If you’re the jerk that nobody likes to work with, you may be totally oblivious to how your behavior is wrecking your colleagues’ time and health.
That’s because most people would rather suffer in silence than to share their honest opinion about a jerk to their face.
“If you’re the jerk at work, don’t expect anyone to tell you. People have a hard time confronting jerks, and in a lot of places, it’s non-normative to give people negative feedback they don’t ask for,” said Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University and author of “Jerks At Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.”
“There’s a temptation to compensate for jerks instead of confronting them,” she said, “making it especially hard for people to see themselves as the source.”
If you’re wondering how people really feel about you, you need to look inward.
Understand that what rises to the level of jerk behavior is subjective for each person and organization, but as a general rule, “Someone is likely to think that you’re a jerk if they don’t feel good about themselves in your presence,” said organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge.
Look for these warning signs that you might be a jerk and see if any of them resonate:
1. If you think your team members are all jerks, it might be you.
West said jerk behavior can impact teams in subtle ways that make it hard to pinpoint the source, but one sign is if your team is totally dysfunctional when you are around.
“The telltale sign that you’re a jerk often isn’t how people treat you, it’s how others on your team start treating each other,” West said.
“Groups that had no problem allocating roles, sorting themselves into jobs and making efficient decisions find themselves fighting against what feels like an invisible force,” she said. “There’s jockeying for status, people interrupting each other, and fighting over what used to be fully supported democratic processes, like votes. Support from the top starts to wane as leaders stop trusting your team to make decisions on their own. If time and time again, these patterns of behavior emerge on teams you’re a part of, you might be the jerk.“
Bad behavior is contagious, and the more we see rudeness and hostility at work, the more likely we are to be rude to others, research has found. If your colleagues are always bickering, you could be the source.
“I once worked with a jerk-in-recovery who realized that she might be the problem when all of the teams she joined starting stabbing each other in the back,” West said. “Her competitive behavior was becoming contagious, and it took her a while to see herself as the source.“
2. If your co-workers don’t disagree with you, but don’t offer much feedback, either.
Gallaher said you might be the jerk on your team if others rarely disagree with you.
Don’t confuse a lack of debate with the idea that your colleagues love working with you, though. If you’re the jerk on your team, your co-workers don’t feel comfortable voicing their ideas or offering feedback.
“If, in meetings, you bring up points or make a case, and it’s often met with silence, you might be the jerk,” Gallaher said. “Sometimes jerks unknowingly steamroll their co-workers, argue vehemently for their perspective, and leave coworkers unwilling to debate or engage in healthy conflict. Some people will withdraw from the conversation because they’re intimidated, and some people will withdraw because they don’t feel like they have the energy for ‘the fight.’”
If you ask your co-workers for advice, or request that they put in a good word with the boss and hear nothing back, that’s a sign you could be seen as a jerk that no one is willing to help.
“It can be socially costly to explicitly say ‘no’ to these types of things, but the ‘no answer’ approach feels safe to people,” West said. So they’ll just do nothing.
3. If people you work with directly have a habit of leaving.
If you find yourself totally surprised when people leave or move off your team, you could be the reason why.
Some of the main signs that you’re the jerk at work happen when “people choose to work on a different team or asked to be taken off work with you” and when “people are quitting and not sharing why,” said Elena Armijo, a leadership and executive coach.
“Most people remain oblivious to what is happening around them because it is too painful to stop and take a look at themselves,” Armijo said. “People that are stuck in a cycle of being a jerk would rather continue as they are instead of being willing to face growth inside themselves.”
4. If you feel constantly let down by your team and need to point out their mistakes.
If you feel like your team is always the problem, and not you, you might be lashing out and being a jerk to your colleagues.
Under this mindset, “some part of you subconsciously fears that you’ll look incompetent based on how others are performing, but instead of dealing with your fears, you deflect and focus on other’s inadequacies instead of your own,” Gallaher said.
“If you could easily add ‘you dummy’ to the end of your statement, there’s a good chance your ‘critic’ defense mechanism has been triggered.”
5. If you’re a habitual credit-stealer.
If you don’t give credit where it’s due, you are being an unappreciative colleague that’s an unpleasant pain to work with. People need their work acknowledged to feel valued and to build their cases for promotions.
“If you’re stealing others’ ideas and passing them off as your own, no matter how you package it as the boss … or rebranded it, that’s still jerk behavior,” said Perpetua Neo, a psychologist and executive coach.
If any of this sounds like you, there’s a way to make amends and change your reputation.
If you realize you have been exhibiting jerk behavior, there may still be time to repair your relationships with colleagues.
Build a foundation of trust before giving feedback. If you suspect your co-worker sees you as a jerk, you need to regain their trust before you can get or ask for honest feedback about how they think about you.
Trust comes from knowing the answers to questions like: “Do you genuinely have their best interest at heart? What are their interests? What do they care about?” Gallaher wrote in a blog post on how to give better feedback.
If you cannot answer these questions yet, you should start with speaking your intentions. Gallaher suggested language like “I’d like to get to know you more and have the kind of relationship where we can be open with each other” as one possible way to start this conversation.
Ask for specific, recent feedback to get a clearer idea of what co-workers think of you. West said asking a general question, like “Do you trust me as a boss or team member?” is not as helpful as asking about specific behaviors if you want to find out if colleagues really think of you as difficult.
West said you should pick a specific behavior that happened recently.
“People feel more comfortable giving honest feedback about that thing you said or did during the last meeting than the accumulation of all of the things you said or did in the last four meetings,” she said. “The tone of voice you used, the type of feedback you gave, the time it took you to turn something around, the amount of work you’ve done on last week’s part of a team project — feedback on specific, small, and recent events will get you one step closer to seeing how others see you at work.“
Gallaher said it helps to make it as easy as possible for your colleague to open up by making your request specific. She suggested bringing up the topic with language like “Hey, I really want to be a good teammate, and I’d like to work on being easier to work with. What are two things I could do that would make it easier for you to work with me?”
See this as a step-by-step change, not an overhaul of your personality. Once you get feedback from a co-worker about your jerky tendencies, pick a couple areas of improvement and build from there.
“Small, daily changes to your habits at work will get you out of jerk-at-work territory,” West said. “Big overhauls don’t tend to work and they aren’t sustainable, but adjustments to your daily routines are.”