February 11, 2013
Imagine the workplace as a forest. (Or as an office full of cubicles if you're a park ranger.)
We walk through the forest each day surrounded by creatures (co-workers). Some are kind like squirrels and deer and animated talking bears. But others, like snakes and snarling wolves and buzzing mosquitoes, make the forest miserable.
What we need is a field guide — a way of identifying office critters and learning to avoid them, if necessary. I've come up with a start on such a guide, but first, let's consider the jerks in our midst.
In 2007, Stanford professor Robert Sutton wrote "The No A—hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't." Since then, he has received as many as 6,000 emails from people around the world lamenting office doofuses.
This has made Sutton an expert on the jerks that seem to infest every office. He points out that they're more than just a nuisance; these people cost companies money.
"Since the book was published, there has been more and more research by academics and there are more and more cultural reason to believe the cost might be higher than we previously thought," he said. "There's more evidence of turnover and more evidence that if you are around a boss or co-workers who, after dealing with them, leave you de-energized, you're less likely to work hard, you're less likely to be creative."
Many companies have begun screening job candidates for "jerkish" tendencies and making it clear to employees that respecting others is key to how they're evaluated.
But, let's face it, jerks aren't going anywhere. And they come in myriad forms, from abusive to just plain irritating. Our best bet is to understand the annoying characters that surround us, with the hope that knowledge brings power.
Sutton suggests starting with yourself. "We always assume we're not the problem," he said. "But sometimes we are."
So when spotting jerks, make sure you haven't become one.
With that out of the way, here's a start to what I hope will one day be a comprehensive field guide to workplace jerks:
Habitat: Break rooms, water coolers and other places workers gather.
Description: The One-Upper is stealthy, waiting for you or one of your co-workers to bring up an accomplishment before sliding in with an even-greater accomplishment of his own. There's nothing you can do that this person can't top. The One-Upper's amazing resume often stretches the limits of credibility.
Defense: Take away the opportunities to one-up. You don't have to shun the person — after all, he or she might just be insecure. Just recognize the tendency and don't bring up things the One-Upper will try to top.
The Loud Talker
Habitat: Usually the desk next to you.
Description: Loud Talkers broadcast their phone conversations — work-related or otherwise — far and wide, like larks signaling danger across the Serengeti. Loud Talkers are shockingly unaware of their volume and tend to have been raised near airports or in families that like Led Zeppelin.
Defense: The Loud Talker is often receptive to a kind mention that he or she is, well, talking loudly. This is, however, only a temporary fix as Loud Talking is a lifelong condition. But once you've raised the subject, it's easier to say something the next time.
Mac the Knife
Habitat: Usually the boss's office, stabbing you in the back.
Description: Mac the Knife is perhaps the worst of all workplace jerks. Mac is a soulless being with an alluring personality and seemingly genuine interest in collaboration and good work. Trust develops, and then is shattered when you realize Mac has been bad-mouthing you.
Defense: None. You rarely see Mac coming. The only hope is a warning from one of Mac's previous victims.
Habitat: Conference rooms, the boss's office or any place people meet.
Description: The Meeting Motormouth feels constitutionally obligated to talk — often at length — during a meeting. A patient creature, the Meeting Motormouth will often wait until the waning moments of a meeting to speak, and then will spiral off on multiple tangents. Because Meeting Motormouths are generally nice enough, it's difficult to tell them to put a sock in it. So precious moments of our lives are consumed for no reason.
Defense: Early identification and bold leaders. Figure out who the Meeting Motormouths are, and shut them down quickly — and politely.
There are so many more out there, but I'm out of space. Please email a description of workplace jerk species you've encountered to firstname.lastname@example.org. It just might come up in a future column.
And please, be careful out there.
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