Do you work with a jerk? Here are 6 things you can do

Apr 5, 2019 /

Even in the best workplaces, rude coworkers may occasionally appear. But you don’t need to smile and suffer in silence, says management researcher Christine Porath.

Oh, coworkers. We spend intense amounts of our waking lives with them, but while we voluntarily chose to be with some of these people, many of them are strangers foisted upon us.

As we know, these random collections of colleagues can frequently result in the best kind of professional fireworks: sparky, rewarding collaborations, meaningful friendships, and fleeting yet fond acquaintances. But every once in a while, you’ll find yourself stuck with a non-team player — a bully, a jerk, or someone who is just consistently belittling or condescending.

Although your rude coworkers may be few in number, they can drain a disproportionate amount of your time and energy. The costs associated with uncivil behavior in the workplace are high, according to Christine Porath, a business professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. “As you might expect, it impacts creativity, performance and focus,” she says. “But it also has a negative effect on emotional well-being, mental and physical health, even personal relationships outside of work.”

Porath and Christine Pearson, a management professor at Arizona State University, surveyed nearly 800 people across 17 industries to understand the impact of incivility at work. Their conclusion: When employees don’t feel respected, their performance suffers. In their findings, 80 percent of respondents said they lost work time worrying about the incident, 63 percent lost work time in their efforts to avoid the offender, 50 percent deliberately decreased the time spent at work, and 66 percent said their performance declined. More worrying still, 25 percent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers, and 12 percent said they resorted to leaving their job because of incivility.

Incivility has also been shown to erode people’s cognitive abilities. “Even if they want to perform at their best, they can’t because rudeness hijacks focus and creativity,” says Porath. In one study that she conducted with University of Florida-Gainesville management professor Amir Erez, participants were divided into two groups: one which was belittled, one which wasn’t. People in the belittled group performed 33 percent worse on word puzzles and produced 39 percent fewer creative ideas during a brainstorming task. In a second experiment, participants were again divided into two groups: en route to the experiment, people in one group encountered a “busy professor,” who reprimanded them for bothering him; people in the other group didn’t have this encounter. For the reprimanded subjects, their performance was 61 percent worse on word puzzles, and they produced 58 percent fewer ideas compared to those who hadn’t been berated. Interestingly, negative effects can persist even for those who witness moments of incivility: in three studies, they performed 25 percent worse on word puzzles and produced nearly 45 percent fewer ideas in brainstorming tasks.

Now, if you’ve ever had to deal with a jerk in your workplace, it’s not news to you that they can bring down morale and productivity. But what can you do about them? Porath shares these 6 research- and experience-backed tips.

1. Don’t meet rudeness with rudeness.

Even for the most enlightened among us, the reflexive response to rudeness will be to retaliate with the same. In its own way, incivility can be just as contagious as the seasonal cold that sweeps through your department, says Porath. But please check that instinct. You may have the sharpest zinger ready to fire, but remember that a withering takedown will not subdue the office jerk, just inflame them — and potentially escalate their one-sided rudeness into open conflict. Let your wiser, calmer self prevail. Ignore their barbs, minimize your encounters, and when you do have to deal with them, be brief, friendly and firm.

2. Spend time with the colleagues you like.

Your positive professional relationships can directly counterbalance the effects of incivility and give you a much-needed emotional bolster. Across industries, organizations and levels, “de-energizing” negative relationships have four to seven times as much impact on an employee’s wellbeing as energizing positive ones do, according to a study conducted by French researchers Andrew Park and Alexandra Gerbasi and Porath. Whenever there’s a debilitating de-energizer in your office, make sure you have a cluster of energizers to offset them. Who are the people in your workplace who support you? Who are the ones who embody why you took this job in the first place? Spend time with them, even if it’s for a quick coffee break or walk around the block. And don’t let your dealings with the de-energizer drive you to cancel plans with friends and family. Your nonprofessional relationships play an important role in keeping you buoyed.

3. Cultivate your own sense of thriving.

Another factor that can offset the ill effects of incivility: cultivating what Porath calls “a sense of thriving,” or focusing on your own well-being. “In studies conducted across a range of industries, I’ve found that people who experience a state of thriving are healthier, more resilient and more able to focus on their work,” she says. “When people feel even an inkling of thriving, it often buffers them from distractions, stress and negativity.”

A sense of thriving can make it easier for you to reframe your coworker’s putdowns and disrespect so they won’t feel as destructive. “How much are you going to let someone pull you down?” asks Porath. “In large part, you really do get to decide how you interpret incivility, the meaning you assign to it, and the stories you tell yourself. You also get to control whether it makes you feel bad or not.” People who focused more on thriving following an incident of incivility reported that their performance suffered 34 percent less than people who didn’t, she says.

You can build up your sense of thriving in many ways, including getting adequate exercise and sleep, eating a varied diet, and prioritizing your non-work interests and hobbies. At work, make beneficial changes, such as seeking a mentor or doubling down on your personal goals.

4. Think about sitting down with your rude colleague.

In some cases, you might decide to talk it out with your abrasive coworker, particularly if there’s a specific encounter or pattern of behavior you can refer to. Porath suggests you ask yourself these questions before you do:

Is their behavior intentional?

Is their behavior unique, or is it part of an overall culture of incivility?

The answers to these questions aren’t always clear, especially if you’re upset, so you may want to discuss them with a colleague, friend, mentor or family member.

If you’ve opted for a meeting, find a good time to talk and choose an environment in which you’ll both feel comfortable. One point to consider: Would it help to include other people as witnesses or mediators (e.g., your supervisor or someone from HR)? If so, invite them. And you may find it useful to rehearse your phrasing, ideas and approach first, even role-play the conversation.

In your discussion, you want to focus on the issues — not the individual — and how your colleague’s specific behavior is harming your professional relationship. Your goal is for the two of you to identify and agree on norms for the future so you can work together as effectively as possible.

As you speak, stay focused on understanding their perspective. Does your rude colleague feel they are being mistreated or disrespected? How conscious are they of their behavior and its impact? Is there something outside the workplace — it could be completely unrelated to the job — that’s pulled them off track and affected their mood and ability to be civil?

Be mindful of keeping your words and nonverbal communication neutral, and try to listen as much as you talk. Paraphrase what you hear your colleague say, and run it by them to make sure you’re taking it all in. “In experiments, I’ve found that people gain credibility and are perceived as more likeable when they ask humble questions this way,” Porath says. Any information you gather can help you two move forward.

5. If you decide not to talk to your rude colleague, tell someone else about them.

If you’re unsure about having a sit-down, you should still confide in one of your coworkers. In the survey conducted by Porath and Pearson, they found that less than half of respondents reported incivility to anyone, often out of fear or a sense of hopelessness. “Much of incivility stems from a lack of awareness,” says Porath. “So if you, your boss or leadership hasn’t given the instigator of incivility the information about how they’re perceived, they may not change their behavior.” Your feedback could possibly motivate the rude colleague to look at their interactions and change what they do. You might also find that you’re not the only victim.

And if you decided against a conversation because you worry you’d be putting yourself in an unsafe situation, or if your coworker has crossed the line of incivility into harassment, bullying or abuse, immediately notify your supervisor, human resources personnel or workplace manager.

6. Know when it’s time to leave.

If rudeness is the rule in your workplace and not the exception, leaving may be your best option. But Porath advises anyone who’s thinking of quitting to answer these questions first. Talk them over with someone you trust.

How easily can I move to a better workplace?

What would I gain or lose if I left?

How would leaving affect my career?

Does my current workplace appear destined to remain uncivil?

Is incivility at work depleting my life outside work?

Is workplace incivility injuring my self-image?

Is incivility causing me stress?

Ultimately, “incivility is in the eyes of the recipient,” says Porath, and it’s up to you to decide if you should quit your job. When you do, you can make it your lifelong mission to foster a culture of true civility wherever you work. “Simply not being rude is about being neutral, but civility in its fullest sense requires something more,” she says: “positive gestures of respect, dignity, courtesy and kindness.”

Watch her TEDxUniversityofNevada talk: