Most of us work with a jerk — toxic people who seem determined to make our lives, well, hell.
But here’s the good news: You don’t have to be completely beholden to their toxic ways. As it turns out, toxic co-workers often work to the same tired playbook. And once you’ve identified and understood what kind of work jerk you’re dealing with, you’ll have more ammunition to neutralize them.
In her book Jerks at work: toxic co-workers and what they can do about itNYU psychology professor, Tessa West, explains some of the most common archetypes of toxic co-workers, then offers strategies for confronting them and regaining your peace of mind.
Here are four common enemies.
Related: 12 Ways Successful People Deal With Toxic People
Table of Contents
1. The kiss-up/kick-downer
These toxic people have a single goal: “To climb to the top by any means necessary,” says West.
Kiss Up/Kick Downers (KUKDs) operate strategically. They mistreat or sabotage those at their level or below them, while at the same time gaining favor with those higher up. KUKDs can make themselves seem like team players to the executives, even though everyone knows they are anything but.
“They’re usually comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to step on other people to get ahead,” says West.
These colleagues belittle you in front of people you’re trying to impress, but they feast on the powerful at company parties. They insulate themselves from criticism by convincing the boss that they are a valuable addition to the company.
“These people are very hard to beat because if you complain to your boss, they’ll either just ignore you and tell you to suck it up,” says West.
How to handle: There is power in numbers. Find another target of the KUKDer and make an ally of them. “The more people you can find who have been victimized to even document what happened, the better,” says West.
Once you have some allies, ask them if they are willing to talk to the boss. Also, make sure you collect some well-documented and researched data.
“Then when you go to your boss to complain about him, you want to lead with the strength that person has, acknowledging what they are good at, and from there you want to convince your boss that the problem is so widespread that they should do. care,” says West.
2. The bulldozer
According to West, bulldozers have two distinctive movements. First, they completely take over every group decision-making process, such as making it impossible to get a word in during a meeting. Second, they target weak bosses and bully them into submission.
Unlike KUKDs, they are not subtle. They don’t hide their aggressive behavior – they overwhelm everyone with it.
“Bulldozers don’t complain to the boss. They go to the boss’s boss,” says West. “They’re scary to bosses, and bosses don’t want to stand up to them.”
How to handle: Choose your battles. Bulldozers love to fight and you won’t win every confrontation. West recommends asking yourself if the bulldozer’s actions will make your life hell in the short or long term. “I only hire bulldozers whose behavior only affects the big things,” she says.
Once you decide to confront a bulldozer, you need a team plan before the bulldozer even starts to bulldoze. For example, if you know a bulldozer is going to interrupt a meeting, “it’s up to your team to plan how you’re going to avoid that, especially if you have a weak boss,” says West.
To learn more about the psychology behind toxic co-workers, listen to my interview with Tessa West on the Write About Now podcast.
3. The Micromanager
According to West, 79 percent of those surveyed say they’ve been micromanaged at some point in their careers.
Micromanagers oversee everything you do, from how you check out your emails to how you organize your day.
“They know very little who needs a little extra attention and who can do just fine on their own,” says West. “The irony is that they work the hardest but get the least done because they’re constantly trying to monitor every little step their employees take.”
West has seen micromanagers creeping into her Google Docs as she types.
How to handle: Try to keep the micromanager informed, as annoying as that is.
West explains, “Micromanagers tend to do it most when they feel anxious and insecure that they’re not doing enough. But the structure of short, frequent meetings, where they’re given checklists of what you said you would really did can help reduce much of their anxiety.
4. The gas lighter
Perhaps the most sinister venomous fellow, the gaslighter tricks you on a grand scale, often by creating an alternate reality. The gaslighter also cuts you off from other co-workers, isolating you by making you feel like you’re part of something special or, even worse, destroying your self-esteem.
“Most of us think of a gas lighter as someone trying to destroy us,” says West. “But a lot of times they make you feel privileged, like you’re the only person who understands this. You’re an insider. You know things that other people don’t know.”
Unfortunately, the gaslighter has no interest in you succeeding – their only goal is to have power and control over you. People who are unknowingly lit by gas can perpetuate or protect their toxic colleague’s dishonesty or theft at work.
How to handle: Watch out for the tell-tales. Gaslighters often try to cut you off from everyday interactions with people at work. They will try to convince you not to drink coffee or have a drink with colleagues.
They will also discourage relationships with other leaders in the company by saying cruel things, such as these people laughing at you behind your back.
West says getting out of the grip of a gas lighter is like “freeing yourself from a spider’s web.” She recommends documenting (writing it down, taking pictures, recording your concerns) anything said and done that doesn’t feel right. “These little records will become invaluable when you’re ready to open up to other people.”
She also suggests building your social network little by little. “The most important step to take when confronting a gaslighter is the very thing your gaslighter has spent months conditioning you to fear — turning to other people for help,” she says.