Working Jerk Updated

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a negative perception.

I’m seen as a jerk in the workplace, some of it deserved and some not. I’m seen as not a team player, sometimes because I used my initiative and it wasn’t welcome. I think I’m seen as abrasive. I want to change. I want to fit in better with my coworkers. What do you recommend I do to improve my situation? Thank you.

Signed, I’m Seen As A Jerk

Dear I’m Seen As A Jerk:

Years ago, after an article titled Working With A Jerk described our Ask the Workplace Doctors site appeared in the Washington Post, questions on that topic that we received increased ten-fold. Evidently, you are not the only one seen as a jerk. The feeling you are disliked probably prompts your question and that is a worthy motivation to change your behavior. However, hopefully your desire to not be seen as a jerk comes from a genuine understanding of what it means to add value to your team and workplace because that is the right way to behave.

Jerk is a four-letter word often uttered in the same sentence as “Don’t marry a jerk.” By that definition, a jerk is a selfish, manipulative bastard who treats women as second class. Other definitions of jerks don’t get much better. Also you will find a jerk is defined as someone who’s very immature, doesn’t know how to treat people properly and thinks he or she knows everything. Sydney J. Harris, who wrote a daily column, titled “Strictly Personal,” from the 1940s to the 1980s, described a jerk as “a man (or woman) who is utterly unable to see himself as he appears to others. He has no grace, he is tactless without meaning to be, he is a bore even to his best friends, he is an egotist without charm.

All of us are egotists to some extent, but most of us–unlike the jerk–are perfectly and horribly aware of it when we make asses of ourselves. The jerk never knows.” Human Resource specialist Susan M. Heathfield in a post titled “Specific Trust Relationship Building and Maintaining Steps” suggests several behaviors you might keep in mind as you formulate a plan to not be seen as a jerk. Keep team members truthfully informed. Provide as much information as you can comfortably divulge as soon as possible in any situation.

Confront hard issues in a timely fashion. If an employee has excessive absences or spends work time wandering around, it is important to confront the employee about these issues. Other employees will watch and trust you more. Protect the interest of all employees in a work group. Do not talk about absent employees, nor allow others to place blame, call names, or point fingers. Employees learn to trust when they know that their names are not being taken in vain.Know what you are talking about, and if you don’t know,” admit it. Nothing builds trust more effectively than saying when you don’t know. Teammates forgive a lack of knowledge – they rarely forgive a liar.Listen with respect and full attention. Exhibit empathy and sensitivity to the needs of staff members. Trust grows out of a belief that you understand and relate.

With a four-letter word definition of jerk in mind, I suggest the following plan to help you to not be seen as one:

1. Get specific. According to Sidney Harris’ definition, if you are aware you are seen as a jerk, you are making progress on not being seen as one. Possibly, therefore, I don’t need to advise that before you can change, you need to look in the mirror, but I do need for you to ask, “Why am I seen as a jerk? What incidents have generated this negative impression you think coworkers have of you?

2. Quietly apologize if there are specific team members you have badmouthed or let down.

3. Resolve specific dos and don’ts you will live by, such as: Do be generous with please and thank you. Do be present in body and mind. Do be honest. Do listen and don’t interrupt. Do rephrase to make sure you understand. Do ask when, where, and what questions for clarification. Do keep your voice low. Do cheer and praise good work. Do what is reasonable to fit in with the workplace culture. Don’t suck up to the boss. Don’t leave your work area in a mess. Don’t gossip about others’ shortcomings. Don’t send personal emails or make personal phone calls. Don’t talk tough and macho. Measure your behavior against this list of terrible things to do at work. I also suggest to teams that they collaboratively spell out communication dos and don’ts they will live by. Such an exercise develops and understanding of what is/isn’t appropriate and most of all it makes talking about talk a means to effective communication.

4. Think and act wego. This is my four-letter word. It means that ego is enriched when we think beyond self-interest. Perhaps, it would be wise to enlist a coworker to review with you how well you are progressing in being seen as a trusted teammate. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

Follow Up: I have been “un-jerkifying” myself these past weeks since I asked for your help. Actions included having a lengthy talk with my boss which was heated in the beginning but ultimately satisfactory for both by the end. She made some improvements and changes that recognized that she had understood what I said, and I changed the way I approach my job and deal with my co-workers. I think one part of my problem was feeling threatened by changes in the workplace that I didn’t understand, and another part was reacting poorly to a co-worker’s meddling habits.

I have worked very hard to learn new processes that I never had to learn before, and I am proud to say that I have caught up and then surpassed my goals. The meddling co-worker has backed off, leading me to believe that my boss spoke with her as well. It is a relief. I feel like I have regained my equilibrium. And I have been able to deal with ongoing workplace problems that crop up by practicing communication skills (such as talking about a problem when I am not upset), and have found resolution and success there. I have grown in that way, too. Thank you for caring and for your help. I’m on my way to becoming a “Jerk No More”.

Reply: My advice might not apply perfectly because from here we can’t know the context of what goes on within your workplace and because you didn’t describe what of your “objectionable actions are products of how you really think about things.” But you are welcome. I predict good things for your career and for you as a person. After several weeks, let us know your progress. Incidentally, my associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe’s answers to questions provide some of the best coaching advice you’ll ever find. So scan our Archives and you will see her response to questions such as yours. Also click on her name on our home page to access her own site. –Dr. G

Follow Up 2 I thought you might be interested in what has happened since we last e-mailed. It’s very interesting in light of workplace problems and resolutions. I just had my yearly review with my boss, the same person I had problems with last year. I’ve been working hard since then, not only to be less of a jerk, but also to do my job better. The result is that I’m much happier on the job and feel more fulfilled and useful. I get along with people much better, even the ones where there was friction between us. In my review my boss said I was a “valuable employee”, and I got a promotion to a position with more responsibility (a senior position that was created for me), which was a complete surprise! Thank you for your advice again. My circumstances prove that uncomfortable workplace situations can get better if attention is paid and honesty is sought-after. –Senior Illustrator

Reply 2: Congratulations. It’s a treat to get your update! Especially, it’s great because you took responsibility to improve the way you act and not to blame others, who also might have been partly the cause for your behavior. Have you read When Fish Fly and its follow up Fish Tales? If not and you do,, I’m sure you will be inspired to do all you can to make your day-to-day interactions with coworkers fun as well as productive. Please do stay in touch. Dr. G

William Gorden