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How to Work with a Jerk

Vivia Chen

January 30, 2012

Battle©iofoto.Fotolia.comYou will probably want to throttle someone during your career. It could be that self-promoter on your team, the brown-noser in your class, or that calculating little associate who never shares one shred of information. We've all had to work with those types.

As you might imagine, I'm not very good at finessing these type of situations. Hate to admit it, but I'm more Newt Gingrich than Mitt Romney. Which is to say, if someone pushes enough of my buttons, I'll get angry and blow up.

But luckily, Harvard Business Review offers a more rational approach to the challenges of working with an annoying colleague. Here are HBR's dos and don'ts to dealing with a challenging coworker.

1. Focus on your own reactions. "If there is someone who is annoying or abrasive, don't think about how the person acts, think about how you react. It's far more productive to focus on your own behavior because you can control it."

2. Don't bitch at the office. Personally, I find it hard to keep a stiff upper lip about someone I truly despise. But HBR says complaining can have negative repercussions—you might end up looking "unprofessional or be labeled as the difficult one." If you must vent, "choose your support network carefully. Ideally, choose people outside the office."

3. Maybe it's you (at least partially) and not her. "Start with the hypothesis that the person is doing things you don't like but is a good person," says Stanford Business School professor Robert Sutton to HBR. "It's reasonable to assume you're part of the problem. . . . If everywhere you go there's someone you hate, it's a bad sign."

4. Spend more time with your nemesis. This is probably the last thing you'd want to do, but the idea behind this exercise is to build empathy. But if you really don't respect or  trust the other guy, hanging out won't do much good. "If it's someone who violates your sense of what's moral, getting away [from him] isn't a bad strategy," says Sutton to HBR.

5. Try telling the other person why her behavior is bothersome. "It may be that what bothers you is something that regularly gets in her way as a professional," says HBR. "Of course, you shouldn't launch into a diatribe about everything she does to annoy you. Focus on behaviors that she can control and describe how they impact you and your work together."

And if all else fails (or if the person bothering you is your boss): Grit your teeth, tune out as much as possible, and get the job done. As Sutton tells HBR: "Practice the fine art of emotional detachment or not giving a shit."

Isn't that what being an adult is all about?


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Bad advice from an executive coach with no executive function. That's the word on the street.

A really great rule of thumb is:
Take the high road, there's less traffic there!" Besides, when we explode or complain or gossip, etc about a colleague, we may think we have the upper hand but, in fact, we've ceded the upper hand because our emotions have hijacked our reason. And, in the end, the only thing we can truly manage is ourselves and our reactions.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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