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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Help! I'm working with a jerk

October 3, 2008
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Let’s face it, some people just have an unpleasant, negative “nature,” shall we say.

A business school professor named Robert Sutton has written a book, “The No Asshole Rule.” His recipe for teamwork and employee engagement is simple and direct: first, don’t hire any members of the abovementioned category, and second, if any slip through, quickly get rid of them.

Your alternative?

Consuming phenomenal amounts of time dealing with and cleaning up after toxic people. Time that could be spent attending to the more positive and productive tasks of running the business.

Sutton is not talking about the occasional conflict, or the personality clash where a couple of people just don’t do well with each other but are otherwise OK. He is talking about the toxic individual who sucks the energy, the positivity, the morale out of an organization.

Toxic profiles

“Toxic targets” come in all shapes and sizes:
  • Bullies who delight in exerting intimidating influence over others.
  • “Gotcha” types who enjoy setting others up and watching them get trapped.
  • Anyone see the “Dark Knight” Batman film this summer? You might have to deal with your own “Two Face,” the person who puts on one face when the boss is around and quite another in the presence of their subordinates.
  • Toxic employees can come to work wearing Teflon — they take credit for others’ successes, and shift the blame for their failures. They make up and/or spread vicious rumors about others.
  • They can be politicians, caring only about their own self-interest.
  • Or they can be the Don Rickles type, ready to pounce on and insult the next poor sucker who comes through the door.


Dealing with the toxic coworker or boss is tricky business.

Playing the cards dealt you

If you run your own business, Sutton’s prescription makes a great deal of sense. But what if you are not running your own business? Say, in fact, you’re running a safety and health program. You’ve got to play the cards that are dealt you. But how?
  1. Be sure you are really dealing with a jerk. First impressions, even powerful ones, can be wrong. We all have a tendency to see behavior as characteristic of the person — what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” We attribute behavior to the person’s disposition, not to the situation. If you have ever been treated rudely by a store clerk or airline gate agent, and lost your cool, observers who don’t know you might well consider you a jerk (wrongly, of course).
  2. Identify and confront the behavior early on and constructively. “Tim, it embarrassed me when you brought up our private conversation about the XYZ situation in the staff meeting. I would appreciate it in the future if...” is a reasonable first step.
  3. If you are indeed dealing with chronic jerks, minimize dependence on them, and ideally minimize any contact at all with them. This is obviously not always possible, but ideally keep them away from your teams, committees, special projects, etc. The less exposure you have, the less you depend on them, the less opportunity they have to expose you to their toxicity, the less the chance that they will infect you and spoil your daily work experience.
  4. If you’re well-connected with your boss, have an open, neutral, professional airing of the issue with him or her. Don’t come across as a whiner, or someone with an isolated “personal problem” with the jerk in question. There is some risk the boss might see you as the problem. This is a subtle and sensitive matter, but it may help if others in your crew are willing to have the same kind of conversation with the boss.
  5. The popular 360-degree feedback instruments can be invaluable here. Many organizations use one form or another of the “self-rate, boss-rate, peer-rate, subordinate-rate” measures, sometimes as an occasional leadership-assessment process, sometimes as part of annual performance review. Such data can quickly isolate “you know who,” in a way that does not single out “a complainer.” With true work-jerks, a common pattern is they see themselves as fine, and their boss does too, but there is a dramatically different assessment at the peer and subordinate levels.


The boss as a toxin — now what?

OK, now we’ll make your working life tougher. What if your boss is toxic? It’s widely known that the most crucial relationship you have at work is your relationship with your boss. A good boss can make workdays a positive experience, and can positively affect your morale, productivity, commitment, and future with your organization.

A jerk-boss is a negative force of nature. The single most common avoidable reason that people voluntarily leave a job is a negative relationship with their immediate supervisor. “I just won’t work under him anymore” is reason #1. Sadly, jerk-bosses are a frequent enough problem in the workplace that there is growing research literature on what is being called “abusive supervision” — working not for “the man,” but for “the idiot.”

So when the boss is clueless, a bully, an egomaniac, what to do?

Following Sutton’s prescriptions, it may be best to bite the bullet and just bail out if you can. Life is short, and a daily dose of a toxic boss is extremely punishing. If you can’t exercise the exit-strategy option, try imposing exposure limits, as with toxic chemicals. Know your threshold limit when around the bad boss. Be careful what you share with him or her. And keep your own documentation. I am not suggesting that any of this is easy or fun; you are trying to survive with your self-esteem intact.

It is a high-risk strategy to go around the boss and have “the tough conversation” with his/her superiors. Consider it a last resort, the end-game option. But if the issues are severe enough, it might be the last best hope. Again, some peer support, to send the message that it is not “just you,” can help greatly. The 360-degree process can be a lifesaver here. But whatever you try, you’re on a slippery slope, a dangerous road, going up against the boss who’s a jerk.

Good news, not so good news

The good news: many jerk-bosses self-destruct. The celebrated Center for Creative Leadership has done research for years on so-called “executive derailment,” and the predictors they identify essentially describe the jerk-boss: bullying, taking credit for others’ work, throwing tantrums, blaming others, etc., etc.

The not-so-good news: you might not have the patience to wait out the bad boss. It can take longer than you’d like for the wheels to fly off the track finally. Sometimes it takes bottom-line lousy business performance — that always gets the attention of the higher-ups!

Social support (combined with a positive outlook) is perhaps the most powerful single antidote to the toxic boss. Talk with family, friends, co-workers. Do not buy into the labels the jerk-boss may put on you. See his/her behavior for what it is. Keep your eyes open, the résumé up to date, and continue to do the very best job you can in the role you are in, regardless of the boss-problem.

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