How to handle the jerk in your workplace

Demeaning, disrespectful, and rude colleagues can make work unpleasant and negatively affect productivity—but there are "ways to reduce the onslaught and suffering," Robert Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University, writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Engage your leaders to help them through rough waters

According to Sutton, research shows that that having to deal with bullies at work can negatively affect workers' health—causing anxiety, depression, and even heart problems—as well as the creativity and productivity of the workplace. But many people can't readily fight back against an unpleasant colleague, who may have more power or seniority, nor can they easily find another place to work.

There's a middle road, however, that can help cut back on the negative fallout, Sutton writes. He outlines six key strategies:

  1. Make some space: Sutton writes that sometimes the best thing to do is to just physically stay away from the bully. According to Sutton, research from the 1970s found that people are four times more likely to routinely communicate with someone sitting six feet away than someone sitting 60 feet away. Conversely, more recent research found that if a "toxic" worker sat near you, you were one and a half times more likely to behave in a similar way—and that people whose workspaces were within 25 feet of a toxic employee were twice as likely to leave the organization than those who were seated further away.

  2. Slow down: Another strategy, according to Sutton, is to deny the bully the "pleasure" of provoking a visible reaction, such as tears or frustration. Sutton advises workers to "respond as slowly and infrequently to the jerk as possible, and when [workers] do respond, stay as calm and composed" as possible. This approach will not only curb the rate of abuse, Sutton writes, but it will also give you more control when such interactions occur.

  3. Early-warning systems: Sutton writes that it also can be useful for employees to establish an informal system to warn their coworkers when the bully is in a bad mood or coming nearby. The team can then prepare or busy themselves so as to minimize engagement, Sutton writes.

  4. It's all about perspective: According to Sutton, another helpful strategy is protective reframing. For instance, you can employ common cogitative behavioral therapy tactics, such as opting to "ris[e] above" the situation or minimizing the threat; imagining yourself in the future—when the situation is long past—which research indicates helps people feel less anger and anxiety about the present situation; or imposing emotional distance between yourself and the individual, such as imagining yourself as a specialist observing a "fascinating case" of bullying.

  5. From enemy to friend: But the most effective tactic of all, Sutton writes, might be making a friend out of a former bully. For instance, you might flatter, smile, or show appreciation to the bully, tactics that according to psychologist Robert Cialdini, can often win over an enemy or a critic—even when not entirely sincere. Or you might seek out a favor from the bully, a strategy built on research showing that people tend to like those to whom they are kind and dislike those to whom they are rude, Sutton writes.

  6. Check your own behavior: Lastly, Sutton encourages everyone to assess his or her own behavior by seeking feedback from candid, frank colleagues—and accepting helpful criticisms. Citing the U.S. Workplace Survey—which found that while nearly half of respondents said they encountered a bully, fewer than 1% identified as a bully—Sutton writes, "There are a lot of jerks out there who aren't confessing their sins. And you might be one of them" (Sutton, Wall Street Journal, 8/10).

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