Ken Lloyd | Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Interview with Ken Lloyd, author and columnist

"You need to look carefully at all of the dynamics of a work situation that includes a jerk, and then craft your action plan," says Ken Lloyd.

You're good to go on your project with XYZ Inc., and a good job here could mean great things for you in your company. There's just one problem: that jerk.

We've all run into them: the project manager who manages by screaming; the deputy-assistant-whatever who belittles everyone; the suck-up associate who cannot kiss up enough. You want to do a good job, but dealing with the jerk is making you nuts. How do you get through this, professionally and sanely?

Ken Lloyd, a nationally syndicated work issues expert and columnist, is the author of "Jerks at Work: How to Deal With People Problems and Problem People, " (Career Press, revised, 2005) is here to help. He talked with Managing Editor Evamarie Socha about dealing with jerks at work.

WT: Define a jerk.

Lloyd: A jerk is any person in the workplace whose behavior is so outrageous, inappropriate and ridiculous that anyone in the vicinity is sure to be disrupted, annoyed or dissatisfied by it. Jerks at work can be bosses, subordinates, co-workers, even customers or vendors.

WT: Do jerks ever reform or back down?

Lloyd: There are times when a jerk can change his or her behavior, especially with a good deal of feedback, guidance, coaching and appropriate incentives.

It's important to remember that you are not going to change his or her personality, but you may be able to have an impact on his or her behavior.

WT: You must work with someone who's from outside your company and is a real jerk. What do you do first?

Lloyd: This depends on the person and the situation. What is the role of this outsider? Is he or she a vendor or the most important customer? How much time are you expected to spend with this person? What is the nature of his or her ridiculous behavior? You need to look carefully at all of the dynamics of a work situation that includes a jerk, and then craft your action plan.

If there is an overarching strategy, it is to act assertively when you face any kind of jerk. If you ignore the behavior of jerks, odds are that it will only intensify.

WT: What if you have taken action and it's not working? How long do you try before going to the next level?

Lloyd: If the jerk's behavior is dangerous, threatening, illegal or harmful, you should go to the next level immediately. If the jerk is something as benign as a nonstop talker, you probably never need to go to the next level.

WT: People fear confronting a jerk because of possible repercussions. How do you handle this?

Lloyd: Understand that jerk behaviors are not going to disappear on their own. This means there are greater repercussions caused by inaction rather than action.
The discussion should not be a confrontation. There are all sorts of other strategies.

For example, tell the jerk that you need his or her help to deal with the specific problematic behavior. Ask the jerk what he or she would do when facing the exact jerk behavior in question. Sit down when you meet with the jerk, since it is more difficult for people to argue when they are sitting. Use the person's name at various points of the conversation, as this can have a calming effect.

WT: How do you keep from taking the jerk's actions personally?

Lloyd: Take a look at the source. This is an individual who has made a name for himself or herself by engaging in these unacceptable behaviors. This person did so long before he or she met you, and so it cannot be personal.

WT: A Wall Street Journal article on why jerks get ahead, essentially stated that being obnoxious in the workplace pays off. Why is this?

Lloyd: Being obnoxious at work only pays off in some workplaces, and certainly not in any of the companies that are regarded as the best places in which to work. These workplaces focus on respect, trust, open communication, equitable treatment, and ethical behaviors. Those who play the obnoxious card in such environments typically change or get exchanged.

WT: Give us some hope, please!

Lloyd: Research has found that people who are highly satisfied on the job tend to have a best friend at work, and if you look around your workplace, you can probably find more than one. As for the jerks, just give them some distance and let them find each other.

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