It’s not your imagination: there are so many jerks in the workplace that they inspired a recent book by Stanford management scholar Robert Sutton, The Asshole Survival Guide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). Whether you’re heading for an internship or that first postgraduation job, you should know what unpleasant personality types are most common, and how you can cope with them. We asked BU experts, including one cited in Sutton’s book, and illustrated their examples with characters from that TV primer on workplace jerks, The Office.
The “validation-hungry worker.” This person needs “lots of acknowledgement and may become competitive with others, brownnosing the boss and getting upset when others get credit,” says Danielsen Institute Research Director Steven Sandage, the School of Theology Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology. “Try not to be pulled into the inevitable us-versus-them dynamics,” says Danielsen Institute Executive Director George Stavros (GRS’98), an STH clinical associate professor. Center yourself with exercise, rest, supportive relationships, or solitude “before engaging critical tasks,” he says, then “do your job. Never underestimate how much supervisors notice someone who can do a good job while avoiding the fray.”
“Oddball eccentrics” and “dramatic, emotional, erratic” types. These people have personality disorders, including paranoid, schizoid, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic. They share a tendency to personalize and overdramatize situations, says David Shim, a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in psychological and brain sciences. “Don’t let these folks get into your head,” he says. “In minor situations, scan for the truth in what they say, agree or agree to disagree, and ask for their assistance. Validating their perspective can bring the emotional tone down.”
“Podium pigeons.” That’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lingo for bosses who excessively monitor workers, says Michel Anteby, a Questrom School of Business associate professor, whose research into the TSA Sutton cites. Excessive surveillance, foisted on workers ranging from physicians to call center workers, is best handled by alerting managers to it, hoping they’ll back off and see that it’s unnecessary, Anteby says. But since workers fear such direct approaches, “the common way to deal is trying to become invisible to management.”
The nondisordered, run-of-the-mill jerk. “Many people will be on the extreme end of some traits that will make them more challenging to work with,” from arrogance to overconfidence to grandiosity, says Andrea Mercurio, a CAS lecturer in psychological and brain sciences.
With some research suggesting that young adults are ever more narcissistic, she says, “it is almost inevitable that you will have to interact with individuals who possess some of these traits, and in some cases, your ability to succeed will become dependent on whether you can find effective ways of communicating and interacting with them.”