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How to Work with Jerks

NYU Professor of Psychology and Author, Jerks at Work

Interview by Seb Murray

From credit-stealers to gas-lighters, an NYU Psychologist describes how to deal with troublesome colleagues.


In your book, Jerks at Work, you outline four types of destructive colleagues. Who are they?

The first type is the ‘kiss-up, kick-downer.’ This is a person who is really talented at work; they have the skills needed to get on their boss’s radar, and their bosses often value them because they are high performers. But behind the scenes, they will do things like insult the competence of team members or ask interns to do work so they can get ahead. If you work with them, you’re in this infuriating position. They sometimes sabotage you, but it’s hard to get the boss to want to intervene on your behalf because they are very effective at their job.

The second type is the credit-stealer — someone you work closely with who steals credit for your work or ideas. They will do this in private meetings with the boss where they overemphasize their contributions. These people tend to be very articulate and well-spoken, and they have what scientists call ‘voice’ at work, which means when they speak up, people listen.

The next one is the bulldozer. All of us got to know this person during the pandemic, the one who took up our entire Zoom screen because they talked over everybody. But there’s more to this than talking too much. They are also conniving. They tend to be people who have held positions of power in the past, and they know how to get their way by going up the chain of command. If they don’t like a decision your group made, they will go up the chain of command and complain about the process through which that decision was made, not necessarily the outcome.


Free-riders are really good at doing nothing

and getting credit for it.


Next is the free-rider, which is the most common type of jerk. These individuals tend to be charismatic, and they’re really good at doing nothing and getting credit for it. So their magic is really in their ability to seek out teams and managers who allow them to engage in this behaviour — teams that are very conscientious and full of go-getters, with bosses who are very hands-off.


You also outline three types of jerks who are bosses. What are their hallmarks?

First, there are micromanagers, for whom everything is equally urgent and important. They’re on top of everything and on top of nothing at the same time. They often let big-picture things fall through the cracks, because they’re so obsessed with the minutiae of little things.

The other side of this coin is the neglectful boss. These folks go between not showing up for weeks or sometimes months on end, panicking about it and then exerting a whole bunch of control over people to reduce their own anxiety and discomfort with not knowing what’s happening. People who work for a boss like this live in a chronic state of anxiety and uncertainty.

The last boss jerk is the scariest one: the gaslighter. Gaslighting has two traits. First, there’s the dishonesty part, but then you pair that with social isolation, which means keeping people away from their social networks, from other leaders. They’ll tell you things like, ‘You wouldn’t have a job here if it wasn’t for me.’ Basically, they want you to just keep your head down and not complain. Then you have the ones who gaslight through flattery. They tell you you’re part of something special, that you have privileged information. These are by far the most cynical types of jerks.


What drives this type of toxic behaviour?

Sometimes it’s because these people are bad apples. But all of us have some of these traits inside of us that get turned on or off, depending on where we work. For instance, it comes out if there’s a culture that rewards people who do whatever it takes to get to the top. We see this in top law firms or consulting firms where only one or two people can make partner. People really do anything they can to survive.

Burnout and being overwhelmed at work can also turn this behaviour on. People are struggling with doing not just their job, but six other roles at work because six people quit in the last week. Poor leadership training is also to blame. Just in the past year, organizations have come up with something like 15 new senior-level titles for people, and many of the people who take these jobs will have very little training on how to manage teams. And most managers — especially those in the middle — have very little time to themselves, so they resort to practices like neglect (especially if their manager is a micromanager). The average middle manager has something like 12 minutes a day for each of their employees.


What kind of effect do these jerks have on those around them in the workplace?

We see a lot of disengagement. A majority of the people fall into the category of, ‘I didn’t create the problem, so I don’t need to be part of the solution.’ Unless they’re directly targeted, people tend to ignore these situations, especially if stepping in could be costly. So the biggest problem we have is ‘apathy contagion,’ whereby slowly, the jerk in question gets to do whatever they want because no one wants to deal with them.


What are the best strategies for handling these jerks?

A lot of this stuff happens because we are lazy at creating procedures and rules that we follow through on with all of our teams — processes that are embraced company-wide. Failing to clarify those processes makes us really vulnerable to jerks — especially free-riders and credit-stealers. One of the easiest things you can do to stop this is, at the beginning of a project, have everyone write down the work they agreed to do and the timeline they’re going to do it in. Then at the end of the project, ask everyone: Did you do the work you agreed to do? Did you do any work that you didn’t agree to do? This will sniff out a free-rider really fast. Another thing to do is learn how to face conflict. People are really afraid of confrontation at work. They avoid it at all costs. But in reality, confrontation is an important skill for leadership. I wish we had a better word for it than ‘confrontation’; it’s more like ‘learning how to have clear, concise communication at work.’


What if you are the jerk? How would you know?

Most people are not comfortable giving negative in-person feedback, even during exit interviews. And so the way you actually learn you’re a jerk is not the presence of negative feedback, but the absence of positive feedback. Imagine you’re going out for a new job and your recruiter contacts five of the people who work for you whom you provided as references, and no one responds to the requests. These are the kind red flags to look out for. Maybe you’ve been a jerk at work, so people aren’t willing to step forward and say something nice about you.

You also have to learn how to ask for feedback strategically. You can ask an employee about how they felt about a very specific thing you did: ‘Did I give you too much time or not enough time to get that document back to me? Did you feel like I was too dominant in that last meeting, or was I too hands-off?’ The more specific the question, the more accurate the answer will be. And don’t wait until you think people are sick of you. Ask these questions early on, and often.


You can’t always control what triggers you,

but you can control how you respond to it.


Let’s say the feedback suggests I have been a jerk. What should I do?

First, you need to learn what’s triggering your behaviour. Most people are jerks because they are feeling anxious at work or overwhelmed, but everyone has different reactions. For some of us, feeling anxious leads us to neglect our team. We just want to go watch Netflix instead of dealing with the ten new problems that just cropped up. For others, anxiety leads us to micromanage, which makes us feel like we’re in control. The key is to learn what your triggers are and to document your responses. Then you can replace those actions with something else. You often can’t control what triggers you, but you can always control how you respond.

For a lot of jerks, their behaviours hurt them as much as they hurt other people. And they’re actually pretty open to change, as long as it will also help them get ahead. Take the micromanager, for example. There’s a whole bunch of little strategies you can pursue if you’re feeling anxious. Things like having a Google doc where you can go in and check on the progress of subordinates without bothering them. I’m all about setting small goals, hour by hour, day by day. Things that prevent us from allowing our dark side to come out.


Is it possible to spot a jerk during a job interview?

I do think there are some red flags you can look out for, both from the person doing the interviewing and the jobseeker. So for instance, neglectful bosses will often use a lot of broad, vague platitudes when they talk about what they’re going to do for you. They never get specific. It’s like, ‘I’m going to make you a star; We’re going to go places.’ Like, what does that mean?

To spot micromanagers, people focusing a lot on mundane, tiny details in the interview is a red flag. But your best source to spot these people is current employees and people who recently left. Reach out to these folks as much as you possibly can. Almost nobody does this, but you can often find them on LinkedIn. If you’re going to date someone new, you probably wouldn’t jump into the relationship without knowing something about their past, would you? The same is true for hiring someone.

There is some new data showing that in two-thirds of cases, people are regretting the job switches that they made as part of the Great Resignation. And I think a lot of it is because they’re not asking the right questions to detect whether some of these problems exist. They aren’t interrogating their potential new jobs as much as their current ones. If you can identify individual jerks, you can identify cultures that allow jerks to flourish. Things like competition at work. Or a fear of failure. You might not have a jerk in that company right now, but you could in the future because it’s a fertile breeding ground for toxic behaviour. It’s important for people to be aware of these things as part of their efforts to thrive at work. 

Tessa West is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University and the author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them (Portfolio, 2022). She is the recipient of the Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and writes regularly about her research in the Wall Street Journal.

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