The other night I was watching the pilot of Workin’ Moms, a Canadian sitcom about women who have just returned to work after maternity leave. One of the moms pulls a really jerky move on her first day back, making it seem that her executive assistant had screwed up. By the end of the episode, she had realized the error of her ways and apologized.
This reminded me of Robert I. Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule. In his excellent book, Sutton details why you should never hire or tolerate an asshole, no matter how capable they are. Even if they produce three times more than anyone else, the asshole is a force divider, making everyone around them less efficient.
I once worked at a company where the asshole was the CEO. He screamed, he swore, and he insulted. Six months after he decided that our division needed his attention, almost everyone had left for more pleasant pastures. The division floundered for a few years without releasing a significant product. Finally, they gave up and spun it off. If the asshole had left us alone, we could have continued to release new products and could have been a large and growing source of revenue for the company.
Hopefully, we rarely deal with full-blown assholes. However, we all have bad days, and we are all capable of being a jerk to someone who just rubs us the wrong way. These are the reasons we shouldn’t.
Don’t Be a Jerk to That Annoying Person
You’re in the zone, being productive, and trying to meet a deadline you’re not sure you’re going to meet when a coworker wants to chat about what he had for dinner last night. You really don’t care about how the chicken was prepared or what wine he was drinking. Even on a quiet day, you wouldn’t care, and today you’re already on the edge.
I think of dealing with annoying people like managing a dam on a river. Every annoying thing they do is water flowing into the reservoir. You can manage that by letting water pass over the dam, or you can let it build until the dam breaks. The dam breaking is you being a jerk and screaming, “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR DINNER! CAN’T YOU SEE I’M BUSY?!” Better to listen for a minute or two and then gently let him know you need to focus on your work. Suggest talking about it at lunch or after you meet your deadline. Maybe all you need to do is take a deep breath. It’s important that you find a way that works for you to let water pass over the dam before you lose your top.
Don’t Be a Jerk to a Jerk
Here I’m not talking about the chronic jerk (or asshole) but just someone who is having a bad day. The key here is to be empathic. Why is she being a jerk today? Is it something at home, which might not be any of your business? Is it work related? Can you help? Are you part of the problem?
When presented with jerkish behavior, just take a deep breath and put yourself in their shoes. Your responding in kind just escalates whatever negative stuff that’s in the air. If you can help, do so. If you can’t, just move on. If this behavior is their normal mode, then see The No Asshole Rule for guidance.
Don’t Be a Jerk Because You’re Having a Bad Day
We all have bad days. Maybe your kid is sick, a project is late, or a supplier sent parts that were all damaged in transit. Stuff happens to all of us, but not everyone responds by being a jerk. If the bad thing is your fault, own it, and move on. The worst your employer can do is fire you, and I’d rather be fired for screwing up (as we all do from time to time) than for being a jerk. The people around you will see that you handled this setback with grace, and it will be remembered. If you handle stress by being a jerk, that will also be remembered.
Don’t Be a Jerk Because Being a Jerk Is Just No Fun
I wrote an email to a vendor who was late with a deliverable. I could have been a jerk about it; instead, I asked if there was anything I could do to help. It’s a bit passive-aggressive, but I’d rather he come back with a request for help than the delivery drag on. My note let him understand that I took his commitment seriously and care about what he’s producing. Berating him about being late would accomplish the same thing but would leave everyone feeling more stressed. If you spend too much of your day at work being a jerk, eventually it will become your new normal, and you will graduate into being an asshole.