How to Identify the Office Jerk
Jerks. Bullies. A-holes. Creeps. Call them what you will. Then consider whether the name fits someone you know. Gasp . . . could this even be you?
Each of us behaves like a jerk sometimes. Whether you make a habit of it, however, determines if the label sticks.
This article will break down the defining characteristics of the Office Jerk. It should help you determine whether or not you fit into that category—and what you can do about it.
12 Defining Characteristics of the Office Jerk
- Throwing personal insults and status slaps
- Invading others' "personal space"
- Initiating uninvited personal contact
- Casting threats and intimidation
- Making sarcastic jokes and mean-spirited teasing
- Sending out flaming emails
- Yelling and engaging in public humiliation acts
- Interrupting (rudely and routinely)
- Engaging in two-faced attacks
- Giving out dirty looks (stares, glares, eye rolls)
- Treating people like they are invisible
- Isolating the target socially, physically, or informationally
"There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self."— Benjamin Franklin, American founding father
Illusory Superiority (or Why You Probably Think You're Not a Jerk)
The problem with being the office jerk is that you probably have no clue that you are one—especially if you're the boss. In fact, most people have only a modest level of insight into their ability, character, or how others perceive them.1,2
Why are we so inaccurate at self-evaluation? Blame it on a common cognitive bias (or distorted pattern of thinking) called illusory superiority. This error in human judgment leads each of us—not just jerks—to overestimate our positive qualities while overlooking our negatives, in comparison with others.
As a result, we fool ourselves into believing we are smarter and funnier than we are in reality, as well as more sensitive, more attractive, and more popular.3 Inaccurate self-assessments also prompt us to view ourselves as better employees, leaders, and drivers, for example.
How Well Do You Know Yourself?
Studies show that most people have only a modest level of insight into their ability, character, or how others perceive them.
Do You Think You're Better Than Average?
Statistically, of course, not everyone can be above average. It's impossible. But that's where most people see themselves. For example:
- 94% of university professors in one study described their work as above average;
- 70% of college bound students in another study rated their leadership skills as above average—with 25% claiming they belonged in the top 1%;
- 93% of American drivers in one experiment evaluated themselves as above average compared with other drivers in the study.4
Is it possible that your self-view is inflated? It's worth considering.
Poor Complex Social Skills
Personal attributes that are most difficult to accurately gauge are complex social skills. Examples include leadership, communication, cooperativeness, trustworthiness, respect, and empathy.
Incidentally, deficits in complex social skills also prompt others to label us jerks. Such skills are so difficult to accurately self-assess, because they are often ambiguously defined.
It's easy to know if you're good at bowling or golf, for instance, because you earn an objective score. However, what makes someone a "good manager" or a "persuasive speaker"? That's much more open to interpretation.5
The Tendency to Blow Sunshine
Information needed to make an accurate self-evaluation is often not available. This is because there is a large positivity bias: a general tendency for observers to withhold negative information. (A salesperson once jokingly told me this was "blowing sunshine" up someone's rear end.)
People who could give us accurate information about our skills—those who have seen us in action—choose to err on the side of politeness rather than confrontation and conflict. It's the easy way out.
Negative feedback becomes even less available as an employee moves up the corporate ladder. People in higher-level positions have fewer peers who can set them straight. They also have more subordinates, and subordinates are typically unwilling to risk the consequences of providing negative feedback to a boss.
Unfortunately, even when negative information is available, we tend to ignore or discount it.
We blame the messenger or look to environmental factors as excuses. For example, we assume the observer lacks credibility to pass judgment.
Failing to accept negative information leaves us blissfully un-self-aware of our shortfalls. Studies show that people with the lowest competence levels are the most deluded about how their skills objectively measure up.6
So what are the implications for Office Jerks? The worst of them may be the most difficult to convince. They don't receive enough feedback about the inappropriateness of their behavior and its impact. (Think "management.") And even when they do get unpleasant feedback, they often don't listen well or internalize the need for change.
Is there feedback that you have chosen to ignore?
Damage Inflicted by Jerks
Working with a jerk is like getting pecked to death by ducks. Each insult, dirty look, or email flame erodes a coworker's energy, self-regard, and trust in the organization.
Jerks wreak havoc upon not only their targets but also upon bystanders, the larger organization, and the jerk him- or herself.
Impacts of Abusive Supervision on Employees
Research links abusive supervision to lower job and life satisfaction, diminished productivity, less commitment to the organization, and turnover.7
Employees exposed to abusive supervision perform more poorly, withhold discretionary effort that would help the company, and are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behavior (e.g., workplace theft, production sabotage, taking long breaks, lateness, and misusing information).
Managers are agents of the company, so when the boss is a jerk, employees place responsibility for the behavior upon both the jerk and the organization that hired and tolerated him. Unfortunately, being treated badly also makes you more prone to behave like a jerk yourself, potentially creating an organizational culture of psychological abuse.
Bystanders and Jerks Suffer Too
Jerk behavior is also associated with targets' and bystanders' experience of insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, anger, and irritability.
Jerks can also suffer. When their behavior is exposed, jerks may experience humiliation and career setbacks as a result of being unable to "play well with others." Even if they are not fired for their bully behavior, the Office Jerk may be demoted, transferred to a less appealing job, or required to undergo a stressful performance improvement (or "get well") plan.
Clearly, Office Jerks harm coworkers, the company, and even themselves.
What are the consequences of behaving like a jerk in your workplace?
So What's a Jerk to Do?: Tips for Taming the Jerk in You
As American author Mark Twain once said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
Tame your inner jerk by recognizing the behaviors that cause you trouble, getting feedback, and expressing your desire to change.
5 Quick Pointers for Taming the Office Jerk in You
- Actively solicit feedback.
- Listen and look for trends.
- Verbalize a genuine desire to change.
- Give others permission to hold you accountable for your jerk behaviors.
- Look for what makes you similar to others.
Recognition Is Critical
If someone has slipped you this article with a note to read it, consider it your wake-up call.
Being the Office Jerk often means that everyone at work is in on your "secret," except you. Although the realization doesn't feel good, count yourself lucky: at least now you know!
Recognition that you are the Office Jerk (or one of them) is a first step to change. You cannot change what you don't acknowledge.
Take The Jerk Test (below) and review the 12 Defining Characteristics of the Office Jerk (above) for insight. Then read up on the toxic impact of jerks, bullies, tyrants, and other workplace meanies.
Suggested starting places are these books:
- Being the Boss: The Three Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader
- The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't
- Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst
Feedback Is a Gift
Because of the widespread bias towards providing positive feedback (even when it's untrue), learn to value negative feedback.
It may be uncomfortable to hear, but the person who is offering it is doing you a favor. They are choosing to share their perceptions rather than take the easy way out. Actively solicit and then listen to negative feedback so that you can improve.
One way to know whether people are being forthright is to compare their negative feedback to what you've heard before. In particular, recall what others have said to you during previous conflict episodes. People have their guards down when angry and can impart some painfully honest messages. Look for trends.
To make coworkers more comfortable with providing you negative feedback, take baby steps. For example, directly after a situation ask how you could have been more effective. As you do this more, it will become easier for everyone involved.
I once had a great boss who made a habit of informally debriefing after key conversations or meetings. He'd ask, "What could I have done better?" Then he'd listen. Pointing out and discussing your own imperfections also makes the peer-as-comrade and manager-as-coach roles more achievable.
"If one person says that you are a horse, smile at them. If two people say that you are a horse, give it some thought. If three people say you are a horse, go out and buy a saddle.”— Anonymous
Communicate Your Desire to Change
The bigger the jerk, the more coworkers will distrust your intentions at first. However, just as an addict must acknowledge his or her behavior, you must openly own your habits of incivility.
Yes, it's time to eat a little crow. Name the behaviors you're guilty of—for example, sarcastic wisecracks, nitpicking, namedropping, incessant talking about yourself. Admit that you do not fully realize how aggressive and condescending you can come across. Then, simply listen.
Verbalize a genuine desire to change by letting others know that your treatment of others is something you are committed to working on. Then, if you are truly ready to change, ask for coworkers' help.
Give them permission moving forward to alert you when you're being a turd. You might agree on a code word or phrase, such as, "Is that what you meant to say? Because how that just came across is . . ."
Be warned, however, that if you communicate a desire to change and then fail to follow through on your commitment, you've likely damaged the relationship even further. Either be genuine or don't do this at all!
Small Changes Can Equal a Big Difference
As you hold yourself more accountable for your nastiness, be aware that small moments matter. Watch your words. Can they be perceived as weapons? Particularly watch your humor.
Control your eye rolls, loud sighs, and other nonverbal behaviors that communicate disrespect. If someone else in the office is behaving poorly, avoid making it a War of the Office Jerks. Instead, learn how to de-escalate.
Also consider seeking significant input into hiring decisions because of the tendency for decision makers to hire people similar to themselves. If you are a recovering jerk, recognize that if you hire another jerk, this means you're at risk for a major relapse.
Say No to Verbal Fisticuffs
To quell the jerk in you, practice looking for similarities between yourself and others rather than comparing yourself against them. Also keep watch on whether lack of sleep or environmental stressors (e.g., heat, noise, crowding) might be contributing to jerk behavior.
A recent boss of mine became a particularly annoying jerk in the months after his wife delivered their second child. His sense of humor became especially biting, he engaged in status slaps, and he cut others off in conversation. He also became more short-tempered and directive than normal. Some of my coworkers even received mean emails. I could tell when he didn't get much sleep the night before by the way he conducted himself. Not pretty, but he magically managed to pull it together in front of executives.
As you change, accept that you are bound to suffer setbacks. Don't be discouraged by them. Acknowledge them, make amends, and resolve to do better. Look forward to one day having people in the office joke about what a jerk you used to be!
The Jerk Test
Jerks are untrustworthy know-it-alls with cooperation problems. Answer yes or no to each of the following 20 questions. Although not a scientifically validated test, it is based in part on The No A**hole Rule by Robert Sutton, Ph.D.
- Do you feel much smarter and more talented than those you are working with (and sometimes you cannot help but let them know)?
- Have you noticed that you work with a bunch of jerks?
- Do people in the office have low levels of trust for one another?
- In order to get ahead, do you need to step on a few people?
- Are you jealous when coworkers succeed?
- Do you have a long list of enemies and a short list of friends?
- Do you find yourself eye-rolling, glaring, or making wise cracks at others' expense when someone makes you mad?
- Do you take credit for other people's accomplishments?
- Is it fun to see others squirm?
- Do you enjoy pointing out errors, especially in front of other people?
- Do you have an especially close group of favorite coworkers that you hang out with—and that likes to gossip and crack jokes at others' expense?
- Are you quick to point out your credentials or talents?
- Do you name-drop (to build yourself up) or name-call (to tear someone else down)?
- Do you hate working in groups? Do you tend to monopolize the conversation?
- When you approach, do people frequently change the subject or break up the conversation?
- Do you have the sense people are careful about what they say around you?
- Are people slow to respond to your emails or phone calls?
- Do you get into email flame wars with jerks?
- Are others reluctant to share details of their personal lives with you?
- Do coworkers often leave you out of extracurricular social activities (e.g., lunches, after-work events and parties)?
0-5 yes answers: Everyone displays some jerk tendencies. Work harder to control the inner jerk.
6-10 yes answers: Borderline jerk. Get some help to control your jerk behavior before it ruins you.
11 or more yes answers: Confirmed jerk. Forget about what others think. How can you even stand yourself?
Do you work with a jerk?
1Mabe III, P A., and S. G. West. "Validity of self-evaluation of ability: A review and meta-analysis." Journal of Applied Psychology 67 (1982): 280-286.
2Dunning, David, Chip Heath, and Jerry M. Suls. "Flawed Self-Assessment: Implications for Health, Education, and theWorkplace." Psychological Science In the Public Interest 5, no. 3 (2004): 69-106. http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/heath/documents/PSPI%20-%20Biased%20Self%20Views.pdf.
3Fay, Adam J., Alexander H. Jordan, and Joyce Ehrlinger. "How Social Norms Promote Misleading Social Feedback and Inaccurate Self-Assessment." Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6, no. 2 (2012): 206-216.
4Alicke, Mark D. and Olesya Govorun. "The Better-Than-Average Effect." The self in social judgment, edited by Mark D. Alicke, David A. Dunning, Joachim Krueger, 85-108. New York: Psychology Press, 2005.
5Dye, Lee. "Study: Self-Images Often Erroneously Inflated." ABC News. Last modified November 9, 2005. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/DyeHard/story?id=1291826.
6Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (1999): 1121–34.
7Sutton, Robert I. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. New York: Warner Business Books, 2007.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2013 FlourishAnyway