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6 Things to Do If You Work for a Jerk

03/07/2015 10:34 am ET | Updated May 07, 2015
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

I recently had a sit-down with a colleague -- call him Frank -- who was notoriously hard to work with -- rude, dismissive, sarcastic and impatient. His meetings were hand-to-hand combat. He was known to start arguments in the elevator. Frank is also brilliant.

I asked him why go through your work life making people unhappy and -- if you were unlucky to be one of his -- miserable? He denied none of it, and didn't apologize for any of it.

His view of the world of office relationships: "Nice is a waste of time. If you expect me to spend the first five minutes of our meeting talking about what happened on Downton Abbey -- that's not going to happen. If you screw up an assignment, and you expect me to give you points for effort -- that's not going to happen either. If you're not doing your job and it affects my ability to do my job, I promise you that you are going to hear about it . And I'm not going to do it over coffee and scones. If you're worried about your feelings, join group therapy."

Dealing with the Franks of the world -- including the possibility that you might be more like him than you think -- starts with perspective.

There has long been a thriving industry in parsing personalities. Research generally agrees on five big personality traits -- or the OCEAN model. We are all a swirling combination of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (or emotional instability).

Abrasive people light up the board most consistently in agreeableness. Agreeable people care about getting along with others. Disagreeable people don't. The glare of their own wants and needs blinds them to the wants and needs of others.

At the bottom line, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Steve Jobs changed the world and made billions. But he was a terrorist in a turtleneck, famously prone to profane tirades and public executions. He reportedly said that when he got frustrated, abusing was a kind of catharsis. In other words, he made himself feel good by making other people feel bad.

Was Jobs' abrasive nature the engine of his Olympian impact? Fear of public humiliation is a motivator for those who can handle the stress. There is some evidence that workplace unpleasantness can be a plus even for mere mortals.

Companies know that abrasive people breed unhappiness; kill motivation; breed more abrasive people; kill teamwork and cause good people to leave. They also know they can produce results. There is also evidence that meanness pays.

A study by researchers at Notre Dame, Cornell, and the University of Western Ontario published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that less agreeable people (as measured by traits similar to the OCEAN scale) made more money than their more agreeable cohorts. The researchers say, it's not that they are necessarily nasty -- although that can be part of the mix. It's that they don't care if they crush toes and bruise egos to get what they want.

For leaders, the emotional territory between tough and disagreeable is especially tricky to navigate for women. Jill Abramson, fired as editor of the New York Times, is the most recent case in point. By all accounts, she would not have scored well in agreeableness. Coverage of her departure variously described her as "pushy," "abrasive," "difficult" and "domineering." Many, although not for attribution, likely just called her a "bitch." Few employees seemed to rise to her defense.

Those who do rise to the defense of the abrasive woman say they get fired for things that would never cause the termination of a man -- and would probably earn him praise as a strong leader. Actually, there is evidence to the contrary. Men are called names, too -- often unprintable and anatomical. Sometimes just: "a jerk."

And many have, in fact, paid a price. Abrasiveness was said to be a factor in the fall of some notable high flyers: One is Microsoft Windows' Steven Sinofsky; brilliant, but famously rude and insulting to employees and even customers. BNY Mellon's Robert Kelly, whom Fortune described as a "super star banker, was so difficult his board feared he would cause an exodus of talent." Pfizer's Jeffry Kindler was said to be antagonistic and a micromanager. All were involved in assorted intrigues worthy of the House of Medici. But none had friends when they needed them.

Countless less visible men, up and down the organization chart, were let go or saw their careers stalled because they were hard to work with -- and none of their flame-outs were blamed on their XY chromosomes. Is the problem a woman acting like a man? Or is it a woman acting like a man who is a jerk? Enjoying belittling someone in a staff meeting is a fault that knows no gender.

Whether they thrive or ultimately implode, there will always be high achievers who will be low-scorers on the agreeableness scale. And chances are you will report to one - at some point everybody does. They are a workplace reality -- like e-mail. You can't escape them, so the trick is to manage them.

One: Focus on their intent, not their style. For some, abrasiveness is simply a calculated way to deliver a message. Lethally acerbic football Coach Bill Parcels (who won two Super Bowls and took a team to another) said: "You can only really yell at the players you trust." He also said: "I'll call anybody dumb or stupid if they make a dumb or stupid play. I don't know any other word for it." The lesson: take nothing personally if you're sure the leaders are trying to make you better at what you do.

Two: Listen to what they say, not how they say it. Even as they seemingly tear you down, a good -- albeit difficult -- leader will find ways to build you up.

Let's say that good-intent in a rough package is not up for discussion. Some bosses are nasty for the joy of it. At the extreme, one study says that one in twenty five corporate managers qualify as psychopaths -- technically defined as having "a callous unconcern for the feelings of others." Most serial killers satisfy the checklist. If your company has thousands of managers, then dozens of them walk among you.

If you work for a jerk, there are things you can do today that might not have worked in the past.

Three: Simply report the problem. There are many safe ways -- like employee surveys or telling another trusted supervisor -- to tell your story. Externally, Glassdoor is a website that gives prospective employees a peek at the things they don't tell you in orientation. You, alone, probably won't cause change. But if a pattern emerges, companies will take action -- probably first trying to help the offender change his or her ways.

A recent study found that employees who stood up to a hostile boss -- even passive-aggressively (like avoiding them or giving half-hearted effort ) -- felt less like victims and more in control of their lives. The authors - Bennett Tepper at Ohio State and Marie Mitchell at the University of Georgia -- are quick to point out passive-aggressiveness is not the ideal career strategy. They recommend confronting the antagonist, reporting his or her behavior or -- if all else fails -- finding another job.

Four: Keep good notes and, remember: you are likely not alone, and victimhood is a choice. If the abrasive person is a co-worker, the choices get a little easier. Every situation is different, but there are some navigation points to follow.

Five: Don't give up your power. Often, the end-game of the abrasive person is control. Don't put aggravating conversations on your "I should have said" personal replay loop. Don't waste time and energy on the negative people to the extent you take away time spent with positive ones. Often, abrasive people don't see themselves that way. Deal with things on the spot - ask them to repeat what they just said so you understand. Make them own their statement. Don't get sucked in. Follow the old and valuable rule: "Never take a supporting role in somebody else's drama."

Six: As hard as it is for most of us, elevate the confrontation when necessary. If somebody in an abusive situation has to be upset, why should it be you?

Rude, abrasive and downright hostile people are a fact of life. We have no choice in that. The choice we do have is how we handle them -- by not letting their problems feed our own.