You’re working under a boss who really rubs you the wrong way. So you quit your job and take another. But in your new office, you find yourself stuck with a co-worker who bugs the tar out of you.
The presence of annoying, incompetent, and underhanded people isn’t a particular workplace problem, but a universal human problem. In any and every group of people, there are going to be bothersome and troublesome personalities.
So if you can’t entirely escape them, how do you get along with your fellow humans at work? My guest today has some research-backed advice. Her name is Tessa West, and she’s a professor of psychology and the author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them. Today on the show, Tessa describes the seven types of jerks you run into at work — the kiss-up/kick-downer, credit stealer, bulldozer, free rider, micromanager, neglectful boss, and gaslighter — and shares what drives their respective behaviors and how to deal with them.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: How to Deal With Bad Coworkers
- Let Me Google That For You
- AoM Podcast #627: How to Deal With Jerks, Bullies, Tyrants, and Trolls
- AoM Podcast #799: Getting Along Is Overrated
- AoM Podcast #559: How to Handle Difficult Conversations
Connect With Tessa West
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. You’re working under a boss who really rubs you the wrong way, so you quit your job and take another, but in your new office, you find yourself stuck with a co-worker who bugs the tar out of you. The presence of annoying, incompetent and underhanded people isn’t a particular workplace problem but a universal human problem. In any and every group of people, there are gonna be bothersome and troublesome personalities. So if you can’t entirely escape them, how do you get along with your fellow humans at work? My guest today has some research-backed advice. Her name is Tessa West and she’s a professor of psychology and the author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to do About Them. Today on the show Tess describes the seven types of jerks you run into at work, the kiss up kick downer, credit stealer, bulldozer, free rider, micromanager, neglectful boss, and gaslighter, and shares what drives the respective behaviors and how to deal with them. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/jerksatwork.
Tessa West, welcome to the show.
Tessa West: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of psychology that has specialized in interpersonal communication, particularly interpersonal communication that happens at work, curious what led you down that path, and why are you focused on workplace communication?
Tessa West: You know, it’s kind of interesting, I started doing research as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, but before I did that, I sold men’s shoes at Nordstrom. And kind of some of the most fascinating work experiences I’ve had have been watching people compete for customers and do things like try to figure out how much money someone has, look at their clothes, look at their mannerisms, and to try to read the room to figure out how they could upsell a client, so these kinds of things.
So I was really fascinated how people interact with each other and how perfectly decent people will become pretty horrible in the right circumstances. They’ll steal clients from friends, they’ll do things like hide shoes that are the most popular size to gain more money. And I found that fascinating, and I kind of use that experience to really propel me into this research career of understanding how people interact with each other at work, what are the subtle ways in which they try to sabotage each other, but also the ways in which they try to help each other. So I think that that early teaching experience really came from just working in sales.
Brett McKay: And what’s interesting too, we spend a lot of our life with people at work. A lot of times when we think about, “I gotta improve my communication,” it’s like, “Well, I gotta improve my communication with my spouse.” But you probably spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your spouse?
Tessa West: Yeah, absolutely, you actually spend much more time with your coworkers than your spouse, and people are always surprised at this finding that the stress you feel at work bleeds over into the stress you feel at home more than the other way around. So if your marriage is going poorly or you had a fight with your kid, that’s gonna affect your life at work, but if you have a fight with a boss or a co-worker, that’s gonna really affect your life at home. And it’s gonna affect your health, it’s gonna affect how you interact with people, whether you get irritated with your son or you snap at your wife, these kinds of things, and I think we often underestimate how strong that path is from our work stress to our home life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s funny, I actually, I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while a couple of weeks ago. And we’re like, “Well, how are you doing, man?” And he’s like, “Man, it’s been rough. I got this guy at work who’s just a complete jerk,” and it’s affected the rest of his life, and he says, “I try not to, but it’s just every day, it’s relentless,” and I was like, “Man, that really… ” I’m like, “What are you gonna do?” It’s like, “Well, I can’t quit right now because I gotta support my family,” he’s like in a rock and a hard place.
Tessa West: Yeah, it’s interesting, people complain about these things. And no one teaches us how to deal with this stuff. So one thing that I think is super interesting about that story is he probably has a ton of different tactics he uses to deal with conflict with his spouse or his kids, but who teaches us how to have effective fights with people at work? No one does, and so we just sort of grin and bear it, suck it up, we try to suppress those negative emotions when we go home, which we know from social science actually never works, actually makes things worse. We tend to show more of those things the more we try to push them down, and then we just feel trapped often, and I think it sounds like that’s what your friend is going through.
Brett McKay: So you got a book out to help people navigate these workplace conflicts. It’s called Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-workers and What to Do About Them. So let’s start off with definitions, how do you define a jerk at work? What makes a jerk a jerk?
Tessa West: Yeah, full disclosure here, I actually don’t love the word jerk. I think it implies a certain amount of intent to try to ruin people’s lives or make them unhappy, and I think most jerks are kind of accidental jerks. They’re not actually doing these things to sabotage people, so when I think of what is a jerk at work, I think of it more from the perspective of the target, it’s an eye of the beholder, “I feel like someone is mistreating me, they’re micromanaging, they’re neglecting me, they’re speaking over me,” and that feeling, that labeling is where I really get my definition.
But I do think it’s a tricky thing to do to try to figure out who exactly is a jerk, and so one thing I tell people is if you aren’t sure, it’s really helpful to really ask around and look for consensus, and if everybody agrees that kind of behavior is unacceptable at work, then you’re probably dealing with a jerk. If only one person agrees with you, yeah, maybe not so much. Maybe there’s some kind of interpersonal conflict you have with that person. But it really comes down to how people label those who are around them and how they behave.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it sounds like sometimes, oftentimes, jerks don’t know that they’re jerks, they don’t know what they’re doing.
Tessa West: They know they’re doing something that they think is actually effective at work, so people are always really surprised when I tell them that most of the strategies people try at work are actually things that someone taught them or they picked up somewhere and they think they’re actually gonna be effective at getting work done and getting their team members to like them. And in fact, the opposite is true. Our self-awareness sucks, most people have no sense of how they’re seen, and I think a lot of jerks are doing things that they were taught are actually effective ways of managing or cooperating with others, and they just simply aren’t. And they’ve never gotten that feedback. And so I like to emphasize that sort of accidental work jerkery happens all the time at work. I think it’s actually much more common than things like intentional sabotage.
And I think the other thing we often sort of don’t think about is what are the people in power doing to the people who are one or two steps below them? And these kinds of practices really trickle down, so if our manager is being mean to us, they’re micromanaging or they’re ignoring us or whatever it is, they’re probably getting that signal from their own manager and from their manager’s manager, so we often think of our relationship as kind of in a bubble, “I have this boss who sucks, who’s mean to me,” but we’re not thinking about how that boss is being treated by their boss, and how that behavior is really the issue that we’re dealing with. It’s just trickling down to affect us at work.
Brett McKay: And like you said earlier when we started this conversation, no one teaches you how to manage difficult people, and I’ve been noticing as I progress and kind of get more experience, that’s an important skill to have because you’re gonna encounter difficult people or difficult conversations all the time, and because no one knows how to handle it, they end up just not doing anything, and it makes it worse for everybody.
Tessa West: Yeah, you know this phenomenon of quiet quitting that’s going on right now, I think a lot of that is people just throwing their hands up and saying, “Screw it, I don’t wanna deal with these difficult people at work anymore,” instead of learning these strategies to detect the problems really early, which I think is really kind of key to solving a lot of these issues is what are those early red flags, those early warning signs that something’s going wrong? By the time we’re disengaging from a relationship, or we’re just saying, “You know, I just can’t handle this anymore, I don’t know what to do,” it’s probably too late, and it’s really about learning those early strategies so you don’t find yourself wanting to quietly quit or sabotage someone or gossip about them or whatever it is.
Brett McKay: Alright, so in the book, you break down the jerks at work into seven types of jerks, and the first one is the kiss up kick downer. So how do you know if you’re dealing with a kiss up kick downer? What is a kiss up kick downer?
Tessa West: Yeah, so this is probably my favorite type of jerk. This person is very two-faced, so they behave one way in front of leadership, so bosses tend to really like these folks. They’re high performers, they do well at work, they know how to say the right things to the right people, but they mistreat the people who work with them or beneath them. So they tend to kind of kiss up to the people in power, and they kick down to those who are working below them. So they’ll do things like try to sabotage you or insult you in front of a client, make you feel bad about yourself, question your expertise, and it’s really that kind of two-faced nature that defines a kiss up kick downer.
Brett McKay: And you encountered a kiss up kick downer when you were selling shoes at Nordstrom.
Tessa West: Yeah, in sales, people are really incentivized to do whatever it takes to get ahead, and this person I worked with, he was really great at selling, clients loved him, he was very warm and friendly and charismatic and good-looking and all those things. But he just sucked to work with. He would sabotage other people’s sales, he would take shoes from the back room and hide them that if they were popular sizes, these kind of small acts that had plausible deniability, so if anyone was to question him, he could call it a mistake, he could deny it. And it became very much kind of this he-said-she-said debate that went on, and the boss almost never sided with us. She almost always sided with the kiss up kick downer.
Brett McKay: ‘Cause he was selling shoes.
Tessa West: Yeah, he was selling a ton of shoes, and the important people, the customers, really liked him, so she just told us that we were being babies, we need to suck it up, that we have to learn to work with someone like this. And she didn’t see any of these signs herself, and so she kind of questioned us, assumed that we were just really envious of his numbers.
Brett McKay: Is there a type of personality that’s drawn to becoming a kiss up kick downer?
Tessa West: Yeah, I think in the book, I talk a little bit about Machiavellianism, people who are willing to do anything it takes to get ahead, willing to kick down just to climb to the top of that ladder. And I think this trait, which is associated with things like narcissism, with authoritarian is really signature for these folks. They are really only concerned with impressing the right people, not necessarily doing the right thing.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about one of the things they do, they’re really good at, they’re able to read the room effectively, they have really strong social cues so they can figure out, “Well, who’s in charge, who has influence? I’m gonna cozy up with that guy so I can get what I want.”
Tessa West: Yeah, this skill of reading the room, of knowing who has power and who doesn’t is something that we vastly underestimate at work, and the ways we pick up on this are really subtle things, like imagine you walk into a meeting, who is the boss talking to right before the meeting, who do they turn their attention to during that meeting, who are they laughing with, who do they touch on the elbow as a sign of rapport and camaraderie. These small little behavioral signals will give you the lay of the land, they’ll tell you who’s in charge and what that hierarchy looks like. And people like kiss up kick downers are just really good at using that information and accurately perceiving that status hierarchy.
Brett McKay: What do you do if you’re dealing with a kiss up kick downer? ‘Cause like you said, when you brought it up to your boss, she was like, “Well, you guys are just envious. What’s going on there? I’m gonna ignore you.” So how can you deal with that in an effective way?
Tessa West: I think the most effective thing isn’t to confront this person. It’s actually to take a step back and do a little bit of networking and kind of behind the scenes digging up what’s going on. So what I did was I found someone at work who worked in the coffee shop, so they were super well connected, they weren’t in charge they weren’t powerful, but they knew everyone, and they knew people who had dealt with this person in the past, people who had actually transferred to other departments because they hated working with him, he was such a pain.
And that person really helped me figure out what other victims are out there, and how widespread is this problem. I think one thing people are tempted to do is to confront and deal with this as if it’s a one-off issue between them and this person at work, but often it’s kind of more like a cancer that’s spreading throughout. A lot of people have conflict with this person, a lot of people have left because of it. And figuring out how widespread the problem is so you can then go to your boss with that information is much more effective than just complaining about the behavior yourself. Bosses get nervous when they think a conflict is widespread, when they think a lot of people are affected by it. They get less nervous if it’s just you complaining.
So I think that’s kind of the lesson I learned is you have to network, you have to find those critical, socially connected folks at work who know the lay of the land, who know who else has had issues with this person, talk to those folks, see if they’re also willing to kinda come forward and tell their story, and then go to your boss with that.
Brett McKay: And one thing you emphasize is when you’re collecting this data, you wanna focus on facts and not feelings. I think there’s a tendency, “Well, this person made me feel bad. He’s doing that.” Well, your boss is gonna be like, “Well, that’s just you, you need to take control of that.” But if you just actually just say, “Here’s what happened. He did this, this person had the same experience,” they could actually make a decision on that.
Tessa West: Yeah, there’s this movement right now of being able to bring your whole self to work, talk about your feelings. I tend to be very cynical about that approach because feelings are subjective. It’s very easy to say someone is overreacting, it’s very easy to kind of discount how someone feels. Who cares? It doesn’t matter how you feel anyway. Come with the facts, have data, write down times and dates, things that HR would care about if it got to that point. Telling your boss that you feel disrespected, that you feel like nobody trusts you, you feel insulted, your feelings are hurt, they’re just gonna kind of groan and roll their eyes at you and say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, let’s work on your feelings,” instead of, “Oh wow, those behaviors do seem a little sabotagey. Let’s actually try to figure out a way around that issue.” So I’m hesitant to tell people to lean in with their feelings. Lean in with the facts, and the more people who can corroborate those facts, the better.
Brett McKay: Okay, another jerk is the credit stealer. I’m sure everyone has dealt with this if they worked on a school project in a group. There’s definitely some credit stealing going on, but it happens all the time in the workplace. And what’s interesting about credit stealing is that it’s one of the biggest sources of conflict in the workplace, yet people are terrible at detecting a credit stealer. So what’s going on there? Why is that?
Tessa West: Credit stealing is probably one of the most ambiguous behaviors we deal with at work, so most people think they deserve more credit than they actually get. I think it’s kind of a human bias to think we contributed more than everybody else, so you kind of have that working against you. I also think when you look at how credit stealing actually happens at work, it’s never someone standing up and going, “I take credit for that idea. That was my brilliance.”
It’s much more subtle, it’s that they restate your idea maybe more eloquently than you said it, and because they have status and influence, the idea then sticks to that person. Or they go behind the scenes to the boss, or maybe they even are your boss and overemphasize their contribution to something. It’s vague, it’s ambiguous, and it tends to just kind of happen slowly over time, so it’s really hard to label, and it’s really hard to detect, and it’s also just kind of really laden with a lot of human biases. And so I think for that reason people often feel like the credit’s being taken from them, but they have a hard time kind of pinpointing exactly when it happened and the circumstances surrounding it.
Brett McKay: Well, especially this happens a lot in workplaces where you’re doing a lot of collaborative work. So you might be spitballing with people and you might throw an idea out, and someone hears that and maybe not intentionally, but it got embedded in their brain, and then they later, a week later say, “Hey, here’s this idea,” I’m like, “That was my idea. What the heck?”
Tessa West: Yeah, we also… That happens all the time, I think, and I think both people would probably legitimately think they deserve credit for it. What happens with collaborative work too is ideas are in the air. They’re in there all the time, it’s actually kind of developing the idea that takes work, and that tends to be group kinds of projects, group behavior, and so it is very difficult to allocate credit.
I think on top of that, we all have a spotlight effect, we all remember what we said, what we contributed, but we’re not actually paying that much attention to what other people are saying and contributing. So we remember what we said and when we said it, but if you were to ask us five minutes later, “Well, what did Tom and Bob and Sally say?” I have no idea. All I know is that five minutes into this meeting, I came up with a really brilliant idea. Everyone’s walking around like that, no one’s gonna be very good at actually figuring out who’s contributed what and when.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you ask any couple who does the most house work, I guess the estimates they get, every person in the partnership thinks they’ve done more housework than the other person because you know what you did, but you don’t know what the other person did.
Tessa West: Yeah, and I think I actually did a study on this one, everyone thinks they’ve done about 80% of household labor. [laughter] I certainly feel that way. The other funny thing that happens, and this happens at home and also at work, is invisible labor. So a lot of the work we actually do isn’t seen by other people, it’s not recorded, it’s kind of more indirect. It’s like giving advice or helping someone else flesh something out. And that work doesn’t really get incorporated into credit allocation. When we give people credit for hard work or for ideas, we often kind of don’t incorporate the invisible stuff, the stuff that no one sees that goes on behind the scenes, the small phone calls or the walk to the coffee shop where we gave someone advice or helped them work through a problem. And I think that also contributes to this issue.
Brett McKay: And the other tricky thing with credit stealing is that, you point out, oftentimes the people who are stealing credit, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they are typically your closest relationships at work, like they’re close co-workers, a mentee, or even your boss.
Tessa West: Yeah, I actually… Bosses are the number one credit stealers in the workplace, and it’s usually someone who’s kind of in middle management who actually does by definition get credit for the work that their team does. And so sometimes they slightly over-claim that in an effort to look like really strong leaders to their own boss. So a lot of this kind of credit stealing that’s going on behind the scenes is impression management. It’s trying to look good to my boss to look like I’ve done a ton. And then I think for that reason, it’s really hard for us to actually confront these folks at work. When someone who has power over you is stealing credit, a lot of people are like, “What do I do about that? I can’t just yell at this person,” so, yeah, it’s a difficult issue.
Brett McKay: So how do you do it? The other thing that makes it tricky is that if you call somebody out on it, they’re gonna be like, “Well, you’re just being petty. You need to be a team player. What are you talking about?” So what’s the best way to approach this?
Tessa West: I think the temptation is to call it out in the moment, but I actually think the best things to do are kind of more preemptive. So, if you’re doing group work, you really have to have a system of actually keeping track of contributions and not just for your own team but, actually, when you present those contributions to others. So, kinda one of the most effective things I’ve actually seen teams do is when they present teamwork to a boss or a leader, instead of saying, “We detected problem X and we solved it with problem Y,” they say things like, “Brett detected problem X, Tessa solved it with this solution, and then Janine jumped in with this solution,” so giving individual contribution for different parts of the project, but that requires pretty intense note-taking.
So I think kinda one thing you can do is just build those practices in. The other thing you can do that’s preemptive for individuals is learn how to have what’s called voice at work. So this means that when you speak up, people listen to you, that the ideas that you share stick to you and not to other people, and that actually requires you to become someone that others respect, that others listen to and they go to for advice.
So it’s not about really claiming credit in the room and getting for it, it’s about walking into that room with voice, being someone that others listen to and that those ideas will stick to you. And that actually takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to figure out exactly how to get there. And I think it involves things like networking and knowing the kind of hidden curriculum at work, showing up, being the person others go to for advice. Those things that don’t seem to be associated with credit actually are because they then kind of translate to that voice once you’re in the room.
Brett McKay: You need street cred.
Tessa West: Street cred.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Tessa West: Yeah, street cred for real cred.
Brett McKay: Yeah, street cred for real cred. Okay, so credit stealers, so basically you wanna preempt it, make sure you develop that voice, then also, I guess some other really just basic tactics, when you are in a group project, just assign everybody, “Here’s what you’re doing,” so everyone knows what everyone’s doing, and there’s no temptation to take too much credit for something you didn’t do. So another jerk is the bulldozer, and this ones could be… I think everyone’s dealt with a bulldozer at some point. So, what is a bulldozer?
Tessa West: Yeah, I really see bulldozers sort of as having kind of two main traits. So the first is the one that we’re all pretty familiar with, the person who just has no inner monologue, they talk over other people all the time, they take over those meetings. These folks tend to dominate conversations in contexts where there’s no leader that will step in and actually kind of monitor talk time or contribution time, these kinds of things.
But the more dangerous type of bulldozer is the one who goes behind the scenes to sabotage teams. And I’ve actually seen this happen quite a lot in workplaces where teams are making decisions that are super high stakes that will affect everyone for a very long time, like hiring decisions, for instance. Your bulldozer doesn’t like the direction the group is going in, they will go behind the scenes and complain to the boss, and they won’t complain about the decision, they won’t say things like, “I disagree with the decision.” What they’ll do is actually criticize the process. They’ll question the way in which the decision was made. “We didn’t have enough time to talk about this person, or no one knew what they were voting on.” These things that actually make bosses really nervous, that is kind of their bread and butter, is to do that, to sabotage decisions.
So if you have one of these people on your team, you might not actually know it because they’re not bulldozing in the moment, but your team is just never getting anything done. Those votes end in impasses, you’re just constantly spinning your wheels, you start to turn on each other because for some reason this group is being really ineffective, and I think that’s kind of the more dangerous form of bulldozing that we see at work.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you talk about one of the things you gotta be aware of is people who try to make everyone dependent upon them. They become the bottleneck. You gave the example of this programmer who… He developed this program for this system that this company did, and everything had to go through him. And because everything had to go through him, he was basically… He had control of the situation, he was kind of this… But he wasn’t like your typical extrovert, you think of a bulldozer. He was doing it beneath the surface.
Tessa West: Yeah, I think one thing that we don’t like to admit to ourselves at work is that we often kind of hand off thankless work to bulldozers really early on in the process. So these people don’t tend to be the most charismatic in the room, they don’t actually have that much voice. What they do have is ambition and the time to kind of execute tasks that the rest of us are just sort of bored with, putting together programs that we then become dependent upon, to look through resumes, things like that. Those kinds of jobs that really should be allocated equally among people, the bulldozer will volunteer for them very early on, and then you really can’t get rid of them. You can’t kick them off your team because they’re invaluable. They’re the only one who knows how to do this thing, and therefore, you become very reliant on them. They give themselves power early on by doing this.
Brett McKay: So, yeah. You gave a list of 10 things to avoid giving a bulldozer. So passwords for company media accounts, so yeah, like their social media accounts, don’t wanna give them the password ’cause they’ll just control that thing, access to the company website for updating, knowledge how to work a new software, anything where they become the entry point, you don’t want them to have all of that. You want to distribute that with different people.
Tessa West: Yeah, I think people aren’t gonna wanna take on those roles. They tend to kind of be roles that don’t push you ahead at work, they’re not rewarded, they don’t give you a raise or promotion, but they have to be allocated equally. It sounds silly that being in charge of the company Twitter account, something like that, shouldn’t actually be powerful, but it’s public-facing, and bulldozers kinda can control a narrative. So even little things like that, I think, are really important to think about, how do you wanna do these things?
Also just kind of rotating those roles so no one person feels the pain all the time. Sometimes bulldozers are people who are not super high in power and status, maybe they’ve kind of dug themselves a hole and they’re trying to get out, and so they offer all these free labor jobs in order to get back in people’s good graces, and you’re sort of happy to give it to them ’cause no one else wants them. I think that’s usually sort of where they start to really sink their claws in at work.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. What do you do if you’ve got a bulldozer at work, and how do you make them not a bulldozer?
Tessa West: I actually don’t think you can tell these folks, “Stop bulldozing.” You actually have to go behind the scenes. First, you need to figure out who are they talking to, what levers of power are they able to actually pull on to get their way? And the whole team really needs to be on board with going and then presenting this alternative narrative. So I actually went through this last year with someone who tried to sabotage a hire in the psychology program. And what we had to do as a group is actually go to the decision maker, have one shared reality between five of us that contradicted the bulldozer’s version of events in order to persuade our boss that this person was trying to sabotage something. He was very convincing, and I think the boss was pretty much on board with him and believed him that none of these things actually happened the way that we said they did.
And so by coming together and creating the alternative narrative, hopefully you’ve sort of kept some records that you can then go present is the best thing to do. I think confronting these folks tends to not be effective. They’re clever or they’ll find another way around to the levers of power. You have to go directly to the source. And if you do have someone who just talks over meetings, you need to have some rotating role of someone who’s keeping charge of who speaks up and when and does things like call on lower power people in the room. Otherwise, these bulldozers will just take over the entire time. You can’t just simply tell them to stop.
Brett McKay: Well, another counter-intuitive tactic is if you have a bulldozer you have to work with and you got a problem that they’re causing, let the bulldozer solve your problem. How does that work?
Tessa West: Yeah, sometimes all these people want is to be heard. And so imagine that you have a bulldozer who just talks the whole time, what you can do is actually put this person in charge of using their voice to call on other people. So I’ve dealt with bulldozers like this, who instead of trying to socially ostracize them or tell them to shut up, I brought them to my office and I said, “Look, you’re very comfortable speaking up, but these three new hires, they’re simply not. So in the next meeting, can you make an effort to call on these three people so that we can give them some voice? You’re great at interrupting others if someone else is talking too much, can you interrupt and say, ‘Thanks so much, Tom. I would love to hear from Corina next time,'” something like that. And they feel included and you’re just kind of re-channeling their energy to something that’s just much more effective in the room. And they like it and they’re good at it, so why not just kind of give them that kind of power?
Brett McKay: Alright, so you talked about another jerk is the free rider. And this is kind of… They’re similar to the credit stealer in some ways. What does a free rider look like in action?
Tessa West: So a free rider is a very charismatic, fun-loving person on your team that you would hate to kick off because you just really enjoy being around these folks. And so what they do is they use their charisma, they use their social charm to get away with doing very little work. Most of them are smart, they allocate the work evenly among the entire team, so that no one person kinda feels the pain of their free riding, and they’re also really great at targeting teams that are very effective.
So it’s kind of this ironic finding in social psychology, which is if you take a group of really conscientious people, people who are trying really hard, you put a free rider on their team, they’ll actually over-compensate for that person. They’ll not only do that person’s work, but they’ll do even extra work, and so teams that are conscientious with free riders tend to outperform teams that are conscientious, that don’t have free riders, and free riders kinda figure this out. These teams get rewarded by the boss, they often are rewarded with even more work, and so eventually they’ll burn out, but they’re great at targeting these super effective teams that will just kind of make up for their slacking off.
Brett McKay: So how do you suss out if you got a free rider in your group?
Tessa West: I really think the only way to suss this out is by doing this two-step process of when you have to do teamwork, everyone needs to allocate what they plan on doing at the beginning of a project or a week or whatever, write down the work that they did at the end of the project that they agreed to do, and write down any extra work that they didn’t agree to do. And only by kind of adding up all of these pieces of work that people did that they didn’t agree to do ahead of time, are we able to really detect free riding. Most people don’t wanna tell on a free rider, they don’t wanna confront a free rider if they feel like this person is asking them to do work, so you almost need a third party to look at this information and say, “Okay, it looks like five people did work that they didn’t agree to do ahead of time and it all belonged to one person, therefore we have this issue.” So I am a huge fan of following this two-step process to really detect the issue.
Brett McKay: Another related person to a free rider is a time thief. What is a time thief and how do you know that you’re dealing with one?
Tessa West: Time thieves are people who… They tend to have a lot of anxious or nervous energy, they’ll come to you when they’re feeling upset, they will suck up your time. They are very bad at perspective-taking that right now might not be the best time to come talk to you. Not all of them are actually doing it with ill intent, a lot of them are doing it ’cause they like you and they want your advice. But the minute they experience a negative emotion, they’ll come to your office, they’ll sit down and they’ll say, “I need to talk through this problem with you,” with kind of very little perspective over whether this is a good time for you or not.
Sometime thieves are just folks who are low status who are trying to climb up the ladder and they wanna press the flesh. So we’re all probably familiar with these LinkedIn folks who send you random messages that are like, “I would love to get to know you more. Can you please fill out my calendar?” That’s a time thief. Someone who wants your time, they wanna get to know you, but they’re not actually offering much in return. And I think in this workplace where we’re all trying to network and impress each other, we’re really seeing a ton of that going on right now. So those are kind of like two shades of time thief that I think are going on.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve been the time thief where I’ve got something’s broken on my site, for example, and then I’ll email the developer and be like, “Oh my gosh, this just broke and it’s urgent. You gotta fix it.” And then he, of course, he’s probably doing something else so he doesn’t get back to me for several hours, but by then the problem solved itself, and I’m like, “That was really dumb, why did I get all… ” And so I’ve kind of learned that I think maybe benign neglect might be a useful way to approach time thieves like that, who are like… They think everything is urgent. Usually not, if you just… Maybe you just ignore them for a little bit, this problem typically resolves itself.
Tessa West: I love that. They definitely have this chronic sense of urgency. It’s a little like a micromanager. They’re sort of the masters of time thievery, everything is urgent, I have to deal with it right now, and they’re bad at troubleshooting. I think that kind of the main thing that happens with time thieves is they have a hard time regulating their own emotional responses, and so they kind of bleed it on to other people, especially anxiety. And these kinds of things happen all the time. I also just think that most of us are really bad at telling time thieves to go away. We have to put ourselves on a time-thief diet, or we find that slowly our day has been eaten up by these folks.
Brett McKay: I’m sure you… I think you mentioned this in the book, if someone asked you just a question like, “Hey, quick question, blah, blah, blah.” You could respond with, “Let me Google that for you.” Or you can…
Tessa West: Yeah. I’ve sent people the link to “What is Google” before.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
No, but yeah, the let me Google that for you. It’s like you can type in the search and then send them the link to that search and then it types out their question in Google. [laughter] It’s kind of a passive-aggressive way to do it, but I think it’s funny. Okay, so talked about free riders, talked about time thieves, let’s talk about… You mentioned one, micromanagers, what are the characteristics of a micromanager?
Tessa West: So micromanagers think that everything is equally important and everything is equally urgent. So a lot of us have people who kind of hang over our shoulder a little bit, they tend to have too much control over our work lives, but micromanagers, what their sort of distinct traits are is that they can’t tell what’s important and what’s not. They can’t tell sort of what should be on the back-burner versus what you should be doing right now. And kind of the irony of a micromanager is they work the hardest, but they get the least done, because when you’re operating like this, everything is an emergency, you’re always trying to put out fires, ’cause they don’t actually… They can’t tell what is an emergency and what’s not, they tend to kind of lose the forest through the trees.
And I think for people who work for micromanagers, they often actually don’t realize that they’re spinning their wheels most of the time, that half of what they do will never actually see the light of day. So this urgency plus importance combination is really signature micromanager.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you talk about they probably micromanage because they’ve never really been trained to be a manager, and that’s one of the problems with workplaces. It’s the Peter Principle, right? The reason people get promoted to being a manager is, well, they’re good at their job as a salesman. One might be a great salesman, but they’re probably a terrible manager, and so if they don’t get trained on how to be a manager, they start micromanaging.
Tessa West: Yeah, and I think most micromanagers probably either have micromanager bosses or neglectful bosses, so you know. I don’t even like that we call it promotion because it’s assuming that you’re doing your same job at another level. It’s actually a completely different job, and a lot of people really fail when they go from excellence at their own job, to managing other people who now hold their own job. One of the things they do to make themselves feel better, to make themselves feel secure in the absence of that training, is they exert top-down control over whoever now holds the thing that they were really good at. And there’s a temptation to do that to feel effective at work when you don’t know how to do this new job called overseeing 5-15 direct reports. And almost no micromanagers have good managers above them. They’re either being micromanaged or they have bosses who completely ignore them, and so they’re micromanaging to kind of make up for that gap.
Brett McKay: And another issue too, a lot of times people micromanage is because they just don’t have anything for their employees to do, and so they just come up with just really menial dumb stuff like polishing brass at the bar or whatever.
Tessa West: One funny thing about micromanagers that people don’t realize is a lot of them are not super popular at work with their own level of management. So they tend to be annoying to the people who manage them, and those people tend to give them menial jobs. So I dealt with a micromanager at work, she was super ambitious, but super annoying to work with, and her manager ended up putting her on all these kinds of made-up committees just to keep her busy, to keep her out of his hair.
And the people who then worked for her, were doing all this kind of fake labor, this stupid work that no one was ever gonna see because she was given these tasks just to get rid of her, because her management style actually also trickled up. And a lot of that included these menial tasks like polishing brass or I worked in sales where I had to sort clothes by color, which makes no sense. Micromanagers like control, and so it actually kind of scratches their itch, but you’re obviously kind of wasting your time when you work for one of these folks doing these things.
Brett McKay: Right. And what an effective manager would do in a situation where their employees have nothing to do, is they would think big picture, it’s like, “Well, can we do a training or is there something we can sort of big picture that we can develop so when we have stuff to do again, we do it better?” But a lot of times micromanagers don’t think about that.
Tessa West: Yeah, micromanagers are funny, they don’t see how their work integrates, right? So they don’t actually try to take some big or high-level goal, break it up into pieces and then try to put it back together like a jigsaw. They think more in terms of silos. So you have this project and that project and all this independent stuff that doesn’t ever really get integrated, and that’s part of why they’re really inefficient and don’t get anything done is because they’re really siloing off this work and they’re not thinking big picture. And then the people who work for them are never actually integrated either, so you never actually see how the small thing you’re working on is part of a bigger whole because it often never actually comes together.
Brett McKay: This is kind of a petty thing to deal with micromanagers, but I’ve heard this with authors who have editors that are really nit-picky in micromanaging with their books, is they’ll purposely put just obvious typos and mistakes in their writing so that the micromanager focuses on that instead of chopping off the stuff that they wanna keep in there.
Tessa West: [laughter] I’m pretty sure some of my students have done that in their writing with me to get me to just leave them alone. Yeah, they put these little like… I’ve heard of this too. Luckily, I had an amazing editor, I had enough of my own mistakes that they found in there, but… Yeah, I know that people will do things like that, they will put these little intentional red flags just to keep their micromanager off their back, which is sad. But we do what we need to do to survive.
Brett McKay: So what do you do about a micromanager if you got a micromanager boss?
Tessa West: I think the temptation is to hide from these folks, but you’re actually gonna have to lean in to having more frequent meetings with these folks that are short and that are super structured. So the micromanagers I’ve seen dealt with the most effectively are the ones who have kind of a very clear layout and plan with every employee that allows them to actually snoop a little bit.
So for instance, you meet with them three times a week for five minutes instead of one time a week for half an hour. And during those five minutes, you just bring up some Google spreadsheet where you say, “Here are the five tasks we agreed upon at the beginning of the week, here’s my progress on those.” Get them to kind of sign off ahead of time on what those tasks are, give them some kind of shared documents so they can spy on you and see how you’re doing without actually directly contacting you, and then really tether your meetings to the progress of everything that you have agreed to do ahead of time with this person. You almost have to get them to sign a contract each week that says, “These are the 15 things on my plate. These are the 15 things I need to do. Here’s the order in which I’m going to do them. Do we agree upon this ahead of time? Great. Every three days, we can check in on that progress.”
I think instead of trying to make them happy or hide from them or trick them into finding errors that don’t exist, which we’ve all tried, it’s really all about sort of clarifying those goals. I think also people like to lean in by telling a micromanager that they’re micromanaging and that tends to never work. They tend to get defensive. They say, “If you were good at your job, I wouldn’t have to micromanage you.” But instead kind of talk about big picture goals, theirs and yours, and then what it’s gonna do to take… How are you gonna become aligned on those goals and what it’s gonna take to achieve them.
You can kind of leave the micromanagement word out of the conversation at least initially. And again, as I’ve said before I leave your feelings at the door, just talk about specific behaviors that they’re doing, and the progress that you need to be making in these goals as you move forward and just keep that structure, don’t let that structure break, don’t hide from them, don’t let them add additional meetings. If you agreed upon a certain structure ahead of time, just stick to that.
Brett McKay: Alright, so set boundaries, basically.
Tessa West: Yeah, I think set boundaries, but also don’t allow them to kind of stretch those boundaries, even if they’re doing well.
Brett McKay: Okay, that makes sense. Okay, another jerk is the opposite of a micromanager or maybe… Maybe it’s not the opposite. It’s the neglectful boss. And some people might be thinking, “What’s wrong with the neglectful boss? I don’t have to worry about my boss. He’s checked out. I don’t like people looking over my shoulder.” So what makes a neglectful boss a jerk at work?
Tessa West: So most neglectful bosses don’t actually disappear all the time. If they did, they probably would have gotten fired by now. I actually think most neglectful bosses are also micromanagers, so they disappear for long periods of time, and then they kind of panic that they’ve been out of the loop, so they show up, they micromanage you in the 11th hour, they try to change everything and then they disappear again. Sometimes they come back to see if they’ve actually… You’ve done those things that they’ve asked you to do, sometimes they never do, so it’s really this kind of like they’re completely in or they’re completely out, there’s a ton of uncertainty of no idea when they’re gonna do this, when they’re gonna show up. It really just has to do with when there’s been enough anxiety from being out of the loop that they then show up and manage that by micromanaging you.
Brett McKay: So what do you do if you got a boss that’s being neglectful?
Tessa West: I think for some folks, the neglect is so bad that they actually start to have that conversation of, Is it time to leave? I think neglectful bosses, the reason why, if you wanna try to solve the problem, so they do bring enough to the table to wanna stick out this relationship, you need to think about how you can reel them back in. So I think most neglectful bosses, they do this because they have 15 things on their plate and they’re completely overwhelmed by all of them. They’re probably off micromanaging someone else while they’re neglecting you. So you have to think about what it’s gonna take to pull them back in.
And often, it’s the case that these people are being eaten alive by time thieves, folks who are sucking them dry, getting advice from them all the time. Offer to offload some of that labor yourself and be very kind of pragmatic about what aspects of their job you could actually do better than them, it would actually be productive for you to climb up at work. Most of us don’t want to do the work of our managers in order to get them to show back up, but sometimes offering that is the best way to hook them back in.
Instead of your manager doing that newsletter for the company, you and two other people can handle it, and that then kind of buys him an extra five hours. So I tend to think of what it will take to reel them back in, what I can do to sort of offload that, what other systems you could teach them to kind of allocate some of the labor that they’re struggling with allocating, and that tends to be the best way to at least to initially get them to engage.
I think the second piece of advice is, don’t act like things are an emergency, don’t send them these emails that are like, “Urgent, need to meet now.” Send them an email that asks to meet in the next two weeks, make it short, kind of spread these things out initially. The more you act like you have a hair on fire problem, the less likely that manager is to engage with you because they feel like they have a million hair on fire problems, they’re just gonna see it and kind of shut down.
Brett McKay: So you have to manage your manager, it sounds like.
Tessa West: You do have to manage your manager. And I think most of us actually for a lot of these problems, it’s about managing your manager.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, the final jerk is the gaslighter. What does this jerk look like?
Tessa West: Yeah. This person is pretty scary, so they tend to… They’re dishonest at work, but a lot of people are. Most of us actually lie fairly frequently in everyday social interactions, but gaslighters, their dishonesty is done with the intent of kind of creating an alternative reality. They deceive on a very grand scale, and it tends to start very small, and they do this to kind of create a reality for you that nobody else shares. And their signature move is to cut you off socially.
So if you have a gaslighter at work, you will have a manager who starts saying things to you like, “I wouldn’t speak up too much, people don’t really like what you have to say here, or you should keep your head down if you wanna keep your job. I wouldn’t go to those happy hours, I wouldn’t talk to those other leaders.” They wanna cut you off so that you can’t kind of fact-check this alternative reality that they’re making.
Brett McKay: How do you get out of that? What’s the tactic?
Tessa West: It’s really hard for people who’ve been isolated to re-engage, and so the first thing you’re gonna have to do if you think you’re being gaslighted is start to build that network back up brick by brick. The temptation is often to go to someone with a lot of power to complain about a gaslighter, but I actually don’t recommend this. Your gaslighter probably has power, has a lot of friends. I would actually start small, start with people who are at your level, who you used to be connected with, you can meet with these folks, get yourself back into the fold.
And one of the pieces of advice I’ve given a lot of victims is, go to people who work at the same level as your gaslighter, so if they’re a manager, go to another manager who has the same job. Don’t go to them to complain about your gaslighter, but go to them to get some feedback on how people see you at work. Let them know, “I haven’t got a lot of feedback from other leaders, how I’m seen here, how I’m doing, love to hear that perspective,” and that will start to build back that reality for you.
You wanna do all of these things. First build up that wall, build up that network, get some perspective on how you’re seen at work before you complain about that case later because they will have dirt on you, and they’ll be able to kind of counter whatever you say once you do complain. So you’re gonna have to have your army prepared, so to speak, before you take that step.
Brett McKay: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I’m kind of torn about this idea of gaslighting because what I’ve seen, and you’re a psychologist, maybe you’ve seen this too, is that people who gaslight will often accuse other people of gaslighting to gaslight. So I’ve seen this with some friends where they’ll have a disagreement about how something went down, and person A will be like, “Oh, you’re gaslighting me, you’re questioning my reality.” And the other person who’s sort of emotionally mature will be like, “I don’t know, I don’t think so. I’m just seeing things differently.” And then the other person like, “Well, no, no, you’re gaslighting me.” Then the other person’s like, “Well, maybe I am, maybe I’m a terrible person.” And they start questioning their reality. Are there any studies about that?
Tessa West: Yeah, I think, so what you’re talking about here is also just this general idea that we almost never agree on our recall of events, and gaslighters take advantage of that. I think one thing is that this word is just, there’s a lot of concept creep around it. People use it to refer to anyone who’s telling them something either they don’t wanna hear or something they disagree with. And we’ve seen it around politics a lot. We see in a lot of relationships, if your partner says, “Why didn’t you take out the trash,” and you say, “I did,” and they’re like, “You’re gaslighting me.” I actually don’t think that’s gaslighting, I think that’s a misalignment on the recall of events. Gaslighting really involves social isolation. So if one person is being cut off and they’re told this whole narrative, then yeah, that’s gaslighting. But gaslighters do this all the time.
In fact, I saw on a work where a known gaslighter countered by saying that the person she was gaslighting, her first move was to say, “He’s trying to sabotage my reputation, he’s telling all these lies about me behind my back.” It was actually a really interesting offensive strategy. It wasn’t defensive. She didn’t wait for him to complain. She complained about him first via this accusation that he was gaslighting, that he was creating this alternative reality, building up a narrative about her that wasn’t true because she knew once he complained, that was gonna be his complaint. And so you do see gaslighters using this as kind of this really interesting strategy to out-gas the gaslighting. And only by having data was he able to actually say, “No, she’s the real gaslighter here,” but they were definitely pointing fingers, and it was super interesting.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s important like you said, you need to not socially isolate yourself and build… You have to triangulate reality with a third party, it’s like, “Well, I’m seeing this, this person says that didn’t happen, and I’m gaslighting them, what do you think?” And that third party can be like, “Well, here’s what I think.” Like, Okay, gaslighting did not happen. We just saw things differently.
Tessa West: Yeah, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that at work if you’re being gaslit, the dark reality is you’re probably engaging in some unethical behaviors on behalf of your gaslighter. Most gaslighters are doing this because they’re trying to achieve some goal. They’re not doing it because they’re evil or they’re narcissists or whatever. They’re trying to hide something, maybe they’re stealing and they’re trying to cover that up.
In science, we’ve seen this with people who fake data, who’ve made up entire studies that never actually happened. They’re trying to cover something up, they’re trying to do something that ethically they can’t get away with and they need help with, and they will get you to engage in those behaviors on behalf of that goal. And their way of doing it is via gaslighting to convince you that what you’re doing isn’t unethical, it isn’t wrong, but at the end of the day, when you’re ready to complain about them, they will be the first person to remind you, “We are in this together, you also participated in these behaviors. So the minute you complain about me, it’s gonna come out what you’ve done as well,” and I think that’s the part where you have to be very careful about when you actually comply with a gaslighter and you do the things they ask, that the things you’re doing are actually what they say they are, and you’re not actually doing something super unethical that could get you fired.
Brett McKay: So we talked about these different jerks at work and different tactics you can use to manage them or handle them, but is there one thing that you think people can do to mitigate the effects of all these different types of jerks?
Tessa West: Yeah, I think one thing that people should do that we’re not very good at is learn how to have healthy confrontation very early. People are just super non-confrontational at work. We hear the word confrontation, we assume it’s a bad thing, but we actually know from close relationships that learning how to argue, learning how to have a disagreement and how to work that out is actually one of the biggest predictors of not getting a divorce. Fighting isn’t bad. Actually, not dealing with conflict is bad. So learning some of these early strategies to detect these issues, to have these conversations, to ask for feedback that’s very specific, that’s immediate, that spans across lots of people, these are the ways of detecting these things, but I think most of us wait until they get really, really bad and then we say, “Okay, now how do I fix this problem that’s been brewing for a long time?”
I think we’re also not very good at giving people feedback that is negative, especially if they have power over us, so we have to be better about learning how to ask for it and how to showcase giving it, especially if you’re a manager. And again, don’t make it general, don’t say, “You don’t trust me,” or, “Your presentation style sucked.” You have to be super specific about the feedback you give. And even if it’s negative, if it’s specific and it’s small, then it’s gonna go down much smoother, and people are gonna be less defensive. So that’s kind of the one strategy, I think that if we all just learn how to do that a little bit better, we would not be dealing with these folks to the degree that we are.
Brett McKay: Well, Tessa, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Tessa West: So you can go to my website. It’s tessawestauthor.com. There’s links to all my media interviews, my quizzes for my book. I also have a newsletter, which is on Substack. It is tessawest@work with the @ symbol. And yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Brett McKay: Well, Tessa West, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Tessa West: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Tessa West. She’s the author of the book Jerks at Work. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, tessawestauthor.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/jerksatwork where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast.
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