How to Deal With Jerks
If the words, “Life is too short to work with jerks” have never come out of your mouth, then you either have a very short memory or you’re just not being honest with yourself. Nobody likes to work with jerks. I didn’t either, until I realized I was one.
You heard right. I’m a jerk. But here’s the thing: I’m not a jerk all the time or to everyone. It depends. Work relationships are funny that way. They’re two-way streets, highly subjective, and situational, as well.
Look at it this way: The workplace is a diverse melting pot of personalities, personal baggage, and different perspectives. Besides, everyone reacts differently to the pressures, stresses and uncertainty of modern competitive markets.
If you want to survive and thrive in a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment, you’ve got to learn how to handle all kinds of people, including those you may think are jerks. This is how successful executives and business leaders do that.
Look in the mirror. People are often jerks to those they feel threatened by and those they perceive to be jerks. It’s always a good idea to make sure you’re not contributing to the problem. You can always ask a trusted third party or deal with your nemesis directly and try to clear the air.
Related: Note to Self: Be Aware
Address the problem, not the person. Confrontation is good for business, if you know the ground rules. Perhaps the most valuable tenet of constructive confrontation is to always discuss the issue and never make it personal. It’s one thing to say you don’t like someone’s idea, but if you say you don’t like him, that’s inflammatory.
Resist the urge to label or judge. Once you slap a label or pronounce judgment on someone – even if just in your own mind – that just makes it harder to shake it. Even worse is inventing motives out of thin air. You’re not a shrink, you have no idea why people do the things they do – oftentimes they don’t know themselves – so you’ll most likely be wrong.
Get your priorities straight. Business is about business; it’s not about you and your personal issues with someone else. Focus on your priorities and finding the most effective way to get the job done. After all, that’s what you’re paid to do. If that sounds like tough love, you’re absolutely right.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. I was trained in conflict management as a young manager, and the most effective tool is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and try repeating it back to them: “Let me see if I understand. Are you saying _____ ?” You’ll be surprised how often that defuses tense situations.
Related: Trust Your Own Focus Group of One
Be the bigger person. When I was a kid, I had a fight with my best friend, so I went home crying to my mom. Even though I said he started it, she said I should be the bigger person and apologize or we would never be friends again. So I did and everything went back to normal. Lesson learned and never forgotten. After all, that was 50 years ago.
Don’t get into turf battles. You’re not going to get anywhere in life by protecting your turf. Trust me on that. It might seem important today but, someday, you’ll look back and wonder why you thought petty little stuff like that mattered so much.
Deal with it in real time. While it’s sometimes good to walk away from a heated argument and let emotions quiet down, letting ongoing problems fester is almost always a very bad idea. Dealing with issues openly and directly as they occur is generally the way to go.
Let an outlier weed himself out. If someone is a constant counterproductive pain in the you-know-what, in all likelihood, he will eventually dig his own grave and be cast out by a well-functioning organizational culture. A top Japanese executive once told me, “If you wait by the river long enough, you’ll see the body of your enemy float by.” It’s an old proverb and it’s generally true. Patience is rewarded.
Get everything on the record. Perhaps the toughest people to deal with are political players who are passive aggressive, meaning they’re agreeable to your face but do the opposite behind your back. If you confront them, they act like nothing happened or lie through their teeth. The best way to handle that is in staff or team meetings where everything is on the record.
Notice there’s nothing about whining to your boss, complaining to HR or fighting fire with fire. Not only will none of that work, there’s a good chance you’ll be labeled a troublemaker and maybe even end up getting fired.
As a last resort, you can always quit. But if you find yourself saying, “Life is too short to work with jerks” and running for the exit at more than one company, there’s a better than average chance the problem is you.
Related: The No BS Rule
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.