• Behaviour

Surviving Jerks at Work

NYU psychology prof on toxic co-workers and what to do about them


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Despite the business world’s HR focus on organizational culture and inclusion, poor interpersonal relations and particularly toxic bosses have a significant negative influence on employee engagement—as exemplified by a recent poll on Monster that revealed 76% of workers currently have or had a toxic manager.

In principle, dealing with bosses who undermine the confidence and mental health of even their best employees, and sanctioning co-workers whose behaviour damages team performance is an organizational issue—one to be delegated to the HR department. Yet in practice there are many reasons HR can’t reach in to solve every workplace relationship—a hellish people manager may be indispensable to the company for other reasons; judging a co-worker to be antisocial can be very subjective.

Consequently, in most cases, individual workers need to overcome bad situations created by jerks at work, by themselves— which is where this new book comes in..

Tessa West

Author Tessa West, Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, is a leading expert on interpersonal interaction and communication. She has a good sense of humour and a rich fund of workplace anecdotes, which she deploys along with numerous  psychological insights to make this both a very useful handbook and a fun read. Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-Workers and What to Do About Them, not only has an irresistible title—who hasn’t been demotivated by ‘bad apple’ colleagues or nasty bosses—but also delivers what the sub-title suggests.

Drawing on a decade of research into classic workplace archetypes, West presents a rogues’ gallery of problem people—including the Gas-lighter, the Bulldozer, the Credit-stealer, the Neglecter, the Free-rider, and the Micromanager—revealing the motivations and insecurities that lie behind their bad behaviour and offering psychologically savvy ways to deal with each type of jerk. That can be 'deal' in not letting them negatively affect your life/work, or in some cases helping jerks at work to change their ways.

Work places can be highly competitive. People who might appear well adjusted and empathetic in their private lives can find the stress of work and the need to succeed in high-pressured environments tips them into jerk-at-work behaviours—causing stress and anxiety for co-workers and ultimately interfering with team performance. This can be an HR issue but in the first instance being armed with the strategies West recommends can be invaluable.

As an appendix the book offers two quizzes: i) Am I a Jerk at Work? ii) Am I an Effective Ally? Your reviewer, I am relieved to say, passed in both cases—though perhaps not with the flying colours he had arrogantly assumed. In fact, these quizzes are a very clever way of pinpointing the complex issues involved and explaining how to address them.

West concludes with the story of the NASA engineers who put the Perseverance rover on Mars. Bringing together multiple disciplines and working together for three years, the team knew there would be arguments, but also knew there was absolutely no room for sustained conflict.

The strategies they used to resolve potential problems echo West’s advice. For example, when reporting on progress they realized their constant use of ‘we’, which they had thought to be fair, was not authentic. It was more important, having monitored individual contributions, to acknowledge personal credit—a typical case where the way to resolve conflict is not always obvious and where West’s book offers some unique insight.


‘Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-Workers and What to Do About Them,’ by Tessa West. Published by Portfolio/Penguin, 2022, ISBN 978-0-5931-9230-6

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