitude?  

Pretty severe. Low-level stress is the true death of us at work (and in life, it turns out – stress can really harm the body). We underestimate it because it feels small, but this stress can really add up.

What’s your personal take about overbearing bosses, irritating coworkers, and all-around difficult people who make work and life miserable?

Most of us at some point in our careers will encounter these people. It’s inevitable. You might even become one without realizing it. We can’t play a game of “whack-a-mole” with jerks at work, and leaving jobs because you think the grass will be greener somewhere else probably won’t work. You need to learn strategies for dealing with conflict early, and practice them often. This book is designed to help you do that. And a large part of this isn’t about confronting individuals who are jerks, it’s about changing systems and rules at work that make it hard for jerks to thrive. The good news is, if you’re non-confrontational, there’s a lot you can do to tackle jerks that doesn’t involve telling off a bully.

In your book you wrote our “go-to tactics” don’t work because they fail to address the specific motivations that drive bad behavior. Why? 

Most of us start with the premise that these people are bad apples, so we need to either go all-in on confrontation (The “stand your ground” approach), or avoid them completely. Usually it doesn’t involve a lot of perspective taking, or thinking about how the situation they’re in breeds bad behavior. This is a common bias in human psychology – when people act out in bad ways, we focus a lot more on the person than the situation. I challenge people to think about what motivates their jerk’s behavior in an effort to get them to think more broadly about why people do what they do.

Knowing the causes is often critical for knowing the solutions. For example, if your boss is a middle manager and they [are] a micromanager, they will probably have very little time for you (something like 70% of a middle manager’s time is spent on things their manager asked of them). They will neglect you. But knowing this is important for figuring out how to get that time back (as compared to a neglectful boss who isn’t hard working – he’s off in France with his mistress and that’s why you aren’t hearing back). That problem would require a different strategy.

Identifying the jerk type

Besides the “kiss-up/kick-downer” and the “micromanager,” we’ve broken out the five other jerks described in West’s book, along with her advice on how to handle their behavior:

  • The credit stealer: An opportunist who takes someone else’s good idea and pretends it’s their own; or claims an outsized role in the success of a team’s project. 

    Solution: The best defense is to document who did what while working on a task.
  • The bulldozer: Someone who is determined to get what they want. The individual will dominate work meetings and undermine group consensus. Overworked bosses who are out of touch with day-to-day operations make prime targets for bulldozers. 

    Solution: Develop strategies where more voices are heard and relay the need for those perspectives to be recognized by the group’s supervisor.
  • The free rider: An expert at doing nothing, while getting rewarded for it. West maintains this type is the most common jerk at work, adding that the free rider’s main skill is to be charming. 

    Solution: Set up regular “fairness checks” on who is performing which assignments in a project — this can help blunt the corrosive impact of the free rider.
  • The neglectful boss: Spends long periods of inattention, then has a buildup of anxiety, and so — to relieve the angst — swoops in suddenly, usually at a deadline, and wants to know everything you have been doing.

    Solution: Request a short meeting to make small, specific requests of the manager regarding an ongoing project, and offer to take modest jobs off their plate to free up their time.
  • The gaslighter: The “most toxic” of all office jerks. They lie with the intent of perpetrating big-time deceptions. West says gaslighters could be covering up incompetence or behavior that is either illegal or unethical. A gaslighter will isolate someone and then slowly build up a false reality to suit their needs by making the target feel part of something special or tearing down their self-worth.

    Solution: Trust your instincts when it comes to dealing with a gaslighter and if something doesn’t seem right, document the episode. And establish a network of reliable coworkers. Together, the group can explore your problem with the gaslighter before embarking on further steps.

 Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them is published by Penguin.