Office politics: Dealing with jerks

How to turn a negative into a positive.

Every office has at least one. They are arrogant, narcissistic and manipulative. They lack empathy for colleagues, but, boy, are they adept at getting their way with the boss, who is often oblivious to their Machiavellian ways. Heck, they can even be promoted to positions where they can inflict their special form of torture on co-workers. It’s no wonder that so many of us watching the British comedy The Office can relate to the obnoxious character of David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, as someone we’ve had to put up with. There’s only one way to describe this sort of person: the office jerk.

“Jerk is a short-hand phrase for all those who would sabotage, backstab or otherwise make our careers miserable,” says Gloria Elliott, a career coach in Roanoke, Va., who has given “jerk training” seminars to hundreds of organizations over the past 20 years, though she diplomatically calls her workshops Working with Very, Very, Very Difficult People.

Elliott says jerks are simply normal people “carried to extremes,” and all of us, to some degree, have the potential to be difficult, whether it’s by being a braggart, a complainer or a bully. What’s more, the very qualities that can make some people jerks are the same ones that can make them highly successful, productive people: they can be competitive, goal-oriented, hard-charging overachievers. In jobs where they don’t have to interact much, they may not inflict a lot of damage. But when they are part of a team, the results can be disastrous. “When good people see that nothing is going to happen with the office jerk, they get fed up and leave,” says Kathy Woods, managing director at human capital consultants Korn/Ferry International in Toronto.

That’s why good managers must take charge. “I’ve seen a project leader alienate his team to such an extent that his co-workers said they’d quit if they ever had to work with him again,” says Woods. “Nothing really prepares us for giving this type of feedback, and people tend to shy away from confrontation.”

While most jerks don’t realize the effect their behaviour is having, Elliott says co-workers know the score. “I can remember one fellow at one of my seminars, with his feet up, his ball cap on backwards,” she says. “I asked everyone to introduce themselves, and he says something like, ‘My name is Butch, my boss sent me here, and you people are pathetic.'” But the good news, Elliott adds, was that this acknowledgement was an important first step to improvement–and to office peace. “By the end of my seminar, he really started to understand two things: that he hurt people and that he could get even more work done if he were nicer to his co-workers.”

Here are some coping strategies from the experts.

– Do something. There are seldom negative repercussions from dealing with these issues and almost always ramifications if you don’t.

– Be clear about your expectations of what should be done. But don’t expect a miracle “personality transplant.”

– Reinforce positive behaviour. Most jerks have pretty big egos, so you can use that to your advantage by focusing on their good qualities.

– Provide an opportunity for the jerk to tell you what he thinks about his relationship with you; it may help clear up any misunderstandings.

– If you’re a manager, provide ongoing support and coaching–this is not a one-shot deal. Link rewards to business performance and living up to company values.