Jerkplace relations: How to deal with jerks at work

The passive aggressive note leaver, the terse email sender, the full-on meltdown artist: there are as many kinds of jerks at work as there are stars in the sky. So what's the best way to deal with them without losing your mind?

For one reason or another, most of us are difficult to work with at some stage during our lives.

However, according to Gretchen Spreitzer, co-author of Destructive De-energizing Relationships: How Thriving Buffers their Effect on Performance, this doesn"t necessarily make us jerks.

“If somebody is rude or an outlier occasionally because they are in a situation where they didn"t get a good night"s sleep or something drastic has happened in their personal lives, we wouldn"t consider that person to be a jerk at work,” she says.

“It affects people"s performance, work relationships and moods and the wellbeing of the entire organisation.”

“It is when there is a pattern in the behaviour over time that a person can be considered a jerk.”

While bullies and abusers are relatively easy to identify, and many workplaces have had policies on these issues in place for decades, Spreitzer says other jerks can be harder to spot.

“For example, they may often exclude certain staff members from a meeting. When that behaviour pops up we are often not sure how to react.”

But is this sort of behaviour merely irritating or does it have a significant effect on productivity?

"They are people who de-energise us," Spreitzer says. "When that happens we don"t necessarily want to repeat that interaction."

She gives the example of the office prima donna. They are often brilliant at some dimension of their work and as a consequence are often given a lot of leeway with their bad behaviour.

"The payoff is negative. They affect everyone around them and everyone else is less good as a result. The effect is multiplied many times— it affects people"s performance, work relationships and moods and the wellbeing of the entire organisation.

"Because they can"t work collaboratively, we start to avoid interacting with such people, and start to collaborate with others who may be less effective but easier to work with."

According to Ken Lloyd, the author of Office Idiots: What to Do When Your Workplace is a Jerkplace, email can be enabler for jerkish behaviour.

"The email jerk can be tougher to handle than the usual jerk," he says. "If you notice tensions rising in an email thread, go talk to the people face-to-face or at the very least, make a phone call to sort things out."

In fact, Lloyd advocates challenging the behaviour of jerks: "Try to understand the jerk"s motivation and work through it to get the job done while steering clear of his problems."

But what about when it"s your boss that"s the jerk?

"They may not have the people skills but move into positions of power," says Gretchen Spreitzer. "Empathy and concern for others then takes a back seat and they are allowed to reign as they please.

"That"s why organisations need 360-degree evaluations that create safe places for people to be able to give feedback. That"s where we need strong human resources management.

"They need to coach and counsel these people in power that don"t treat other people well. Systems need to create mechanisms to not allow those kinds of behaviours to thrive in supervisors and bosses."

Of course, says Ken Lloyd, it"s always worth examining our own behaviour: "If you act like a jerk, examine your heart and repent."

Listen to the full conversation or check our more from Best Practice with Richard Aely on ABC Radio National.