How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt

Interview with Robert Sutton

Episode Description

Many of our favorite movies and TV shows portray jerks at work. From droning Lumbergh in Office Space, clueless Michael in The Office, to sleazy Mr. Hart in 9 to 5, we find these characters so funny because they’re true.

It isn’t funny, however, actually working with these jerks. According to a recent study, 75% of workers deal with bullies in the workplace. This has a huge effect on the economy, your workplace, and your health.

Bullies wreak havoc on the economy. The United States spends about $20 to $30 billion dollars a year in terms of effects of abuse on employees.

And workplace hostilities lead to big problems for your company. If you have jerks on your team, research shows that productivity and creativity goes down. Nasty interactions have a far bigger impact on team members’ moods than positive interactions — 5 times the punch! And people are less likely to go the extra mile and more likely to steal and waste resources.

Working with mean-spirited people also messes with your health. You feel depressed about going to work. Your anxiety increases. You can’t sleep at night. Your spouse is concerned about your high blood pressure. And your doctor warns you may be at a higher risk for a heart attack. Jerks at work are costing you hours of your life.

So, what can you do?

Robert Sutton sets out to answer that question in his new book, The A–hole Survival Guide (his book just says the word). His strategies will provide relief to anyone who feels pushed around by a jerk. You can avoid them, outwit them, disarm them, send them packing, and develop protective psychological armor. Finally, at the end of this post, you can see if you might be adding to the jerk population.

Nobody wants to lose life hours to a bully. Listen to this episode of the Building a StoryBrand podcast. You’ll preserve your sanity and have a plan of action to deal with that jerk at the office.


The Types of Jerks

Before learning strategies for dealing with that jerk at work, it’s important to identify which type of tormentor you’re facing. Different bullies require different approaches.

Here’s a rundown of just a few types:

The Strategic Conniver: These jerks are patient about their dirty work. They make careful plans to set you up and then try to stab you in the back. They purposely find ways to get under your skin. Masters of backhanded compliments and below-the-belt comments, they bother you with a smile and betray you with a kiss.

The Clueless Bulldozer: These bumbling idiots have no control over themselves. They lose their tempers over minor things. Sometimes, there’s evidence they don’t mean to be jerks which opens up the possibility for feedback and reform. But be careful, trying to reason with this type isn’t always going to work.

The Machiavellian Schemer: Watch out for these cunning deceivers. They are very manipulative and enjoy playing dirty. Their brains actually light up when you argue with them. They enjoy it when you become hostile. If you’re nice, they believe you’re a pushover. They are artful, unscrupulous and will take you out to advance their careers.

The Narcissist: It will take some kissing up to deal with these pests. Arguing or criticizing is not useful because they have thin skins. You won’t get far in this workplace unless you’re willing to pay high taxes in insincere praise.

The Petty Tyrant: You actually may find some sympathy for this type — mid-level managers who are treated with disrespect and low stature from their superiors. When not being sneered at from the powers above, they walk around with a heady sense of power and take out their insecurities on their subordinates. These bean counters don’t just enforce the rules; they like to make you suffer.

Once you realize who you’re dealing with, it’s time to develop a plan.

Here are some field-tested, evidence-based strategies from the expert on how to deal with A-holes:

Avoid Them

One of the best ways to avoid a rascal in the office is to increase the distance between you.

“There’s all this evidence that nasty behavior is incredibly contagious,” Robert says.

Positioning yourself within 25 feet of a toxic person means your chances of catching the disease and getting fired more than doubles. One of the best strategies for dealing with a toxic person at work is to treat that person like you would a toxic substance. Stay away.

One of the best strategies for dealing with a toxic person at work is to treat that person like you would a toxic substance. Stay away.

Many people work in open offices now, but every few feet of distance has a huge effect. Ask if you can move your desk to a distant corner. Spend time working in conference rooms or public spaces if need be.

Another creative way to avoid your tormenter is to limit the time you’re with the brute. Depending on what type of leeway you have, lessen the meetings. For people with certain personalities, another option might be to leave early or arrive late. Do whatever you can to reduce exposure to the jerk.

Finally, just walk away. Get out of the relationship and situation. If you’re going to quit, Robert suggests being mindful of the consequences and to take the time to do it with some class. With clients, hopefully, you can just cut it off.

It’s not always a good idea to avoid your problems, but when it comes to toxic people at work, staying away is an excellent option.

Outwit Them

Sometimes bullies require a more strategic plan than just avoiding them. One of them is to make allies and work together.

“The more people you have on your side,” Robert says, “the better off you are.”
Perhaps you can get another supervisor to run interference for you.

Another idea is to set up a warning system. Recruit the boss’ administrative assistant to inform you whether the boss is in a foul mood (and should be handled with care), or feeling upbeat (and in a better mood for interaction).

Your gang can also take turns jumping on the grenade. If someone volunteers as tribute to engage the beast, the rest of you can get some work done.

Another strategy is to gather evidence. Robert gives an example of a group of community college executives. They had a Chancellor who was a textbook narcissist. If he didn’t get his daily dose of flattery, he would lose his temper and start screaming at people. His team decided to kiss up to him to keep things under control while they secretly documented his bad behavior for months. They were able to deliver a compelling case to the Board of Regents and the Board fired him.

Finding allies will not only allow you to find consolation in knowing you’re not alone, but you’ll devise more ingenious plans to get through your day.

Disarm Them

Robert says you should consider the kind of jerk you’re dealing with when deciding which strategy to use. Remember the petty tyrant? Robert cites experiments to show how they’re made. If you put people in situations where they have power, but they’re treated with disrespect and low stature, they tend to take it out on people around them.

You could, of course, try to get them fired.

Often, what petty tyrants really need is love and respect.

Perhaps you can give them feedback and use some power strategies. But often, what petty tyrants really need is love and respect.

“If somebody is constantly treating you badly because they feel disrespected,” he says. “There’s an argument for elevating people who deserve some appreciation.”

By reaching out with kindness and recognition to someone who is acting difficult, you may not only disarm your tyrant. You might find a friend.

Send Them Packing

Although most of us would rather avoid conflict, one of the strategies is to fight back. Robert warns us, however, to use this strategy as a last resort and to carefully weigh the consequences before acting.

Before trying to get this person fired, you may want to try a few strategies first — especially if you’re dealing with a clueless jerk. If there’s evidence the tyrants don’t know they’re acting badly, give some feedback. Reform is possible.

But if the bullies are either strategic or bull-headed, then develop a case to bring them down by following these steps:

  1. Determine how much power you have. If you’re a peon and you’re having problems with the CEO, fighting might not be your best course. But if your jerk is a peer, you’ve got better odds at taking them on.
  2. Gather evidence. Avoid “he-said, she-said.” Keep track of abusive incidents, conversations, and emails. Robert cites the example of Gretchen Carlson carefully recording conversations on her iPhone for years to eventually cause the downfall of Roger Ailes. This takes careful handling, Robert cautions. It’s legal to record people with permission in most states but there’s seven or eight states where you’re committing a crime, including California.
  3. Form a posse. Research reveals that teams are far more successful in bringing down a jerk than fighting the beast alone.

Again, Robert cautions us about using this strategy. After reading his first book about creating civil workplaces, the head of human resources of a Fortune 100 company emailed Robert and told him she spearheaded a no-jerk rule in the office.

She convinced the CEO to fire the three worst jerks in the top management team. But it backfired. The three jerks went to the CEO and convinced him they were more important to the core business than the head of HR and she got fired.

If you’re going to fight, Robert says, “Build a case, do a cold power analysis, and have an exit option.” If heads are going to roll, be careful yours won’t be among them.

Develop Protective Psychological Armor

Sometimes, you might have to endure a bully’s bad behavior because your goals require you to stick it out. Researchers show that reframing disturbing facts in a more positive light can provide relief. This strategy requires your creativity and focus.

  • • Change a crisis to a challenge
  • • Reframe a frustration into a puzzle to be solved
  • • See your intolerable boss as a cranky child
  • • View stress as a game to be won

Have you ever seen the foreign film Life is Beautiful? A father and his little son are sent to a concentration camp. The father purposely misinterprets a German guard’s camp instructions as rules to a game to motivate his son to stay alive.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy calls this “reappraisal” which means you interpret the situation differently. You can’t change the situation, but you can change how you perceive it. You reframe the situation so it doesn’t hurt so much.

Becky Margiotta, one of the early female cadets at West Point, provides one of Robert’s favorite examples. She had to endure the traditional hazing when drill sergeants get close to your face and scream insults at you. Becky decided to focus on how funny and skilled the hazers were. She sought to appreciate their craft, rather than allow the insults to land. Since she knew it was temporary, she could reframe the situation in her mind and get through. The strategy worked very well but for one flaw — she’d start laughing and would get in trouble for it.

Sometimes a little imagination or dose of humor completely changes your perception to make life with a jerk more bearable.

Another protective strategy Robert suggests is to switch time focus. This means saying to yourself, “When I look back on this tonight (or a month from now, a year from now), it’s not going to hurt nearly as much.” This idea of time shifting, or looking back, is a very effective strategy, Robert says.

Detaching emotionally from the person is another option. A colleague of Robert’s demonstrated a perfect example. When he meets with difficult people, he pretends to be a doctor who specializes in exotic forms of ‘jerkism.’ The worse the jerks get, the happier he is because he’s able to examine a more exotic type of ‘jerkism.’ He is lucky to see something so unusual.

Reframing a situation will help you get through the difficult days at work. Sometimes a little imagination or dose of humor completely changes your perception to make life with a jerk more bearable.

Stop Contributing to the World’s Population of Jerks

If you think you don’t need this section, Robert says, “Don’t believe yourself.”

Apparently, we’re pretty blind to our own faults. Robert points to research that most of us don’t have a realistic idea about how we come across to others. If you’re wondering whether you may be the problem in the office, read these signs to find out.

You might be a jerk if you:

  1. Have more power than other people. This is especially true if you were powerless before. Being in charge of others means you may be a jerk and don’t know it.
  2. You’re under time pressure. Robert says studies from Yale suggest that when people are in a rush, they don’t stop to help people who look like they’re dying (even seminary students by the way). If you’re in a hurry a lot, you’re probably being a jerk.
  3. You’re rich. There’s a correlation between riches and jerk-ness. Dacher Keltner did a study with his students at an intersection in Berkeley, California. Students were asked to code cars from one to five, the top being a Mercedes and the bottom being an old beat-up Chevette. People in luxury cars were far less likely to let other cars go than people who were in old beaters. This was even true for pedestrians!
  4. You’re sleep-deprived. If you pride yourself on getting less sleep than your neighbor, you’re far more likely to be un-neighborly. Sleep deprivation causes irritability, anger and lessens your ability to cope with stress.
  5. You don’t have anyone around you who’s willing to tell you you’re a jerk. Robert says that most of us lack self-awareness when it comes to our weaknesses. Research suggests that doing our own soul-searching won’t uncover the blind spots we have about our jerk-ness. One of the keys to dealing with this is having people in our lives who are willing to give us the hard truth. Steve Jobs met each Sunday with Coach Bill Campbell, a CEO who started companies and helped CEOs be good leaders. Another good example is Winston Churchill. His wife, Clementine, wrote him and told to stop treating his staff badly.

“Having somebody we trust to give us negative information and tell us the truth,” Robert says, is the best defense against being a jerk.

Whether you’re dealing with a jerk who makes you feel demeaned, de-energizes you, is rude to you, treats you like dirt, pretends you’re invisible, or a tyrant who flies into rages, you now have some strategies for dealing with them. Sit down and analyze your situation right away so you don’t lose any more life hours from that jerk at work.

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Executive producer: Tim Schurrer
Additional production and editing: Chad Snavely

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