Working with Jerks

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve probably seen the video “highlights” of now-ex-Rutgers University mens’ basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired shortly after his harsh treatment of players came to light via video footage of the team’s practices.

Most agree — though not all — this was a necessary move.

Even after firing Rice, the fallout continues to rain down on campus in Piscataway, with Rice’s erstwhile supervisors catching heat over not doing more when they were notified of his bullying behavior. (Update: Rice’s former boss, Tim Pernetti, is now out of a job, as well.)

While unfortunate, the events have brought the topic of bullying in the workplace back to the spotlight, which makes it an especially good time to pass along some useful information from Lisa Parker, an executive coach and the president of Heads Up Coaching in New York.

The author of Managing the Moment:  A Leader’s Guide to Building Executive Presence One Interaction at a Time, Parker says that, if you are in danger of being known as the “jerk” in your office, here’s what you can do:

1.    Seek feedback from those who will tell you the truth. Your direct reports may act surprised that you’re asking; some may even insist that everything is fine. Depending on how powerful you are (or how big of a jerk you’ve been) they may be unwilling to be honest. Look to peers, mentors or senior colleagues who can be frank.  Self-awareness is the first step to self management.

2.    Listen to feedback without any excuses, rationalization or defensiveness. If you really want to improve, you need hear the ugly truth.

3.    Say “thank you” for the feedback, and not in a token way.  Make your response commensurate with the risk and time someone took to be honest.

4.    Take action. Review feedback carefully and address each action item for a period of time until the new behavior becomes routine.  Then, move on to the next action item.

5.    Be overt. Let people know from the start that you are deliberately trying to change. Say things like “Lately I’ve been counting to 100 before responding to those emails” or “I’m working on being a little less aggressive and opinionated at meetings.”

If you work with a corporate jerk, Parker says, you can minimize the distraction and frustration by:

1.    Take the high road. Don’t allow the jerk to suck you into the quagmire of bad behavior. That will ruin the relationship long term and may put your job in jeopardy.

2.    Set the standard for interaction. When faced with rude or thoughtless behavior, calmly tell the offender that you don’t respond well to that tone of voice (or those swear words or unreasonable demands) and you would appreciate it if the two of you could have a more professional conversation.

3.    Give the jerk constructive feedback, if asked.  Be thoughtful and provide examples of how the offensive behavior is impacting your ability to perform well.

4.    Seek help.   If the first three steps don’t work, bring the situation to the attention of your manager, HR representative or another trusted authority.  Provide specific examples of the offending behavior and the steps you took to address the situation.