A Psychologist Says There Are 7 Types of ‘Office Jerks'—Here's How to Tell Which One You Work With

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Many of us have worked with someone who had a negative effect on our emotional well-being. To cope, we've tried a few tactics, such as venting to friends, disengaging from the social scene at work or even gossiping about the person.

Thankfully, it doesn't have to be this way. By learning what motivates office jerks to do what they do, you can equip yourself to prevent them from depleting your energy.

Take this quiz to find out what kind of jerk you have at work
Credit: CNBC Make It | Tessa West, author of "Jerks at Work," published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group
Take this quiz to find out what kind of jerk you have at work

As a social psychologist, I've studied how people communicate for nearly two decades. Here are the seven types of jerks you'll encounter at work, and how to deal with them:

1. The Kiss-Up/Kick-Downer

Kiss-up/kick-downers get to the top by any means necessary, which may mean sabotaging you. Bosses love them because they're top performers.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Belittling you in front of higher-ups. They start out small, often with comments questioning your expertise: "Do you really know how to land that client? You only have two months' of experience."
  • Reserving nasty behavior for one-on-one time. Expect little acts of sabotage, inappropriate favor asking and misdirection.
  • Offering favors to overwhelmed bosses. If your boss needs a job done off-hours or someone to serve on that dreaded committee, the kiss-up/kick-downer will step up.

What to do:

  • Find allies who can give you a reality check. The best allies are well-connected at many levels of the organization, and can give you an accurate picture of how widespread your "jerk-at-work" problem is.
  • Approach your boss wisely. Because kiss-up/kick-downers know how to charm the people in charge, there's a good chance your boss is on their side. Collect detailed data on your experiences. Make your report about their behaviors, not about your feelings.
  • If you're the boss, create rules that give everyone an equal shot. These rules will reduce the likelihood that people will kiss up and kick down to get ahead.

2. The Gaslighter

The most toxic of all office jerks, gaslighters lie with the intent of deceiving on a grand scale. They isolate their victims first, then slowly build up a false reality that suits their needs.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Making you feel like part of something special. Be wary if a boss asks you to join a secret project with a "huge payoff" or become a member of a club that "only the best and brightest" get invited to.
  • Isolating you by destroying your sense of self-worth. "If it wasn't for me you'd have been fired a long time ago" and "No one else thinks you deserved this job, I had to really fight for you" are things you might hear from a gaslighter.
  • Testing the waters with their lies — starting off small. Gaslighters love a bit of false gossip as a warm-up to the more egregious stuff: "Steven only got here because he used to date the boss' daughter. Don't trust anything he says."

What to do:

  • The moment something doesn't feel right, write it down. Take pictures of it. Record yourself talking about it. These documentations will become invaluable when you're ready to open up to other people.
  • Build your social network again. You've been isolated, so you need to take small steps — maybe starting with the coworker you used to walk to happy hour with.
  • Once you've built back your social network, find a social referent. This is someone who not only is on your side but is good at bringing people in power together to talk about your problem.

3. The Credit Stealer

Credit stealers are wolves in sheep's clothing. They may seem like your friends, but will betray your trust if your idea is good enough to steal.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Waiting for moments of ambiguity to take credit. Think: group meetings, company lunches, informal feedback sessions — all places where no one is keeping track of who did what.
  • Pretending to be someone you can trust. They can be mentees, allies and so-called friends. New bosses who feel threatened by your success are likely candidates.
  • Not always being intentional. Credit stealers can also be regular folks — such as you and me — who have biases that make them overestimate their role in decision-making. What feels toxic to us feels justified to them.

What to do:

  • Become someone your boss goes to for advice. In meetings, focus more on contributing solutions than on identifying problems.
  • Make sure the right people are heard. This is just as important in combating credit stealing as it is weeding out individual credit stealers.
  • Decide what each person will do before starting a project. Credit is determined by the discrepancy between two questions: What did you agree to do, and what did you actually do? When people know these questions are coming, they're less likely to steal credit.

4. The Bulldozer

Bulldozers are seasoned, well-connected employees who aren't afraid to flex their muscles to get what they want.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Asserting power early. They might take over during the first five minutes of a meeting when everyone is introducing themselves, or when the team is trying to come up with a plan.
  • Finding teams that can't function without their expertise. A bulldozer is the only person who can work that new software everyone hates. They also know all the passwords.
  • Bullying vulnerable bosses into submission. Bosses who are overworked, out of touch and hate conflict make ideal targets.

What to do:

  • Don't wait for everyone to establish their voices before you. When you do speak, get to the point and don't go over 30 seconds.
  • Inform your boss about the bulldozer. Use the "loss frame" approach: Express concern for those who aren't getting a chance to speak up. Whose perspective are you missing out on by letting one person dominate the conversation?
  • Focus on things that everyone — including the bulldozer — can do to help other people get their voices heard. Some bulldozers are truly clueless about how much time they take up, and can often be persuaded to use their skills to encourage contributions.
Take this quiz to find out what kind of jerk boss you have at work
Credit: CNBC Make It | Tessa West, author of "Jerks at Work," published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group
Take this quiz to find out what kind of jerk boss you have at work

5. Micromanagers

Micromanagers are impatient taskmasters who disrespect your personal space and time. If your boss is a micromanager, you probably work the hardest but are the least productive.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Assigning work on an unreasonable timeline. Everything is equally urgent and must be done now.
  • Giving mind-numbing tasks just to keep you busy. They might ask you to rearrange boxes in the storage room or color-code file drawers.
  • Constantly bombarding, then disappearing. Micromanagers don't have the bandwidth to micromanage everyone at the same time, so they rotate people. Expect 100 emails one day, and zero the next. This might mean you don't get the answers you need to move forward.

What to do:

  • Have a conversation about big-picture goals. Because micromanagers are so focused on the here and now, they forget to take a step back and remind people why the work they do matters.
  • Set mutually agreed-upon expectations. What are the big things they need you to do, and what are the small, daily-level things?
  • Have short, frequent meetings. No, you don't want to spend more time with them, but these short meetings will alleviate their stress, silo their feedback and allow you to get stuff done.

6. The Neglectful Boss

Neglectful bosses follow a three-step process: long periods of neglect, a build-up of anxiety from not having a handle on things, and a surge of control over you to ease that anxiety.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Ignoring you for long periods of time, then coming in at last minute to exert control. Have a big presentation next week? Expect them to show up two hours before prime time, with 100 changes.
  • Having a weak understanding of your job. There's a good chance your neglectful boss doesn't really know what you do every day (or how you do it), so they can't provide you with hands-on guidance.
  • Rarely available when you need them. Desperate for a pair of eyes to look over your budget, review your proposal, or check your designs? They are nowhere in sight.

What to do:

  • Ask for a short meeting in the next two weeks to address your needs. This isn't about sending a list of 15 things you need help with right now. It's about finding the appropriate ask within the appropriate time frame, given all of your boss' other responsibilities.
  • Take on small jobs that free up their time. Neglectful bosses are often taking on too much. Find out what that is and offer to help. Often, these extra tasks can help you get promoted.
  • Supplement your boss with other experts. Bosses can be territorial. But the reality is, most are grateful when their employees find other people to turn to for help: "I noticed you've been swamped lately. Is it okay if I set up a time with Simone to go over the new communications system?"

7. The Free Rider

Free riders are experts at doing nothing and getting rewarded for it.

Sneaky behaviors to watch for:

  • Taking on work that's important but requires very little effort. Free riders are great at giving (other people's) presentations or emceeing the annual conference. What they aren't great at is doing the prep work.
  • Working on teams where it's hard to sort out credit for individual contributions. Companies that dole out team bonuses and don't care about individual accountability are their favorite homes.
  • Slacking off as soon as the boss steps away. Got a team meeting with the boss? Expect the free rider to have the most insightful ideas. After the meeting, they'll come up with 10 ways in which other people can execute those ideas.

What to do:

  • Build regular fairness checks into your workflow. At the beginning of a project, have everyone make a list of their tasks to insure visibility. Document what you completed from your list, and what work you did that was not part of your list.
  • Don't confront them with accusations. Lead with reasons why you wanted to work with them in the first place. What is the team missing by not having them around? Free riders are already disengaged, so try not to push them away further with shame.
  • Set boundaries. If a free rider asks to get credit for the hard work everyone else did organizing something, say no!

Tessa West is a social psychologist and professor at New York University. She has spent years leveraging science to help people solve interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. Her book, "Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them," provides a guide to tackling everyday problems with difficult people in the workplace. Follow Tessa on Twitter @TessaWestNYU.

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