A woman confronting a coworker professionally with a plant in the background.

Do you have a colleague who’s difficult to work with? Is there a professional and wise way to deal with them?

In The Asshole Survival Guide, Robert I. Sutton offers wisdom for dealing with jerks—rude and tyrannical people of all kinds—especially in the workplace. He discusses considerations you should address before deciding if and how to go on the offensive and shares direct and subtle methods of confrontation.

Keep reading for Sutton’s advice on how to confront a coworker professionally that can help you keep your sanity and your job.

How to Confront a Coworker Professionally

Sutton states that, sometimes, the only way to deal with a jerk is to go on the offensive against them. This might mean confronting them directly or getting people with more power than you to address their behavior. His advice on how to confront a coworker professionally starts with making a measured assessment of the situation.

Whatever your method of confrontation, tread carefully. If the jerk finds out that you’re moving against them, they might retaliate and cause more problems for you. Therefore, it’s important to pause, consider your options, and ask for input from others before making any decisions about your approach. There are three primary considerations to address before you decide how to go against the jerk.

Consideration #1: How much influence does the jerk have over you? The more control they have, the more careful you need to be. (Shortform note: When determining how much power a jerk has over you at your company, the first place to look is the official organizational chart. This will indicate every person’s job title and positional authority. If the jerk is higher on the organizational chart than you, they might be able to affect your position in the company. If you’re officially at the same level, consider whether the jerk has unofficial power over you. Are they close with your boss? Are they seen as a go-getter or rising star at the company? These dynamics may lead to problems for you as well.)

Consideration #2: Do you have concrete evidence to support your claims against the jerk? The more documentation you have of their bad behavior—such as emails, text messages, notes, videos, and so on—the more credible you’ll seem. This prevents the issue from devolving into your word against theirs.

(Shortform note: When documenting problems with workplace jerks, include the following. First, the location, date, and time of every incident. The more specific examples you can point to, the better, as this demonstrates a pattern over time. Second, if there were any witnesses, record their names and contact information (with their permission) so they can back up your story if necessary. Third, for each incident, record the actions and language of the jerk, the methods you used to respond, and how it affected your mental health.)

Consideration #3: Are there other people who can join in confronting the jerk? The more people you have supporting you, the more influence and credibility you have. (Shortform note: If you’re looking for people to support you against a jerk, consider going to people outside your immediate circle of friends. The wider your network of supporters is, the more credibility you have in demonstrating that the problems with the jerk are far-reaching.)

Further Advice for Deciding How to Confront a Jerk

Some experts suggest trying to solve issues you have with coworkers before going to your boss. If you go straight to your boss without addressing your coworker directly, it can escalate the conflict too quickly, making negative reactions and retaliation more likely. Additionally, your boss might wonder why you didn’t try to fix the problem yourself and perceive you as someone who doesn’t take initiative or someone with limited people skills. (That being said, in situations where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe at the prospect of confronting a jerk yourself, don’t hesitate to go straight to your boss or even HR.)

If the jerk isn’t amenable to your concerns when you confront them and you have no choice but to go to your boss, enter the conversation with the mindset that you want to improve things and find a solution, not make the jerk look bad. Approaching your boss with this attitude shows that you’re self-aware and mature, which only makes you look better. 

Here are two of Sutton’s specific strategies for combating jerk behavior directly: 

Strategy #1: Calmly Explain the Problem With Their Behavior

According to Sutton, in some instances, calmly pulling the person exhibiting jerk behavior aside and explaining how they’re negatively affecting everyone else can halt the worst of the problems. This strategy is best used for people who generally have good intentions and aren’t aware that their behavior is hurting others. 

For example, say your coworker frequently makes others feel stupid by shooting them down when they ask questions or make suggestions. You’re friends, so you pull him aside to let him know that he’s offended many people with his attitude. He’s taken aback and embarrassed by unknowingly hurting others, and he promises to be more conscious of his tone and approach in the future.

How to Recognize and Address Low Self-Awareness in Others

People who act like jerks because they lack self-awareness are fairly common—according to some research, about 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% truly are. Therefore, it’s likely that you’ve worked at some point with someone who has this trait. Common manifestations of low self-awareness include accidentally discouraging others, thinking you always have the best ideas, being unable to change your communication style to fit your audience, and being unwilling to own up to mistakes.

In addition to being kind and calm when you pull unaware jerks aside, try to give them specific examples and alternatives they can move forward with. For example, say the problem is that the unaware person frequently ignores other people’s ideas. You could explain to them that listening to different suggestions can help the whole team by encouraging creative problem-solving and group morale.

Strategy #2: Harness the Power of Humor and Sarcasm

For jerks who won’t respond well to a calm, direct approach, Sutton suggests using humor and sarcasm to more subtly put them in their place. Using humor allows you to hit back at their behavior with your own insults while still being socially acceptable. It takes away some of their power when people can laugh at them and shows that you’ll push back against them. However, be careful with this tactic, as it can start a dangerous cycle of mudslinging between you and the jerk. They might want to get you back if you humiliate them.

For example, say you’re assigned to work with a notorious bully on a project, and she immediately starts changing your work without your permission. You might confront her by saying, in front of your manager and the rest of the team, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been very interested in my work lately—changing it and deleting it. I appreciate your enthusiasm, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but your attempts are futile. You see, I have a secret weapon that protects my work from your changes: It’s called version history.” This approach maintains levity while undermining her and exposing her bad behavior to everyone else.

(Shortform note: Some experts argue that negative humor has no place in the workplace, regardless of the motivation. It can break down the target’s self-esteem, harm performance, and discourage idea-sharing. Additionally, it may perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality where someone is always in the outgroup. Finally, if others perceive jokes as inappropriate (regardless of how justified they are), it can hurt your reputation at work and get you branded as a jerk.)

How to Confront a Coworker Professionally & Wisely

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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