Two angry employees displaying toxic behavior in the workplace.

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Asshole Survival Guide" by Robert I. Sutton. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are some of your coworkers jerks? At what point should you address their behavior?

The first step to confronting toxic behavior in the workplace is determining the full context of the situation. Sometimes, it’s not worth it or necessary to take any action. But, sometimes it’s critical. If the situation meets certain characteristics, you need to address the behavior.

Continue reading for tips from organizational psychologist Robert I. Sutton.

Sign #1: You’re Exposed to the Toxic Behavior Long-Term

Sutton says that, when determining what to do in the face of toxic behavior in the workplace, consider whether it’s a pattern for the offender or an isolated incident. If someone is normally pleasant and courteous, you can most likely let their moment of rudeness pass. Everyone has bad days, and this can sometimes lead people to momentarily act like a jerk. For example, your coworker may brush you off because they’re stressed that their child is sick at home.

(Shortform note: Though almost everybody has at some point lashed out unfairly because they were stressed, try not to make it a pattern—that’s when you become a jerk. To prevent anger from becoming your default reaction when you’re feeling overwhelmed, identify circumstances that frequently trigger you to respond angrily. This can help you lessen your exposure to triggers by learning what situations to avoid. For example, if people randomly interrupting your quiet work time bothers you, you might set up a specific time in your workday when people can come ask you questions.)

However, if a person is frequently doing things to put others down or otherwise demean them, then you need to do something in response to protect yourself and the people around you. The longer you’re exposed to the toxic behavior in the workplace behavior, the more likely you are to experience the adverse effects described above. (Shortform note: To establish whether someone has a pattern of bad behavior, keep a record of every time you notice the jerk treating you or someone else poorly. If the record keeps getting longer, you probably need to act.)

Likewise, if the toxic behavior in the workplace behavior was an isolated incident but its effect on you was long-term, it’s worth addressing. Even if the behavior itself doesn’t continue, the long-term effects cause the same issues as extended exposure. For example, say your boss is normally calm, but one time when you made a mistake, they yelled at you in front of the whole office. This only happened once, but it was humiliating and has made coming to work feel more difficult ever since. 

(Shortform note: If a single incident with a jerk is bad enough or you have frequent experiences with them, you may develop workplace trauma—a long-term psychological response that can leave you with anxiety, unpredictable emotions, and physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches. If you experience trauma from experiences at your job, you may benefit from seeing a therapist to help you work through some of your struggles and develop tools to restore your emotional equilibrium.)

Sign #2: You’re Surrounded by Jerks

Sutton argues that a couple of jerks in a workplace that’s otherwise populated with nice people probably aren’t that big of a deal. The jerks will likely have no significant power or influence over others if they’re surrounded by nice, courteous people. 

(Shortform note: Just as it’s possible for jerks to spread their negative behavior, it’s possible to spread positive, prosocial behavior at work. Some research suggests that one way to do this is through a system of peer-to-peer recognition where employees can publicly express their admiration and appreciation for each other. This promotes kind interactions and helps to improve the mental health of employees. There are many platforms that allow employees to log in, choose a colleague, and write a kind message of appreciation or thanks for something they’ve done.)

However, if the culture of the organization promotes the proliferation of jerks so that you’re surrounded by them, you’re much more likely to experience negative effects from their behavior. Therefore, you need to take action to protect yourself. 

(Shortform note: If you’re wondering whether your work environment is full of jerks, look for the following signs: First, there’s little to no trust between colleagues. For example, maybe management constantly checks up on their employees to see if they’re doing their job. Second, there’s a lack of interpersonal communication. For instance, people mostly ignore each other, have few lighthearted conversations, or often communicate bluntly and only when necessary. Finally, employee turnover is high. If people are frequently quitting or mentally disengaging from their jobs, then there’s probably something deeper that’s wrong with the social dynamics in the company.)

Sign #3: They Have Real Power Over You

According to Sutton, a jerk with nobody to support them and no real power over you or anyone else in the organization probably won’t be able to cause too much trouble. If you oversee the jerk and have to deal with them, you can likely implement consequences that discourage their bad behavior. 

For example, suppose you’re a team leader with an employee who consistently interrupts and belittles others in meetings. As their supervisor, you can pull them aside, let them know why their behavior is unacceptable, and offer guidance for better ways to communicate. If their behavior doesn’t improve, you have the authority to write them up or otherwise discipline them. 

(Shortform note: If you’re a manager and you have employees exhibiting toxic behavior, some experts suggest addressing the behavior as soon as possible. If you let it go for too long, you may seriously damage the morale of your other employees and lose some of your best people. Additionally, speak to the employee one-on-one about their behavior. Explain what consequences will happen if they continue or escalate the behavior, and offer mentoring where applicable. With appropriate guidance, some problematic employees can turn their behavior around and become valuable contributors.)

However, some people have a moderate amount of power and enjoy using it to mistreat others. They have just enough influence to seriously affect the well-being of others, but they don’t have as much as they want. Therefore, they take out their frustration on the people they can control. Dealing with these jerks may require a more nuanced, careful approach, as they can actually make decisions that affect your job. 

For example, say your manager has been at the company for 15 years, but he’s been passed over for further promotions for a long time. This makes him feel cheated, and he’s always trying to impress the higher-ups to get the recognition he thinks he deserves. Therefore, he micromanages you and the rest of his team because he’s obsessed with making himself look good and doesn’t want his subordinates to make mistakes. Likewise, he takes credit anytime one of you does something well.

(Shortform note: According to some experts, when the type of jerk Sutton describes here becomes a manager, they’re the number one killer of innovation at companies. They’re motivated by recognition and personal power at the expense of the people below them, and they’re more likely to shut down new ideas because they perceive innovators as bad since they challenge the status quo. They also know how to work within the power structures of companies to make themselves look good, and they want to get rid of anything they perceive as a threat to their power—including someone else’s good idea.)

3 Signs That Toxic Behavior in the Workplace Is a Problem

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  • Wisdom for dealing with jerks in the workplace
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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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