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Work With a Jerk? Here’s How To Survive

There’s lots of value in understanding how to deal with and work with a jerk.

Written by: Bob Sutton

Odds are you’ve had to work with a difficult or even detestable person. That boss who takes pleasure in calling you on a Sunday to push a deadline up on a major project. The co-worker who never gives you quite enough information to succeed in a team assignment. The continually dissatisfied client who proclaims his disappointment, always at top volume.

“Believe me,” says Robert I. Sutton, “they’re everywhere.”

Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior, by courtesy, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has become an expert in dealing with jerks. His 2007 book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t was a New York Times bestseller and won a Quill Award for best business book. His latest book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, hits shelves this week.

Here Sutton discusses ways you can work with the brutes without losing your mind.

Is the workplace just filled with awful people?

The Workplace Bullying Institute conducts research asking, “Have you ever seen, observed, or been subjected to prolonged bullying or repeated bullying?” Replies vary slightly from year to year, but essentially 50% of Americans say “Yes.” And then, when asked, “Have you ever been the perpetrator?” — less than one-half of 1% answer yes. Obviously, something is wrong.

So is it us or them? We human beings are not able to see our own weaknesses. The best we can hope for is to have people in our lives who will tell us the truth. I talk about the power of having the right spouse or life partner to tell you the truth. But it can be a mentor, or a friend. Just be quick to label yourself as part of the problem and slow to label others.

Let’s assume that we are not the jerk. Is there an acceptable level of nastiness? And if there is, how do we assess it?

There’s no scientific gauge above which somebody goes from tolerable to intolerably damaging. A lot of the signs have to do with how you are affected personally. How much are you suffering? How’s your physical health? How’s your mental health? Are you becoming toxic yourself? It is very contagious. The other thing that I would ask is how much abuse are you willing to take to get what you want.

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