What Makes Us Act Like Jerks

12/07/2011 10:19 am ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

I spend a fair amount of time reading business books. (When you write business books, it's generally a good idea to read them, too.) Last week, I sat down for a second time with Good Boss, Bad Boss, Stanford professor Robert Sutton's excellent followup to The No A**hole Rule. In it, he describes not only what the best (and worst) bosses do, but why they do it, identifying the essential beliefs that form the foundation of effective (and ineffective) management.

It struck me again and again as I was reading that so much of the advice Sutton offers on how to be a good boss can also be applied to the universal challenges of being a good and happy person. I think one of my favorite chapters, "Squelch Your Inner Bosshole," is a perfect illustration of what I mean.

In it, Sutton points to some of the forces that turn otherwise decent human beings into rotten bosses. We would be wise to remember that these forces are often present in the lives of non-bosses as well -- who among us hasn't been a real jerk on occasion? The good news is that if you can identify the triggers of your unpleasant behavior, and become aware of their influence on you, you too can effectively squelch your inner a**hole.

Here are some of the triggers of bad boss behavior Sutton highlights:

1. "Power Poisoning"

Sure, power sometimes corrupts. But more often, it just turns us into jerks. Studies show that when people are given power, they become less tuned in to other people's feeling and needs, paying less attention to what others say and do. With power, our language and behavior becomes more insulting and inappropriate, and we become more self-absorbed, focusing more on our own personal gain than what is best for the group.

It's not just bosses who experience the nasty side effects of power. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was just a bit too needy and insecure? Were you surprised to find how cold, selfish, or downright cruel you became in response? When friends or romantic partners give us all the power, when we find ourselves with too much "hand," it can lead to pretty callous behavior.

2. "Extreme Performance Pressure"

Being under time pressure, or knowing that a lot is riding on what we're doing, makes all of us less sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. We're so busy thinking about what could wrong, and worrying about our own performance, that it creates a kind of tunnel vision. Feeling anxious makes you irritable -- this is why you come home from work after a hard day and yell at your spouse, your kids, or your dog.

3. "Sleep Deprivation, Heat, and Other Bodily Sources of Bad Moods"

Sutton points out that a lack of sleep or uncomfortable temperatures, can disrupt our ability to make good, rational decisions, because tiredness and heat make us irritable and impatient. Poor nutrition and illness can also leave you feeling unusually jerky.

(Interestingly, do you know what doesn't predict mood? Day of the week -- people aren't actually reliably happier on Friday and more depressed on Monday. So if you're acting like a jerk on a Monday, find something else to blame.)

4. "Nasty Role-Models" and "A**hole Infected Workplaces"

Throughout Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton emphasizes the enormous power of social influence. We emulate the people around us, often unconsciously. And as he writes, "emotions are remarkably contagious." Anxiety, cynicism, selfishness, and negativity rub off. So if you are surrounded by cranky jerks, you just might begin to behave that way yourself without realizing it.

Sutton's solution to the trigger problem is a good one -- make sure you have people in your life you can trust to tell you when you are acting like a jerk. Give them explicit permission to do so, and make sure you really listen and react without defensiveness.

Then take a good hard look at how you're acting and ask yourself if that's really the person you want to be. If not, start looking around for the trigger. Is power going to your head? Are you under too much pressure? Are you hanging around too many jerks?

If you're not happy with your own behavior, renew your commitment to noticing and respecting the needs and feelings of the other people in your life. And if you need one, take a nap.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals (including next year's resolutions!), check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.