Seen as a Workplace Jerk

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being seen negatively: What do you recommend I do to improve my situation?

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 prompts your question and that is a worthy motivation to change your behavior. However, hopefully your desire not to 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 than that. 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 “is 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 and these practical suggestions, 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. Don’t send personal emails or make personal phone calls. Don’t talk tough and macho. You probably can add to 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 as 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.

William Gorden