How to outsmart jerks at work — according to a professor who studies it for a living – New York Post

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Tessa West, 40, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, can trace her interest in studying workplace behavior to a college job. Little did she know then, but this experience would influence her career.
“The first time I encountered a cunning, socially savvy jerk was at a high-end retail job selling shoes to rich guys in Southern California,” she said. “Retail is the perfect breeding ground for jerks at work. It’s commission-based, so you won’t make any money unless you learn how to outcompete your co-workers for customers, and there are no rules about when you get to claim a customer as ‘yours.’ Dave — my first true jerk at work — thrived in this environment.”
West shared that he always won such “backroom battles” to poach customers from other salespeople. “He was damn good at his job, so every manager loved him,” said West. “And why wouldn’t they? Their promotions were tied to total sales of their team, and with Dave on board, the ‘team’ was killing it. At the same time as I was working this job, I was working with Wendy Mendes while I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara studying the dynamics of awkward social interactions — work that set the foundation for my academic career.
Karma came around for Dave, too: He’s the inspiration for a chapter in West’s new book, “Jerks at Work” (Portfolio/Penguin Random House).
These days, West is busy with various pursuits at NYU’s West Interpersonal Perception Lab, where she and her team study how people communicate with each other.
“We focus on the complicated, hard-to-navigate stuff, like how to negotiate with someone without offending them, or how to give feedback to someone who might not want it,” she said. “We measure behaviors and physiological responses, like blood pressure and heart rate, which gives us a window into what people are feeling but aren’t necessarily showing.”
West and her colleagues may bring in three or so research participants to the lab, “hook them up to a bunch of equipment,” and have them engage in everyday things like partaking in getting-acquainted conversations, playing games or making decisions together. “There’s a lot of monitoring people from separate rooms to make sure things run smoothly — think a less stylized version of the control room in ‘West World,’ ” said West.
West’s new book was conceived in the middle of a workplace debacle.
“I was organizing an office move,” she said. “It made people at work act crazy, including me. People resisted, some cried. At first, I tried ‘reasoned arguments.’ I shoved blueprints down their throats and promised better lighting. When that failed, I got downright belligerent, yelling at them for acting like irrational grandparents who refused to leave their rickety old homes. I learned as I was researching this book that I was trying to fight a battle in meetings that needed to be fought outside of them.”
West then “spent a lot of time researching the power of our relationships with other people in solving our jerk-at-work problems.
West has tried-and-true strategies for conquering a “low-level a**hole,” as she’s taken to calling them. (And, never overlook the fact that sometimes you might be filling that role.) Here are three:
“You need to find allies at work, and I don’t mean close friends to whom you complain,” said West. Instead, West encourages you to think about your colleagues who are at arm’s length, “who are outside of your usual network, and who can connect you with new people who either know how to convince your boss to care, or are in touch with other victims.”
But — confront carefully. And early. You want to nip any issues in the bud before they spiral out of control.
“Don’t lead with the problem behavior or how it makes you feel. Instead, lead with something you would like them to do more of,” West suggested, conceding that this can sometimes feel like squeezing water out of a rock. “When you do complain, focus on specific behaviors and avoid generalizations. Lastly, ask for some feedback yourself. If it feels like a two-way street, your jerk will be less defensive.” And, regardless of where an individual is on the workplace totem pole, the same advice applies.
Put yourself in your boss’s shoes.
Before you take an issue to your boss, gauge how things may appear from their perspective. “There’s a good chance your jerk has a talent or two that your boss appreciates, and recognizing these talents is the first step to getting on the same wavelength as your boss — and quite honestly, from preventing you from looking like a petty, jealous complainer,” said West. “Also, most bosses are shockingly unaware of how many seemingly lovely people are jerks when they aren’t around.”
In these strange times, there’s a good chance your “office” interactions with said low-level misfits and everyone else are happening over the phone, Zoom, Slack and e-mail while you work from home. When we work remotely, West says two main things are lost.
“One, a lot of the work we do becomes invisible — no longer do our colleagues see us doing things like helping someone learn the new software program, or giving them advice on how to level up their presentation,” she said. “Two, our social networks shrink. Broad networks are key to getting ahead at work; so too is having ‘informal work’ seen and appreciated.”
West believes if we recognize that we’re missing out on these two things, and work harder to repair them, we all benefit.
If you’re juggling the demands of several clients, West stressed the importance of getting as much feedback and advice as possible from people who succeeded at the thing you are trying to do.
“Find your network of people, identify those who are kick-ass on the job and create a network of feedback givers and askers,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you work for TaskRabbit and you wish more people would select you to build their Ikea furniture, or you’re a freelance writer, and you need advice on how to get an editor to respond to your pitches, the advice is the same. It won’t feel good at first — I cried more than once —but it works!”
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