Jerks at Work (2022) provides a handbook for how to deal with difficult people at work. Identifying seven types of jerks, it informs you about what kind of behaviors to look out for and how to deal with them in a pragmatic, positive way.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn how to handle toxic coworkers.
Kiss Up/Kick Downer
The Credit Stealer
About the author
Table of Contents
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Video and Podcast
Psychology, Communication Skills, Corporate Culture, Business Culture, Occupational and Organizational Popular Psychology, Workplace Culture, Popular Social Psychology and Interactions, Personal Growth, Leadership, Career Success, Communication and Social Skills
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn how to handle toxic coworkers.
In a world filled with uncertainty, one thing you can always count on is this: If you work, you will most definitely meet a jerk. You can work at Google, Netflix or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, there’s basically no jerk-free zone out there. They can come in many shapes and sizes – a boss who’s always breathing down your neck, the guy who’s constantly interrupting you at meetings, the kitchen bandit who’s always steals bites of other people’s lunches or the colleague who’s trying to outright manipulate you.
We all have met our fair share of jerks at work. But here’s the deal: you don’t actually need to put up with them. There’s more you can do than venting to your friends about them after work. In fact, the author Tessa West provides researched-based strategies for how to constructively handle toxic coworkers – from the Kiss Up/Kick Downer to the dreaded Gaslighter.
In these summaries, you’ll find out
- how to avoid getting credit stolen for the work you do;
- how to get a micromanager off your back; and
- how to tell if a boss is gaslighting you.
Kiss Up/Kick Downer
Before Tessa West became a social psychologist, she was a salesperson at a high-end department store. There, she had the misfortune of working with another salesperson named Dave. Whenever the manager was around, Dave acted like a model employee. But the moment the manager left, Dave’s true colors came out. He was viciously competitive — not only stealing his colleagues’ customers, but rearranging and hiding the items they needed in the storage room, making it harder for them to complete their sales.
Dave is a classic example of the first type of jerk you might encounter at work: a kiss up/kick downer. He “kisses up” to those above him — acting polite, offering to do favors, charming their socks off, and trying to cozy up to them outside of work. In contrast, he “kicks down” people at the same level or below him in the workplace hierarchy — trying to undermine them and make them look bad in any way he can get away with.
If this sounds like something that’s happening to you at work, the first thing you should do is make sure you’re not just being oversensitive and confirm the person is actually being a jerk. To do this, find someone who is socially well-connected and knows “what’s up” at your workplace. Ask them a question like “Have you heard anything good or bad about Dave?”
If they confirm that you are indeed dealing with a jerk, try to find other victims and collect their testimonies about his behavior. To keep things professional, just ask your colleagues neutral questions, like “have you worked much with Dave? What’s that been like?”
Meanwhile, try to put as much space between you and the kiss up/kick downer as possible. Think about when and where you encounter him and how you can minimize contact. It could be something as simple as changing seats at a meeting or avoiding the coffee machine at a certain time.
When you’re ready to present your manager with your case against the jerk, remember: thanks to all that kissing up he does, your manager probably thinks highly of him, so you need to approach the issue diplomatically. Begin by acknowledging the jerk’s strengths, and then focus on his negative behaviors and how they’re impacting you and your colleagues.
Then, all that’s left to do is wait and be patient. It may take some time and behind-the-scenes action for your manager to deal with the jerk, so don’t expect an instant solution.
The Credit Stealer
What’s the key to getting ahead at work? Your performance would seem to be an obvious answer. But it’s more complicated than that.
Imagine you do a great job on a project, but no one is aware of all the work you did. Obviously, that won’t do your career any good. But now imagine a colleague swoops in and takes credit for it. Now she might get a promotion, even if she barely did any work on the project!
Meet our next jerk at work — the credit stealer — someone who takes more credit for ideas and accomplishments than she deserves.
Now, to be fair, she might not be doing this intentionally. With group projects and teamwork in general, it’s often unclear who contributed what to the final product, and we all have a tendency to overestimate the size of our contributions. We also have a tendency to assume the work we do is more visible to others than it is in reality. You may be doing lots of behind-the-scenes work that your credit stealer isn’t even aware of, like polishing documents and checking for errors.
Also, when teams are filled with like-minded people, they sometimes come up with similar ideas independently of each other. This can lead to situations where it seems like one person stole an idea from another, even though it was really just a coincidence.
With that in mind, don’t be accusatory with your potential credit stealer. Try to have a neutral conversation where you simply share your perspective and ask them for theirs. For example, “It seemed to me like we were proposing similar ideas at the meeting, and it seemed to me like I was the one who was putting them on the table first — but how did it seem to you?”
From there, broaden the conversation and focus on the facts of the matter. For instance, if you were working on a group project together, who did what? Talk about the invisible work you both put into the project. Maybe it turns out they did more than you thought they did! And if not, the facts will speak for themselves.
You can then have a pragmatic conversation about how to distribute credit more fairly in the future. One way to nip the problem in the bud is to decide who will do what before a project begins; that way, there will be no ambiguity over who did what at the end of it.
The two jerks we’ve looked at so far often have one thing in common — they’re subtle. The kiss up/kick downer kisses up and kicks down at the right times and right places with the right people. And the credit stealer doesn’t try to steal credit when it would be too obvious what she’s doing; she waits for moments when there’s enough ambiguity over who did what (assuming she’s stealing credit on purpose).
The next jerk is much less subtle. Call him the bulldozer. If someone gets in his way, he just knocks them down — interrupting them when they’re in the middle of speaking at a meeting, for example. And that’s if they’re lucky enough to even have a chance to speak in the first place; at meetings, he usually dominates the conversation by being one of the first people to speak up and then holding the floor for as long as he can.
How does he get away with it? Well, he’s usually a power player. A real mover and shaker. The bulldozer tends to make friends in high places, so he has the boss and other influential people on his side. He also tends to seize upon a skill or a role that makes him indispensable to his team, like being the only one who knows how to use a new piece of software that everybody hates. Or being the person who meets with an unpopular HR manager on everyone else’s behalf.
To counteract a bulldozer, begin by taking a page from his own playbook. At meetings, try to make your positions known within the first couple of minutes. Don’t let the bulldozer be the only one to define the starting point and parameters of the conversation.
If he interrupts you, insist on finishing what you were trying to say. If you don’t feel assertive enough to do this on your own, enlist the help of some of your colleagues. Make an agreement with them that if one of you gets interrupted, another will come to his or her defense, saying something like “Hey, let’s let so and so finish her point?”
Finally, look for ways to gain back some of the outsized power that you and your colleagues have ceded to the bulldozer. Ask him to share those special skills and roles he’s monopolized — training others to use that software they’ve been avoiding or taking turns meeting with that HR manager everyone hates.
He works hard when their boss is around, but slacks off the moment she’s out of sight. He was a high performer early in his career, but now he’s comfortably resting on his laurels. And he has a convenient tendency to “volunteer” for work that looks important but isn’t really that hard to do, like giving a presentation that someone else prepared.
Let’s be honest, this guy seems to be living the dream. If you’re him. But if you’re everyone else? Then he’s the next jerk at work – the free rider: someone who benefits from other people’s efforts without pulling his own weight.
The stronger a team is, the more it tends to attract free riders. And that’s because free riders take advantage of three characteristics that make a group strong in the first place.
For starters, strong groups have members who are conscientious about their work — they’re dependable, disciplined, and hard-working. Unfortunately, that means they’re also prone to picking up free riders’ slack, sometimes not even realizing they’re doing it.
Second, strong groups have cohesion — their members feel close to each other and get along well together. But that means they also let down their guard with each other and avoid keeping tabs on each other, allowing free riders to slip through the cracks.
Finally, they use collective rewards to encourage teamwork instead of competition between the group members. But that can lead some people to conclude that working hard is pointless; they might as well slack off. After all, they’ll get the same reward, no matter how much effort they contribute to the team.
To root out free riding, teams need to keep track of their members’ work. One way to do this is to divvy out tasks at the beginning of a project and then periodically check in with each other by sending out a brief survey that asks three questions:
- Which tasks have you completed?
- Did you do any extra work you didn’t plan on doing?
- Did you notice anyone else doing extra work?
By getting answers to these questions, you can detect if you have a free rider in your midst. Maybe you’ll discover that just about everyone is doing some extra work on the free rider’s behalf! You can then come up with a plan for dividing the work out more fairly.
Finally, teams can remove part of the motivation behind free riding by rewarding individual performance in addition to collective achievement. Teamwork and individual effort aren’t an either/or binary— you can promote both things at once!
What’s the most common reason people quit their jobs?
If you’re like 89 percent of bosses, you might think the answer is money. But that only accounts for 12 percent of people who quit. The most common reason they leave their jobs is dissatisfaction with management — and micromanagement in particular is one of the most common complaints. A whopping 79 percent of the workforce has experienced it at some point — and 69 percent of that group have thought about quitting because of it.
Micromanagers are the most common jerk at work, so there’s a good chance you’ll encounter one at some point in your career, if you haven’t already. Other than quitting your job, how can you escape their tyranny?
Well, as with other jerks at work, don’t confront them too directly. If you march into their office with an accusation of micromanagement and a list of things you’d like them to stop doing, their response will probably be defensive.
Instead, ask to have a meeting to talk about big picture goals. How does your work fit into the bigger picture of your team? What are the big picture goals of your micromanager, and how does your work contribute to them? In other words, zoom out from the little details your working relationship has become overly fixated on.
Once you’ve established the bigger picture, talk about expectations and priorities. Your understanding of what’s important might not align with your micromanager’s understanding. In fact, that might be one of the underlying causes of her micromanagement; she sees you as failing to meet her expectations and priorities, and she’s micromanaging you to try to get you on what she perceives as being the right track.
If that’s the case, see if you can come to a compromise. For example, consider the case of Matt, a journalist the author is friends with. It turned out his micromanaging boss Karen wanted him to prioritize the articles she wanted published, whereas he wanted to prioritize chasing his own leads. Their compromise? Matt would focus on the articles Karen cared about first — and if he finished them early, he could spend the rest of his time focusing on his independent projects.
If there are any behaviors you’d like the micromanager to stop engaging in, be specific and avoid generalizations. For instance, instead of saying “you’re overbearing”, say that “at the moment you’re sending me x number of e-mails per day, and it makes it hard for me to stay on task”. Also, to help keep things positive, mention things you appreciate about your micromanager and would like her to do more of, instead of just what you’d like her to do less of!
You’ve met the micromanager — the jerk at work who won’t leave you alone. Now, it’s time to meet the jerk on the opposite side of the spectrum: the neglectful boss — a jerk who leaves you alone too much.
If you’re currently under the thumb of a micromanager, this might sound like a dream come true — a boss who just stays out of your way and lets you do your own thing! Freedom! But here’s the rub with neglectful bosses: they’re not always neglectful. They have a knack for being attentive at just the perfectly wrong time.
That’s because they typically follow a pattern. First, they disappear for a while — leaving you to your own devices for a whole week or two for a project, let’s say. Then, right before the deadline, they start getting anxious about feeling out of the loop. And then they suddenly become way too hands-on, way too late — inundating you with hundreds of suggestions just hours before launch. And then? They go back to neglecting you. It’s a yo-yo dynamic that can leave you anxious and exhausted.
How do you escape this trap? Well, it depends on the underlying cause of your boss’s neglect. Maybe it’s just a lack of communication between the two of you. To be fair, your boss is probably pretty busy. As a result, she might be so focused on her own needs that yours aren’t even on her radar. You’ve got to let her know you need more of her time. Write a short email requesting a 30-minute meeting sometime in the next two weeks, giving her a manageable chunk of time to fit into a long enough timeframe.
But what if your boss is simply too busy for you at the moment? In that case, there are two things you can do. First, offer to take something off her plate, freeing up some time for her that she can give back to you.
Second, help her pay attention to you in a more selective way. Provide her with a list of your priorities and make it clear that of the top ten things, number one is truly number one and the other nine can wait. This will allow her to focus on number one and relax about the rest of your list. Now that paying attention to you doesn’t feel as overwhelming, she’ll be more likely to do it!
Toxic coworkers come in many shapes and sizes — but all the ones we’ve looked at so far have at least one thing in common: they’re manageable. There are things you can do to fix their behaviors and achieve better relationships with them.
But the final jerk we’re going to meet is different. He’s not just a difficult person or an inadvertently bad team player. He’s downright sociopathic. You’re not going to change him. He’s not a fixer upper. All you can do is escape him.
He’s the gaslighter — someone who psychologically manipulates you into having a false sense of reality.
He begins by isolating you. Maybe he does it in a seemingly positive way. He makes you feel like you’re part of something special, such as a secret project or a selective club. Or he might erode your sense of self-worth and make you feel indebted to him, telling you things like he’s the only one at the workplace who cares about you and you’d have been fired if it wasn’t for him. Or he does a cunning combination of both.
After having sneakily isolated you, he then starts taking advantage of you, often by turning you into an unwitting accomplice in one of his unethical schemes. Consider the story of Kunal — an employee at an advertising firm. His gaslighter was his boss Julie. She told him to keep their work together secret, because, she claimed, their workplace was filled with cutthroat competitors who would try to steal their work.
In reality, Julie herself was stealing other people’s work and then asking Kunal to edit it, unknowingly helping her cover her tracks. One day, Kunal thought he saw her logging into a coworker’s account, but when he asked her about it, she said he was just imagining it — another classic gaslighter move.
To prevent a gaslighter from warping your sense of reality, start writing down every suspicious thing you observe him saying or doing. Memories are fallible, and gaslighters try to mess with them, so you need to put things down in writing to preserve them.
While doing this, you should also begin gradually rebuilding your relationships at work, to escape your isolation. Start by connecting with people with similar status and positions as you, and then work your way up and out from there, expanding your network to eventually include a social referent. This is someone who is especially well-liked, connected, and respected at your workplace. She can be your advocate and convince the higher ups at your company to do something about your gaslighter.
You’ll probably need the assistance of someone like this, because the person who is gaslighting you is probably someone with more power than you.
Okay, if there’s one thing we can take away, it’s that you don’t have to just put up with toxic coworkers. There are alternatives to venting to your friends about them and hoping that all your problems will go away.
For starters, try to pinpoint their behavior. What exactly are they doing? Are they micromanaging, neglecting, bulldozing, free riding? Once you figure that out, try to address it. Again, that doesn’t mean you have to confront them directly. Sometimes, the solution could be something as simple as setting up a non-confrontational meeting to help you get on the same page — but other times, a more drastic action will be needed, and you may need the help of people higher up in your company’s hierarchy. Either way, you need to be thoughtful, strategic and open-minded about any and all possible solutions
About the author
Tessa West is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, where she is a leading expert on interpersonal interaction and communication. She has published over 60 articles in the field of psychology’s most prestigious journals, and has received multiple grants, including from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She is the recipient of the Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Societ for Personality and Social Psychology. She writes regularly about her research in the Wall Street Journal.
Table of Contents
1 Kiss Up/Kick Downer
2 The Credit Stealer
3 The Bulldozer
4 The Free Rider
5 The Micromanager
6 The Neglectful Boss
7 The Gaslighter
What Type of Jerk Do I Have at Work?
Quiz 1: Am I a Jerk at Work?
Quiz 2: Am I a Effective Ally?
A practical and hilarious guide to getting difficult people off your back, for anyone pulling their hair out over an irritating colleague who’s not technically breaking any rules
From open floor plans and Zoom calls to Slack channels, the workplace has changed a lot over the years. But there’s one thing that never changes: you’ll always encounter jerks. Jerks at Work is the definitive guide to dealing with—and ultimately breaking free from—the overbearing bosses, irritating coworkers, and all-around difficult people who make work and life miserable.
Social psychologist Tessa West has spent years leveraging science to help people solve interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. What she discovered is that most of our go-to tactics don’t work because they fail to address the specific motivations that drive bad behavior. In this book, she takes you on a rollicking deep dive of the seven jerks you’re most likely to encounter at the office, drawing on decades of original research to expose their inner workings and weak points—and ultimately deliver an effective game plan for stopping each type before they take you down with them.
Jerks at Work is packed with everyday examples and clever strategies, such as how to:
- Stop a Bulldozer from gaining influence by making sure they’re not the first to speak up in meetings
- Report a Kiss Up/Kick Downer to a manager who idolizes them without looking like the bad guy
- Protect your high-achieving team from Free Riders without stifling collaboration
- Use a Gaslighter’s tactics to beat them at their own game
For anyone who’s said “I can’t stand that jerk!” more times than they’d like to admit, Jerks at Work is the ultimate playbook you wish you didn’t need but will always turn to.
NYU social psychologist West empowers frustrated workers to deal with difficult colleagues in her punchy debut. Among the types of workplace antagonists she identifies, there’s the “kiss up/kick downer,” who tramples colleagues to get ahead; the “credit stealer,” who pretends to be friendly but takes ideas; and the gaslighter, who manipulates others to make them complicit in unethical behavior. For each “jerk at work,” West details methods for pinpointing what motivates them and where and when their jerky behavior is most likely to occur, and offers tactics to deploy in response. In the case of a “free rider,” for example, friendly folks who don’t do much, one should set strict boundaries, and with a neglectful boss at the helm, one should “need-nudge,” or make concrete requests for help with specific time frames. West highlights the roles she’s played in workplace drama—she’s been employee and boss, and confesses to being both victim and jerk: her excessive micromanaging once drove 11 students working on a research project to quit in a single month. She mines these experiences for solid anecdotes, and while her tips are geared toward victims of workplace bullies, West’s simultaneously humorous and no-nonsense approach to collegiality is broadly applicable. Leaders and workers alike will find in West an astute and personable guide. (Jan.)
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“If I don’t double my sales by the end of the month, Sasha will skewer me. She just gave this horrible speech to my team about how I am such a disappointment.”
Annie sat slumped over her happy hour cocktail, catching up her former colleague Calvin about what had gone down over the past two months. Shortly after she was hired, Annie’s boss, David, hastily left the New York office to deal with a supply chain problem in Asia. With little time to find a replacement, he put Sasha at the helm.
Sasha wasn’t particularly talented at any one thing but perfectly adequate at a number of things. She had spent ten years in the New York office and had a wealth of institutional knowledge. Not very many people could tell you who in sales is the most socially suited for dinner with clients and how to fix the broken video projector.
But above all else, she was clever with money. Sasha was a real detail sleuth, spending hours poring over budget sheets to cut a dollar here, a dollar there. People griped about her cuts (“Where did the espresso machine go?”), but David didn’t care. He liked saving money. And with every additional month he stayed in Asia, Sasha sank her claws deeper into the company—first taking over all small-scale budget decisions, then inching her way into hiring and promotion. Once she started controlling the sales team, all hell broke loose.
Sasha was the Frankenstein’s monster of bosses at work—undercutting people in front of their teams, micromanaging them, and changing direction so many times it made people’s heads spin. In meetings, she had an unpredictability that left everyone on edge, all smiles and compliments one moment, torturous acts of humiliation the next. She also wore so much perfume it left Annie with a low-grade headache anytime she spent more than ten minutes in a room with her.
In the early days while David was still closely monitoring her, Sasha was charming, almost obsequious. She sent Annie emails that said things like, “I’m so honored to be working with you, and I hope some of your magic rubs off on me. Can we set up some weekly training sessions?” The emails stopped once David no longer insisted that she cc him on everything.
In fact, once David checked out entirely, Sasha’s true, terrible colors began to show.
Like a lot of jerks at work, Sasha started with small, public acts of criticism meant to damage Annie’s reputation. Each week, Annie would hold a meeting with her sales team. About a month into the job, she noticed Sasha sneaking in during the last five minutes.
“Hi Annie! Do you mind if I chat with your team for a few minutes?” she asked sheepishly.
Once Annie was out of earshot, Sasha would question Annie’s decisions (“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”) and undercut her expertise in front of her direct reports (“I know that client well—much better than Annie; he will never go for it”). Then she would spread weird and wrong gossip about her, which Annie figured was an attempt to build rapport with the team.
The micromanagement started off with small, arbitrary changes to Annie’s budgets. Daily food allowances requested at forty-five dollars a day were changed to forty dollars, for no other reason than to remind Annie who was really in charge. Sometimes Sasha would increase Annie’s budgets, which made no sense at all.
Over time, Sasha oscillated between jealous and downright patronizing, sometimes within an hour. When Annie tried to make autonomous decisions, Sasha assured her that “David wants me to oversee everything and everyone.” Small changes to her budgets became massive overhauls. It became impossible for Annie to execute a sales contract without Sasha getting in the way.
Then came the firing.
Sasha was having a tough time containing gossip about herself and she was becoming paranoid. Like a dictator losing her grasp on her people, she started cutting off heads left and right. Sometimes she would bring in groups of people to her office and fire all of them at once; it was quicker that way. Annie assured her team that she could protect them, but she wasn’t so certain. The anxiety was so staggering, it overshadowed everyone’s progress. They stopped celebrating wins. They stopped having lunches out together. Everyone was happy if they just made it through another day.
Most people, including Calvin, jumped ship as soon as things went south; they weren’t going to sit around and watch their workplace turn into a hellscape. Annie, on the other hand, had remained and tried to stay positive. But it was getting harder every day.
During this period, Annie made several attempts to contact David. Things were not going well in Asia, and most of her emails were met with autoreplies. Eventually she landed a video call with him at two a.m. her time. But before the words were out of her mouth—“Sasha is a terror and she’s destroying this company”—she knew her approach wouldn’t work. David looked exhausted, like a man who had walked this road several times before and had yet to find a detour.
“Listen. I know Sasha can be tough, but she is doing a lot. The best I can do is decrease the amount of face time you have to spend with her,” he told Annie. He ended the call with some words of encouragement and begged her to “just stick it out until this supply problem gets resolved.”
Most of you are probably thinking at this point in the story, “What is wrong with you, Annie? Why don’t you get the hell out?” It seems obvious in hindsight that Annie should have left as soon as David handed over the reins to Sasha, like Calvin did. But for Annie, giving up her dream job was unthinkable. Even at the worst of times, David kept dangling a carrot in front of her: “Remember, Sasha is temporary.” Denial can lead us to make all sorts of bad decisions in life, including career ones. Besides, like many of us, Annie didn’t want a short-lived stint; she wanted to settle down and make a home for herself at this company. And when she interviewed for the job, she’d been assured she would have the opportunity to do so. “We want to build you up, not train you and lose you.” Ever heard that one before?
Annie had believed it. Why wouldn’t she? But now she had a series of ailments more common among people in their eighties than people in their thirties. In the last year, her blood pressure spiked, her sleep dropped from eight to five hours a night, and her clean, green diet slowly gave way to hot dogs and beer. Her hair was thinning. She had a weird eye twitch. Her limbs started tingling the minute she lay down. She probably had a drinking problem too, but she wasn’t ready to admit it.
As the bartender approached, Annie looked down at her maraschino cherry. Dark, dank, and cheap, this bar was the local watering hole for all hard-done-by employees within a five-block radius too depressed to chat it up. Which now included her.
“Annie, let me be frank,” said Calvin. “You look more like a prison guard who broke up a fight at the end of her shift than vice president of sales for a high-end leisurewear brand. I can see where this is going, and it isn’t good.”
Calvin was six months post-Sasha and looked fresh-faced and fit as a fiddle—he didn’t belong in this bar. Now working for a competitor, he spent his afternoons sipping lattes and sharing yoga tips with his boss. He had an air of superiority about him that reminded Annie of those people in college who finished finals early and would play volleyball in front of the library, taunting the studiers inside. “It sucks to be you,” their cocky little faces said.
But he was right.
“Don’t you understand?” Calvin said, “You could put a gun to David’s head, and he wouldn’t be able to tell you who works here and how much money the company grossed last year. No one knows the details of this company like Sasha knows them. David can’t fire her even if he wanted to; he’s completely dependent on her. Sasha is here to stay.”
Most of us have dealt with a toxic co-worker during our career. Psychologist Tessa West got inside their heads and has broken down the different types of jerks at work.
Most of us have worked with someone who had an outsized effect on our emotional well-being. To cope, we’ve tried a few tactics: venting to friends, disengaging from the social scene at work, gossiping about the person in the hopes that our bosses will learn — via the grapevine — just how miserable we are.
The boldest among us try direct confrontation. But these interactions often end in more conflict, since most people don’t enjoy having their flaws spelled out to them in excruciating detail. When confrontations fail, we often go to the next person in charge and beg for help. But even the most sympathetic bosses are often ill-equipped to handle problem people at work. Some are too dependent on your jerk to act against them. Others agree there’s a problem, but they feel helpless to stop it. Yet others are so averse to confrontation, the very thought of standing up to a jerk at work makes them weak in the knees.
When direct feedback fails, we tend to turn to all-out avoidance. I once rearranged my work hours to avoid sharing a bathroom with a jerk at work. It was inconvenient and bad for my sleep, but at least I got about six stress-free hours a day to myself. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. You no longer have to be beholden to soul-sucking jerks at work and the chaos they inflict on your life. By learning what motivates them to do what they do, and by applying the research-based strategies found in this book, you can equip yourself to handle those who deplete your energy and cost you emotional well-being and—finally—take back your peace of mind.
As a social psychologist, I’ve studied how people communicate for nearly two decades. I’ve observed the strategies we use to negotiate, collaborate, argue effectively, and successfully avoid one another. I’ve measured the stress people feel when interactions go poorly, how that stress manifests in the body, and how quickly stress can spread from one person to another.
I’ve also seen what happens when relationship problems at work go unresolved and leak into every aspect of our lives — from how we interact with our kids to how connected we feel to our romantic partners. And by leveraging social science, I’ve helped people, from new employees to C-suite executives, solve their jerk-at-work problems.
Getting a handle on your jerk at work is a little like profiling a serial killer. In other words, you first need to get into your jerk’s head to learn what makes them tick. How do they pick their victims? How have they avoided capture? Do they have a boss who (secretly) benefits from their behaviour?
To help you on your profiling journey, I’ve created a taxonomy of jerks at work.
Kiss up/kick downers have a singular goal in mind: to climb to the top by any means necessary. To get there, they treat everyone who is at the same level or below them as competition. They reserve their good manners for the people in charge.
Credit-stealers are wolves in sheep’s clothing—they are our teammates and mentors who look out only for themselves. Credit-stealers seem like friends, but they will betray your trust if your idea is good enough to steal. They help with a project but undermine your contributions when presenting it to the boss. They help you work through half-baked ideas only to take credit for them later. They are the leaders who offer to help you thrive but are secretly jealous of your success. They tend to be good at covering their tracks.
Bulldozers are seasoned, well-connected employees who aren’t afraid to flex their muscles to get what they want. They have two trademark moves: they take over the process of group decision-making, and they render bosses powerless to stop them through fear and intimidation. Most know how to go over the boss’ head to get what they want—they know who, at a level or two above them, will take them seriously. Truth be told, a lot of workplaces value this type of “leadership behaviour” — the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But for those of us stuck working with a bulldozer, decisions often grind to a halt until this person gets their way. These jerks have no interest in compromising.
Free-riders are experts at doing nothing and getting rewarded for it. They often take on work that has the veneer of importance but requires very little effort. They thrive in well-functioning teams, such as those with conscientious people who pick up their slack and those with a strong sense of cohesion. Most of them are well-liked and friendly, making them difficult to call out.
Micromanagers are impatient taskmasters who disrespect your personal space and time. Some do it because they used to have your job and they’re having a hard time moving on, others because they’re under the false impression that more monitoring equals better performance. Micromanagement isn’t a scalable strategy, so micromanaging bosses often put people in rotation. When you’re out of rotation, don’t expect to hear from your boss for days, sometimes weeks on end. Micromanagers also tend to be neglectful bosses.
Neglectful bosses hate being out of the loop. But for lots of reasons (micromanaging is one), they often are. Most follow a three-step process: long periods of neglect, a build-up of anxiety from not having a handle on things, and finally a surge of control over you to alleviate their anxiety. If you have a neglectful boss, you live in a world of chronic uncertainty, making these jerks at work one of the most difficult to handle.
Gaslighters lie with the intent of deceiving on a grand scale. They isolate their victims first, then slowly build an alternative reality that suits their needs. Some gaslighters isolate by making victims feel like their position at work is precarious, others by making their victims feel special, like they are part of a secret club. Gaslighting is often a means to an end; it allows co-workers and bosses to get away with things such as cheating and stealing that they could not do alone.
Each chapter in this book is dedicated to a different jerk at work. First, you’ll learn the hallmark characteristics of each type, what drives their behavior, and how it is most likely to show up. Second, I lay out time-proven strategies, tips, and tricks for handling each jerk. The solutions here don’t require you to be a mind-reading expert. Anyone can use the tactics I cover, including those who prefer to avoid conflict.
The chapters are written independently, so you can reference each type as they become relevant. I do, however, cross-reference the types occasionally, so reading the chapters in order will help you see the similarities and differences between them. You will also see how the same strategies can work for multiple types of jerks.
This book is meant to be a guide you can return to anytime a new jerk-at-work problem crops up. People who are new at work will read it with a different set of eyes than those who have been on the job for years. And as you gain experience and switch jobs, you can go back to it and get insights you missed the first time around. Similarly, it’s recommended that you flip to the back and take the quizzes there twice: right now before you read the rest of this book, and again after—you might see a change.
THE TRUTH ABOUT JERKS AT WORK
Throughout my career, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about jerks at work. Clearing these up is the first step in solving a jerk-at-work problem.
MISCONCEPTION 1: ONLY INEXPERIENCED PEOPLE STRUGGLE WITH JERKS AT WORK
Lots of people have come to me, with years of workplace experience under their belts, embarrassed that after all this time they still don’t have a handle on their relationship problems at work. I remind them not to confuse time spent on something with progress.
No matter how educated you are or what your job title is, you can fall victim to a jerk at work. Spending time in the workplace does not necessarily translate to having better conflict management skills.
Most of us never formally learn these skills. Management courses and leadership training focus largely on the types of behaviors you should be engaging in (and those that you should avoid), but they rarely focus on how to use your social network to solve workplace problems or how to frame problems in ways that will get higher-status people to care. These skills require knowledge of how relationships function at work.
It is never too early, or too late, to learn the tactics I cover in this book.
MISCONCEPTION 2: JERKS AT WORK ARE BITTER EMPLOYEES WITH NO REAL SKILLS
“The only reason why Bob is torturing me is because he’s jealous and doesn’t know any other way of getting ahead.”
I hear comments like this a lot. It’s easy to villainize jerks at work—to assume that they are talentless asshats who have nothing better to do with their time than make our lives miserable. But I don’t think this approach gets us very far. Every workplace has at least one person who is willing to use their talent in nefarious ways. The trick is figuring out what those talents are.
Most jerks are skilled social perceivers with lots of social connections; underestimating them won’t get you anywhere. This book will help you figure out what those talents are so you can learn how to outwit these people.
MISCONCEPTION 3: MY BOSSES AREN’T DOING ANYTHING ABOUT MY JERK BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE
The sad reality is, most people aren’t promoted into leadership positions because they know how to manage people; they’re promoted because they were good at their old job. A lot of jerk-at-work problems can be traced back to poor leadership. Even well-intentioned bosses often don’t know how to handle office jerks.
Sometimes the problem boils down to time, resources, and priorities. Bosses with too much on their plates drop the ball on communicating with their employees. They assume that no news is good news, and one-on-one conversations are reserved for putting out fires. Efficient employees with good track records receive the least attention, as do the people in highly efficient teams. Jerks like the free rider flourish with bosses like these—they know their teammates won’t complain about them, they’ll just compensate for their laziness.
Other bosses inadvertently trust jerks at work to do the communicating for them. The kiss up/kick downer, for example, is a master at making themselves trustworthy. Through a series of small, manipulative steps, they manage to become the liaison between the boss and other employees. Bosses like Sasha, holding down the fort while the real boss is out of town, can get away with almost anything because no one is monitoring them.
It’s easy to blame our jerk-at-work problems on our bosses. In this book, I teach you how to move beyond the blame to think about why your boss is contributing to the problem. Some leaders are trying to fit into a world with bad workplace norms, have bosses who are horrible mentors themselves, or aren’t stellar communicators and don’t know how to get better. You will learn how to understand why your boss behaves the way they do and what might be keeping them from taking your side.
My hope is that as you learn strategies for dealing with difficult people, you will see an increase in your own psychological feelings of certainty. Most of us can handle problems at work if we can predict them and then strategize what to do. Expect to feel more empowered and less anxious. Gone will be the days where you tiptoe around your jerk, coming to the office only when they’re gone, or climbing the stairs to avoid seeing them in the elevator.
* * *
After years studying how people communicate with one another, the single most important lesson I’ve learned is this: we will never solve our jerk-at-work problems until we understand how to leverage our social relationships.
In other words, the antidote to jerks at work is friends at work. My goal for you is not to wind up like Annie—admitting to yourself that your job is just a stepping-stone, that you have only two choices: grin and bear it or get the hell out. My goal is to teach you how enlist the help of others to get what you want.
Sometimes the people who are the most helpful aren’t on your radar yet—they work at arm’s length from you but are well positioned within your social network to connect you to people in power. In fact, arms-length coworkers are often better allies than close friends. In this book, I recommend that you develop relationships that are wide (with lots of people in your professional social network) and not just deep (with a handful of people with whom you feel close).
If you’re socially isolated or new at work and don’t have a lot of relationships, I will teach you how to make them. A surprising 70 percent of people say that having friends at work is the most crucial element to a happy working life. But when it comes to dealing with jerks, we often try to go it alone.
If you feel yourself uncomfortably identifying more with the jerk than the victim, that’s okay too. Relating to the jerks is one of the more unexpected experiences of reading this book. We all have a jerk lurking deep inside of us. It’s part of human nature. In fact, the day I decided to write this book was the day that I realized I had become the evil protagonist in my own jerk-at-work story.
Through a series of unfortunate events, I wound up on the subway on my way to a kid’s birthday party in Queens, New York, drinking rosé out of a can. I bought the can (and three more just like it) because it could have passed for fancy sparkling water.
The week before was rough.
One of my jobs at work was to implement a big office move. For the first time in decades, our space was getting renovated—new paint colors and lots of light—and we had only to move down the hall and up a flight of stairs.
My coworker Jon and I had spent several months going back and forth about the plan, and we finally were ready to present it to the group. About half of my coworkers showed up to the meeting in person, and the remaining eight or so video-conferenced in, their faces awkwardly squished on the screen (this was pre-pandemic, before we got the hang of it).
We knew that people were feeling apprehensive, so we came prepared with a long list of all the ways in which our coworkers’ lives would be made better, not worse, by the move. More square footage. Better lighting. You know that weird black soot that comes down from the ceiling and makes a neat pile on your desk every day? Gone.
No one cared about the list.
Instead, most people were flat-out confused about why we were doing the move in the first place, some because they had been minimally engaged with the move all along, others because the plans had changed so many times it was impossible to remember why exactly we weren’t allowed to do things such as move walls. But confusion was quickly replaced by fear, and in some cases anger. “Why are we doing this at all? I like the old space!” one person yelled into the abyss, their video on accidental mute.
I immediately became prickly and defensive. This was the plan and we were sticking to it; I didn’t care how anyone felt about it. I left the meeting in a huff, full of irritation that my work was underappreciated.
It took some time (and a few of those rosé cans), but upon reflection, it was clear that over months of planning and prepping, I had become an accidental bulldozer. I hadn’t intended on shutting people down or telling them that their feelings didn’t matter, but I did.
Achieving my goal had given me tunnel vision. I had failed to take my own advice and see the move through my coworkers’ perspectives—what it must feel like to be told that you need to leave your workspace after ten, sometimes twenty, years.
I had also made people feel uncertain about their future at work—unsure of what their day-to-day would look like and whether they would run into their own nemeses in the bathroom. For people dealing with jerks at work, feelings of uncertainty and a lack of control over their own outcomes are common psychological experiences.
The good news is, jerks at work can change their ways, and I was able to repair my relationships using a handful of tactics I cover in this book. Bulldozers stifle the voices of others, so I gave people the chance to be heard—asking them for their perspectives and getting to the bottom of their biggest concerns. We created rules that allowed everyone to weigh in on important decisions, so that no one person (me) was making decisions for everyone. This way, people felt like they had ownership over their own workspaces. We took votes several times along the way for important group decisions to create procedural fairness. It took some time and patience, but in the end the move went smoothly, and most people preferred the new office space.
* * *
There I was, sitting on the subway, drinking my rosé and thinking about that horrible meeting. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and start doing something about it. I found the only piece of paper I had in my purse and got to work. The first taxonomy of jerks was written while sitting next to a man in an Elvis suit listening to Queen and a woman with a chicken on her lap.
Kiss Up/Kick Downer
The first time I met Dave was during his informal lunch interview with my boss, Marie. I worked for a high-end department store, and Dave was transferring from another branch. He was tall and stylish, with a thick head of hair and a healthy five o’clock shadow. Legend had it that he had sold so many shoes at his previous location that he won a free car.
Marie was enthralled. Usually during job interviews, the interviewee tries to impress the boss. Not today. Marie didn’t ask any questions. Instead, she layered on compliment after compliment.
“Everyone in Houston says wonderful things about you,” she gushed.
“Well, I definitely didn’t do it alone,” Dave demurred. “A good team culture is critical for success.”
Later, Marie asked me and two other salespeople to take Dave to dinner. We went to a delicious but tiny Italian restaurant that was famous for feeding only six people at a time. The table was probably meant for two but was set for four. Dave sat down first and immediately whisked one of the place settings to the other side. The three of us were left facing him like a squished panel of judges. “I want to see you when we talk,” he said, smiling, elbows spread out wide, knees agape. Sandwiched between two men, I clenched my thighs together. I’m left-handed, so eating comfortably was out of the question.
Dinner was fine at first; everyone wanted to hear about how Dave won the car. But once we started talking to him as friends instead of as sycophants, he turned a bit sour. Having taken a three-week sommelier course in Napa, he insulted the real sommelier multiple times (“This is a cab blend, obviously”). He sent his dessert spoon back—not once but twice—because it was the wrong size.
The next day was Dave’s first on the floor selling shoes. Whenever the regional manager was within earshot, Dave was lovely. He gently coached the newest salesperson on how to upsell a client, confident yet not overbearing. But as soon as the manager left, it was a different story.
I overheard him say to someone, “I’m worried about what Tessa is doing. Doesn’t she know how to use a shoehorn?” I felt embarrassed.
It went from bad to worse thereafter. Left to his own devices, Dave would steal customers from other salespeople and rearrange shoes in the storage room so it was impossible to find anything (insisting, of course, that this was how shoes were arranged in the Houston store). We were all convinced that he hid the size tens from the rest of us. Ten is the most popular men’s shoe size, and you can’t make any money without size tens in stock.
When you’re mean in retail, word gets around, so you can imagine my surprise when I walked into Marie’s office for our monthly check-in and she hit me with an enthusiastic, “Hasn’t Dave been so great! His sales are through the roof. He also raved about how wonderful it has been working with you and the other team members.” Marie was socially adept and had a good radar for troublemakers and “shoe sharks” (people who steal customers from other salespeople). But clearly Dave had convinced her that he was the whole package: good with customers, good with the sales team.
Over time, Dave came to be known as the “kiss up/kick down” shoe guy. His charming personality and quick wit made him an easy sell to the store managers, and his numbers were so strong there was no denying his talent. But he was competitive and Machiavellian, willing to do anything to get ahead. Dave was causing me emotional strife and costing me sales, and no one with power seemed to know it.
I had to do something.
WINNER TAKE ALL
Kiss up/kick down coworkers have a singular goal in mind: to climb to the top by any means necessary. To get there, they treat everyone who is at the same level or below them as competition. They reserve their good manners for the people in charge.
There’s a personality trait called social comparison orientation—it’s the degree to which we naturally compare ourselves with other people. We all have the trait, but some of us more than others. When I worked in retail, I compared my sales numbers with Dave’s. I’ve stalked the social media accounts of people from high school to see how much better off their lives are than mine. But I usually know when to quit; worrying about how much richer, hotter, and happier other people are is a dangerous game to play with oneself.
Kiss up/kick downers can’t turn off the switch; they obsessively compare themselves with everyone, especially similar people. If you have the same job title, pedigree, or, hell, even the same size office as a kiss up/kick downer, beware; they’re probably sizing you up regularly. Watch out for people who know just a little too much about you—down to the penny of your last raise, or how many more months (or days) they’ve been at the job than you. Social comparison sleuths like these use their knowledge to devise clever and devastating methods of competition. Some, like Dave, will question your expertise with your coworkers or raise small concerns with the boss.
This strategy, however, isn’t without risk. Imagine if Dave had insulted someone like my coworker JW—shoe salesperson extraordinaire with zero tolerance for below-the-belt tactics and a bit of an anger issue. Dave would have wound up shining shoes during peak sales hours instead of working the floor, watching his back when he walked to his car at night.
But he didn’t. And if your kiss up/kick downer knows what he’s doing, neither will he.
Dave, like many of his kind, had another skill at his disposal: he knew how to read a room. He could walk into a sales meeting of top executives and make a ton of observations—where people sat, who talked without being interrupted, who smiled at whom, and who shaped the direction of the conversation. This skill—which my colleagues Siyu Yu and Gavin Kilduff and I call status acuity—helps kiss up/kick downers figure out not only whom they should compare themselves with but whom they can safely criticize to those in power.
It turns out this skill is quantifiable. In a study, Siyu, Gavin, and I had people watch groups of strangers work together for about ninety seconds and then rank who they thought was the most respected by their group members and who was the least. When we compared these ratings with the actual group members’ ratings, we found something surprising. Not only were some people quite good at the task, but when we retested them a year or so later, their scores were virtually unchanged. In other words, status acuity is a skill that stays with us.
It didn’t take Dave long to rank order people at work, and it didn’t take long for him to figure out who the safe targets were. He knew immediately that JW was a threat, but he was smart enough not to sabotage him.
Sneaky behaviors to watch out for
They belittle you in front of the people you’re trying to impress. Kiss up/kick downers start out small, often with little comments meant to question your expertise. (“Do you really know how to impress that client? I thought you only had two months’ experience.”)
They reserve the nastiest behavior for one-on-one time. Expect small acts of sabotage, such as hidden shoes, that a kiss up/kick downer can plausibly deny. Condescending comments, inappropriate favor asking, and misdirection are also on the menu, anything to make you feel less at home at work.
They offer favors to overworked and overwhelmed bosses. If your boss needs a job done off-hours, someone to interview the new interns in their spare time, or someone to serve on that dreaded committee, expect your kiss up/kick downer to step up.
They approach high-power people outside of work. Exclusive company parties, workout classes, soccer games, and the grocery store are all fair game! Kiss up/kick downers are opportunists who think outside of the box. If there’s a chance to press the flesh outside the workplace, they’ll find it.
WHY DO THEY NEED TO KICK DOWN?
Kissing up and kicking down is a time-consuming and risky strategy, which begs the question, why do it in the first place?
For starters, competition at the top is stiff, and it’s going to only get worse over time. In a recent Mercer survey, 90 percent of C-suite execs said they expect talent competition to increase in the coming few years. For those who make it, the perks might be well worth the effort. According to economist Robert Frank, rewards for top jobs at companies such as Netflix and Goldman Sachs aren’t just massive, they are substantially greater than those at companies just one tier down. And in companies that thrive on a scarcity mind-set—only a handful of people will ever make it to the top—employees are often encouraged to fight among themselves to get ahead by any means necessary. The “do it whatever it takes” mantra is directly communicated to people, often by their bosses, who brag about those who got to where they are by exploiting naïve or “weak” people. But beyond being a means to an end, kissing up and kicking down serve a surprising purpose—it helps people like Dave reduce their stress at work.
People like Dave are attracted to competitive jungles—they like working in places where the CEO makes five hundred times as much as entry-level employees. They are high on what scientists call social dominance orientation. Believe it or not, some people, such as kiss up/kick downers, love hierarchies, even if they’re at the bottom. You would be hard-pressed to find a kiss up/kick downer who chose to work in a place that had a flat structure, where everyone makes about the same amount of money and has about the same amount of power. And in their competitive jungles, kiss up/kick downers like a challenge: they want to be the CEO who makes five hundred times as much as the new guy.
Unfortunately for a lot of us—including the Daves of the world—power is a precarious thing. In a lot of jobs (such as retail), transfers are common and often beyond our control. After the pandemic, offices closed left and right. Even if you’re able to work for the same company, there’s a good chance you will be transferred to another location. Dave was happy to transfer from the Houston store, where his bad reputation had caught up with him, but he still had to start all over, reasserting his power and relearning the status hierarchy.
Kiss up/kick downers quickly figure out that the best way to reduce their stress is to solidify their position of power early and hold on to it by any means necessary, even if that means destroying the people around them. For them, kissing up is a strategy that secures their power in an uncertain world and reduces the stress they feel about losing that power.
This is one case where the tactics people use to reduce stress at work cause collateral damage.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Competitive work environments are like sub-Saharan Africa. There are a lot of animals fighting for apex status, all of whom use different tactics to hunt their prey. Some hunt quietly, sneaking up on their victim when they least expect it. Others are powerful runners. Kiss up/kick downers are no different.
You need to learn their strengths and weaknesses.
THEY GRAB POWER EARLY
I remember the first time I witnessed someone quietly and effectively become the most powerful person in the room. It was during a job search, and the committee was sluggishly moving through the process. The first day of our meeting I walked into the room and saw a big stack of job candidate packets on a table, next to a half-eaten tray of cookies.
Only the cookies were getting attention.
After about five minutes of mindless chatter, my coworker Mark got antsy. “How about we start by ordering the candidate packets alphabetically. I will review A through D. Tessa, you can review E through I, and so on. Sound good?” In that moment, Mark became the leader. It was a seamless and uncontested assertion of power.
Years later, my colleagues Katherine Thorson, Oana Dumitru, and I designed a series of studies to formally test what I observed that day. We had groups of five strangers work together to choose a job candidate. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, we approached one group member before the session started and told her that if she could successfully persuade the group to pick a particular candidate (whom we chose at random), we would give her extra money. The catch was, she couldn’t tell anyone.
We know from the science of persuasion that argument quality matters. Kate, Oana, and I assumed this finding would bear out in our study too, but we were wrong. Instead, our results mirrored what I had observed in Mark a few years back. Successful persuaders were those who asserted themselves at the beginning of the interaction. The simple act of saying to the group, “Let’s start by going around and saying our names” was enough to get the job done. From then on, the group turned to this person for guidance.
There’s a phenomenon in education called the Matthew effect: if you learn something early in life like reading, it’s much easier to build on your skills and become good at that thing than if you try to learn it later in life. Power at work operates the same way. Gaining a little bit of power early is a much better strategy than gaining a lot of it late.
Kiss up/kick downers don’t want to fit themselves into the existing power structure; they want to help build it. Beware of coworkers who sneak their way into roles that on the surface don’t seem to come with much power. Even jobs such as group organizer can give a kiss up/kick downer that foothold they need to become power players down the road.
THEY FIND COMMONALITIES WITH PEOPLE IN POWER
When you work in sales, meetings often resemble cheerleading pep rallies (“We are in it to win it!” is thrown around without the least bit of irony). It’s just the nature of the business. Some people get really into it; I never did. At my shoe job we had a big pep rally once a year when everyone got together to hear about the latest products. Buyers, product reps, managers, and salespeople all attended.
For Dave, these meetings provided a critical opportunity to kiss up to powerful people he wouldn’t see again until the next pep rally.
One year I was late, so I hid behind a big holiday display so my boss wouldn’t see me. From my hiding spot I caught Dave chatting up a store manager, the two of them laughing their asses off like high schoolers planning a prank on the substitute. What could be so funny? To find out, I snuck over and eavesdropped. To my surprise, Dave and the manager were talking about how hilarious it was that they were wearing the same pair of designer jeans. What a coincidence!
Dave probably planned it.
We know that similarity breeds liking, but just how incidental can these similarities be to work? Dave managed to build rapport with someone over jeans. My collaborator Joe Magee and I found that people can also build rapport over similar answers to “Would You Rather” dilemmas. In a series of studies, we had people answer seven questions such as “Would you rather fly or be invisible?” and “Would you rather walk ten miles or run two?” Half of the people were told they had five out of seven answers in common with a future interaction partner, and half were told they had only two in common. (We lied about this part. Actual similarity doesn’t matter; people just need to believe they are similar.) Once they met, those in the five group had better rapport and worked better together as a team than those in the two group.
Gaining power isn’t always about kissing ass, it’s also about finding the one thing that will get people in power to warm up to you. Being too sycophantic can be irritating, but commonalities work on everyone.
BUT THEY CAN ALSO BE SHORTSIGHTED
Kiss up/kick down coworkers have a skill set that should not be underestimated. But sorting people into loser and winner groups ultimately amounts to thinking about people instrumentally—what can they do for you right now? This strategy might work in the short term, but status is not a stable thing. It can flux and flow as people move around and take on different roles at work.
Think about the modern workplace environment. Many companies now offer office rotation options where you work between offices. The National Football League’s Junior Rotational Program allows you to work in four different locations over a four-year period (New York, California, DC, and New Jersey). Programs such as these create contact between employees who traditionally would never interact. Gossip spreads quickly, and people who kick down risk serious damage to their reputation. Kiss up/kick down coworkers run a real risk by abusing people who they might one day need to rely on, or who could even become their boss.
WHERE DO THEY DO IT?
To be successful, kiss up/kick down coworkers need to divide and conquer. It’s bit like pulling off two relationships at the same time, where neither lover knows the other one exists. Preferably, your two lovers don’t have overlapping social circles. And if they do have a chance encounter, you’d better damn well have a plan.
Therefore, kiss up/kick downers spend a lot of time orchestrating that plan. To prepare for the possibility that someone will eventually complain about them, they work hard to forge connections with powerful people who can protect them.
ALONE WITH THE BOSS
Often when we think about jerks at work, we blame our bosses. Why haven’t they fired these people? Don’t they care about workplace morale? We assume a direction of causality from boss to employee. But it can certainly be the other way around. Bosses can be the victims of toxic protégés—employees who engage in exploitative, deceptive behavior. Protégés such as kiss up/kick downers use the help, knowledge, and social connections of their mentors to get ahead. They also seek out bosses whom they can easily exploit.
And what types of bosses are these?
Bosses who are disconnected from their team members (such as the neglectful boss in chapter 6) and those who are eager to hand off responsibilities to conscientious go-getters make great targets. Kiss up/kick downers can control the narrative of how they behave at work; absentee bosses rarely fact-check. They also create dependency by doing the one thing most of us avoid: more work.
I once met a kiss up/kick downer, Sarah, who was the master of free labor. Anytime a new project cropped up, she would track down her neglectful boss and volunteer for it. Sarah never actually had the time to do the work, so she strong-armed her subordinates into doing it for her on the weekends. When the inevitable happened and the subordinates complained, Sarah’s boss shrugged off the grumbling. Why should he care? Sarah made his life easier. With her boss on her side, Sarah slowly became a toxic protégé.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing how to delegate work properly is the marker of a good boss. The danger occurs when bosses delegate everything to kiss up/kick downers, including communication with their team. Once Sarah took on the role of press secretary, all bets were off; her boss no longer had a handle on how her behavior was affecting other people. Bosses should check in with all members of their teams—no matter how busy they are—to make sure conniving climbers don’t go undetected.
AT SOCCER MATCHES AND SPIN CLASSES—ANYWHERE THEY CAN CATCH YOU UNAWARES
I once knew a clever kiss up/kick downer, Stella, who joined a “Saturday Surf Time” interest group because it was organized by a leader she couldn’t get close to at work. Stella hated sand and slimy seaweed—she was a pool person, not a beach person. She also had very sensitive skin, and it wasn’t long before she developed surfer’s rash—gross red bumps you get from wearing a wet suit for too long. But Stella sucked it up, layered on the Vaseline, and went all-in on the surf club. Burning, itching skin was a small price to pay for a new connection.
Powerful people are busy and often difficult to reach. You could go your whole life working for a company and never meet the people at the top. Kiss up/kick downers find a workaround; they go outside the workplace to press the flesh.
Some connect with the powerful to make themselves known, others to control your reputation. And the smart ones know not to stalk their boss but someone at arm’s length, such as their boss’s boss or her best buddy from college, to damage you with higher-ups.
Basically, it’s easier to control someone else’s reputation at a distance. People two steps removed from you don’t know you very well and probably don’t have a strong opinion about you—good or bad—that your kiss up/kick downer would have to contend with. Two, if they screw up and gossip to someone who likes you, the damage can be controlled. The farther away people are from us at work, the less likely they are to care about our inappropriate workplace behavior. I get more upset when my direct reports do something unprofessional than my colleague’s direct reports; only mine can make me look bad. And if the juicy tidbits planted by the kiss up/kick downer are worth spreading, your boss will eventually get the message.
Indirect strategies are often the most effective ones in getting ahead at work.
* * *
Kiss up/kick downers are skilled jerks at work; they can read a room and they know how to get powerful people to like them. But by far their best skill is their ability to poison the well against you. Should you march into your boss’s office to complain, chances are you will be met with eye rolls and accusations of jealousy (I was, but more on that below). You need to think strategically to beat them at their own game.
Start with paying careful attention to the warning signs, such as chronic and inappropriate social comparisons. Next, you will need to enlist the help of your social network to collect evidence of mistreatment. Lastly, you will need to approach your boss carefully, keeping in mind that by this point, they probably have fondness for your enemy. As you move through the process, do not underestimate the amount of time and effort your kiss up/kick downer is putting into their strategy. The most talented among them have built a strong reputation with the powerful people you need to persuade. They will also come prepared with an enviable skill set.
GOAL 1: FIND A WELL-CONNECTED ALLY TO GIVE YOU PERSPECTIVE
The first time I was kicked down at work, I questioned my experience. “Am I being too sensitive? Is this just the way people compete here?” I didn’t know what stepping over the line looked like. Kiss up/kick downers take advantage of naïve people like me.
Allies give you a reality check. The best ones aren’t the people you go to for emotional support; they are the people who work at arm’s length from you. Your goal is to find someone who is connected broadly and widely within your social network; someone who knows a lot of people, even if just superficially, at many levels of the organization. Your ally can give you an accurate picture of how widespread your jerk-at-work problem is.
Now you might be thinking, “Only powerful people are well-connected at work.” Not so. In fact, the people who have the most network ties—connections to lots of people across the organization—often don’t hold positions of power at all. In terrorist organizations, these are the taxi drivers and the people who transport goods from one location to another.
In my retail job, my ally was Jamal. He worked in the department store coffee shop. Jamal knew everyone, from the top executives who stopped by once a year to the plainclothes police officers who monitored for shoplifters. And because people gossip over coffee, his mental map of people’s reputations rivaled that of the most talented kiss up/kick downers. I asked Jamal if he had heard anything about Dave, good or bad (don’t just seek out self-confirming evidence). It turns out that Dave was terrorizing a lot of people, not just me. My first goal was accomplished; I learned that the Dave problem was widespread.
GOAL 2: FIND OTHER TARGETS
The next step is to find other people who’ve also been targeted by your kiss up/kick downer. If you’re feeling a bit sheepish about this stage of the process, you’re not alone. People hate awkward social interactions; the potential to hear “no” might be enough to scare you away.
Keep a few things in mind when you approach people. One, your goal is not to convince them your kiss up/kick downer is a bad person; you aren’t here to smear Dave’s reputation. I like to open these conversations with something neutral: “Have you interacted much with Dave? How’s that been?” Once someone admits to also being targeted, feel free to share your experiences. Stick with the facts and avoid personal attacks; the key is that you don’t sacrifice professionalism during this conversation. If the person is comfortable opening up to you, ask if they are willing to speak to the boss with you or, if not, if they give you permission to mention their experience to the boss. Write down what they say and have them go over it with you.
Two, keep in mind that not everyone will be willing to step forward, even if they’ve had bad experiences. Some might be inadvertent enablers—they would rather turn a blind eye because they are overwhelmed, they worry about retaliation, or they aren’t motivated enough to care. Some might be allies with your kiss up/kick downer, willing to go along for the ride if it means they can gain some power too one day.
Three, there’s a chance your kiss up/kick downer will get wind of what you’re trying to do, so expect some counterattacks. Ask your ally for guidance on whom it would be best to approach. If you get enough hard data—actual evidence of mistreatment—then you should be in a strong position moving forward. The data you collect should be detailed and focused on the facts. Concentrate on what the kiss up/kick downer did, not on how you feel about what they did. The more detailed the better.
GOAL 3: BUFFER
You’ll need to create physical and psychological buffers between you and your kiss up/kick downer to help reduce stress throughout this process. Start by writing down how often and when you have face-to-face contact with this person. This might feel silly, but there’s a surprising number of daily interactions we have with people that we forget about (such as in the elevator, for instance). Are these interactions things you can plan for, such as a weekly meeting, or ones you can’t plan for, such as run-ins by the coffee machine? If you can plan for the interaction, ask allies to help you create physical distance. My research has found that simply sitting a few feet away from someone can reduce anxiety. If you must sit at a table with this person, sit on the same side, at least two people away. Reducing the likelihood of eye contact will make you feel more in control.
GOAL 4: APPROACH YOUR SUPERVISOR
The first time I got up the gumption to talk to Marie about Dave, it didn’t go over as planned. “Dave is disrespectful to others, he lies, and he blocks my sales,” I blurted out. The moment the words came out of my mouth I saw the warmth drain from Marie’s face.
“I was afraid this was happening,” she told me. “Dave said that you’ve been acting really competitive with him. He thinks you might feel threatened by his success. Look, Tessa, Dave really wants to get along with you. I know he brings talents to this team that quite frankly the rest of you don’t have, but I don’t have tolerance for petty jealousy right now. This isn’t high school.”
I walked away, my tail between my legs.
What I failed to appreciate is that by the time I felt justified in complaining, Marie and Dave had formed a bond. Dave made Marie’s life easier, her sales numbers stronger. The next time I talked to Marie, I took a different approach. As much as it pained me, I opened by acknowledging Dave’s strengths. Denying his talent only made me look resentful.
“I know things are going really great with Dave in the sales department,” I said. “No one can upsell a client quite like Dave. And the customers love him.”
She waited for the “but.”
“But I’m a little worried about our work environment,” I said, emphasizing the “our.” “And I don’t think it’s just me. A handful of people are having some issues with him. I’m a little worried that if things don’t improve, some of our top talent might leave.”
This was Marie’s biggest fear.
From there, I laid out a few examples of Dave’s behavior, emphasizing that she should talk to others to hear their perspectives. At this point she was relying on Dave for information about her team, and I didn’t want her to do the same with me.
I focused less on how people felt about Dave and more on his specific actions. Marie wasn’t thrilled to hear me criticize Dave, but she wasn’t totally resistant to it either, which was good enough for me.
When it comes to talking to your boss, reducing the perception that you’re vindictive or jealous will go a long way toward establishing your credibility. Bosses are more receptive if there’s a pattern of bad behavior than if there’s a conflict between two people.
GOAL 5: WAIT
Once I was done talking with Marie, I had to sit back and wait.
In my experience, waiting is the hardest part of the process. Recently, a dean at New York University (NYU) told me, “Just because you don’t see action happening doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t turning behind the scenes. Be patient. Power players often can’t disclose details. It violates privacy laws.” To this day I need to remind myself of this advice. Be patient and give your boss time before you prod them again.
A BOSS’S GUIDE TO PREVENTING KISS UP/KICK DOWN BEHAVIOR
As I gained power and status, I learned that competition is sometimes unavoidable, especially in jobs in which a very small minority will make it to the top. These environments are highly susceptible to kiss up/kick downers. As a boss, you should follow a few steps to make the ground less fertile for them to grow.
One, avoid giving leadership roles to people who haven’t earned the respect of their coworkers, particularly those who work at the same level or below them. Don’t trust your own instincts regarding who would be good for these jobs; ask around.
Two, put small safeguards in place that prevent kiss up/kick downers from taking advantage of new employees who don’t yet know the ropes. Dave routinely stole customers from new salespeople, so Marie started a rule that we would rotate customers. (I got one, then Dave, then the new guy, etc.) Fairness norms are a good way to block kick-down behavior.
Three, stay connected to all your team members; don’t rely on one or two people who work under you to communicate with everyone else on your behalf. Treating a kiss up/kick downer as your personal assistant is the biggest gift you can give them. Remember, kiss up/kick downers thrive when the people they kiss up to are cut off from those they kick down.
Before you go
Kiss up/kick down coworkers have a singular goal in mind: to climb to the top by any means necessary.
They come to the workplace with a set of skills, including the ability to read a room. Kiss up/kick downers can tell—simply by observing how people behave toward one another—who has status and who does not.
To form connections with powerful people, kiss up/kick downers will engage in all sorts of tactics, including finding small commonalities with them, to break the ice.
When it comes to gaining power at work, the early bird gets the worm. Kiss up/kick downers assert themselves before status hierarchies are established.
It’s not hard to find a kiss up/kick downer in action, if you know where to look. They will have more meetings with the boss and show up to more opportunistic events (such as interest groups) than everyone else.
To beat a kiss up/kick downer, follow a few steps. First, find allies who aren’t friends or confidants. Allies are well-connected people who will help give you a reality check.
Second, find others who’ve been targeted by your kiss up/kick downer. Be careful when you approach people; don’t assume they are on your side.
Third, create psychological and physical distance from your kiss up/kick downer. Even moving a few chairs over in a meeting can help reduce your stress.
Fourth, before you meet with your boss, collect detailed data on your experiences. Make your report about your kiss up/kick downer’s behaviors, not about your feelings.
Fifth, after you meet with your boss, be patient and wait. Real change takes time.
If you are the boss, create rules that give everyone an equal shot. These rules will reduce the likelihood that people will kiss up and kick down to get ahead.
The Credit Stealer
Sandra knew that working in real estate wasn’t for the faint of heart. The last person she knew who tried it and failed was Kara, her college roommate. Charismatic and polished, Kara had the trappings of a successful broker. But she was sensitive—quick to cry if someone was rude to her or gossiped about her behind her back. Real estate ate her alive. Now she was fostering rescue puppies for a living.
Sandra, on the other hand, was as gritty as they come. She had an MBA from an Ivy League school and survived ten years working in finance. “If I can handle finance bros, I can handle anything,” she reasoned to herself. She breezed through the real estate license exam and got a job working under the tutelage of Jose, the best broker in Southern California.
Jose was slick.
He dressed like a Bel Air plastic surgeon—bespoke three-piece suits, Italian loafers, expensive smile. At six foot three with caramel skin and a muscular build, everyone thought he was a model. And he was, six years ago.
When the two first met, Jose was giddy with excitement. “An Ivy Leaguer has come to real estate? We are going to kill it together!”
And they did. Within the first six months, Jose helped Sandra sell five homes over the $5 million mark—unheard-of for a first-time broker. He also got her on the radar of the top foreign investors. Sandra was catching up to Jose quickly. It made him nervous.
The theft started out slowly—an idea here, a listing there. First, Jose stole Sandra’s idea to stage a beach house in all-white furniture. “I know it sounds tacky, but everyone else is using the same nouveau riche look,” Sandra mentioned over brunch. Jose waved away the idea, but a few days later, he rented all the high-end white furniture within a thirty-mile radius for his own showing. She was left with nothing but plastic lawn chairs.
Next, he “borrowed” Sandra’s negotiation tactics—which she honestly was okay with—until he used them on her clients. “I figured you wouldn’t mind if I handled the Thomases this time around, you seemed swamped,” he told her. Sandra stiffened. The Thomases were notoriously finicky buyers, and it had taken her a year to get them to trust her.
From Sandra’s perspective, the worst part about the theft was that there was always enough ambiguity for Jose to deny it. “You didn’t invent the concept of all white,” Jose barked. “And the Thomases were my clients long before you came along. You don’t own people in real estate.”
Sandra felt bested and humiliated: she couldn’t leave the brokerage and step out on her own; she certainly wasn’t ready to move to a new city and build her client base up from scratch; and if she worked for a competitor, Jose would surely retaliate.
Her only choice, it seemed, was to continue to let Jose suck the blood out of her, like a vampire bat snacking on livestock; not enough blood was drawn to kill her, but it was certainly enough to weaken her. Those rescue puppies were sounding better and better.
WOLVES IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
Credit stealing is one of the most common causes of conflict at work. Yet, despite our wealth of experience being theft victims, we are surprisingly inept at recognizing the warning signs.
Why? Because we’re looking for them in all the wrong places. Most of us worry about theft coming from the outside. About 50 percent of companies have employees sign noncompete contracts to prevent them from sharing company secrets when they quit. But the reality is, employees are more likely to steal from companies they still work for. A surprising 25 percent of people have committed expense fraud at work, like claiming that a travel dinner cost a hundred bucks when it cost only fifty. About half of people have had an idea stolen at work by someone trying to look good.
Credit stealing is an intimate form of workplace theft—it is not done by strangers but by our teammates, mentees, and ostensible friends. Credit stealers are the people who encourage you come to them when you have a half-baked idea that needs working through, the kiss up/kick downer who feigns interest in helping you thrive, or the mentor who becomes jealous of your success. Because we know and trust them, credit stealers are able to exploit our vulnerability and use it to their advantage.
The theft usually starts out small, like an idea to use all-white furniture. Smart credit stealers test the waters first to see how much theft they can get away with. Vulnerable victims, such as Sandra, have little choice but to continue working with credit stealers. And the more respect they’ve earned among their senior coworkers, the more likely they are to get away with it. Well-connected ones such as Jose work their way up to stealing big ideas and breakthroughs with almost no concerns about being called out. They masterfully cover their tracks, leaving enough wiggle room to deny it later. And in the end, accusations of credit stealing are often met with eye rolls and refusals to take sides.
Sneaky behaviors to watch out for
Credit stealers are opportunists. If you’re working on a team, they wait for moments of ambiguity to take credit for your ideas or work. Think group meetings, company lunches, and informal feedback sessions—all places where no one is keeping track of who did what.
You will know your credit stealer, and well. Credit stealers are mentees, allies, and so-called friends. New bosses who feel threatened by your success and competitive team members are likely candidates. Credit stealing is also a favored strategy of the kiss up/kick downer.
Credit stealers take advantage of vulnerable bosses. Bosses who make more money, land more clients, or gain power when their team members successfully steal credit make great targets.
Not all credit stealing is intentional. Credit stealers can be regular folks—such as you and me—who have biases that make them overestimate their role in decision-making. What feels toxic to us feels justified to them.
Knowing what to do about credit stealing depends on where it’s happening—is it during a group meeting where ideas are “in the air,” or one-on-one, as with Sandra and Jose? The first half of this chapter is dedicated to showing you how to combat intentional credit stealing in intimate workplace settings, such as between mentors and mentees or between two peers. Looking out for red flags is important, but so too is making sure that the right people support you when you make contributions, so that when you speak up other people listen.
The second half of this chapter will show you how to navigate credit stealing in teams, where the solutions involve changing the process by which teams operate before the work starts. By the end of this chapter, you’ll be able to confront a credit stealer and learn how to prevent credit stealing from happening again.
WHEN CREDIT STEALING IS UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Often at work, there is no ambiguity around who did the work or who came up with the idea. You did, and you should get credit for it. Worried about intentional credit stealing? Here are the most common culprits.
FOES DISGUISED AS FRIENDS
In the natural world, lots of animals have figured out that would-be friends make the best theft targets. There are probably millions of years of evolution behind this strategy.
Take, for example, the male scorpionfly. To get a female to mate with him, he needs to bring her a dead bug as a postcoital snack. But juicy bugs are hard to find, and the smart flies steal theirs from unsuspecting males by pretending to be females. The strategy works. Male flies that pirate their prey have a lot more sex partners, and make a lot more babies, than those that don’t.
Smart credit stealers aren’t that far removed from male scorpionflies: they steal from unsuspecting coworkers who are close to them. And the smart ones never get caught.
Sandra, the ill-fated real estate broker, serves as a cautionary example.
After a few years working with Jose, Sandra finally had enough. Jose had reclaimed the Thomas family and closed on the biggest sale of the year: a cliffside mansion overlooking the bluffs of Malibu. To celebrate, he rented a yacht and invited all the top brokers for an upscale booze cruise.
Champagne in hand, Jose launched into a self-congratulatory speech. But just when Sandra was ready to chuck his well-defined body into the Pacific, he thew her a curveball: he gave her credit for something she didn’t really do.
“If it wasn’t for Sandra, I never would have closed this deal,” he told the crowd. “She’s the glue that held it all together.” Sandra had nothing to do with the sale—she had been off feeling sorry for herself in Barbados when the whole thing went down. Why would Jose do this?
Lest you think your credit stealer is a one-trick pony, think again. Clever credit stealers don’t always overclaim credit—sometimes they underclaim it. Why?
According to UC Berkeley’s Daniel Stein, people adjust their credit claims to meet different impression-management goals. They overclaim contributions to appear competent and to attract others to work with them, and they underclaim them to appear humble. For people like Jose, who play dirty in their own backyard, this strategy can prevent them from getting caught. Just when Sandra was ready to call him out, Jose did something that would have made her look unhinged and ungrateful—gave her very public credit for something she didn’t do.
Most credit stealers who underclaim credit do so in group settings: during thank-you speeches, feedback sessions with leaders, and onboarding sessions. They like to create the impression that they are team players. Like the kiss up/kick downer, the stealing goes on behind closed doors, when no one else is watching.
THE BOSS WHO GETS A KICKBACK
Part of the responsibility of a boss is to stop credit stealing from happening, right? I like to think so. Before I started writing this book, I struggled to understand why any boss would enable it. Sure, some bosses are intimidated by credit stealers, so they don’t intervene, but eventually the chickens will come home to roost. You can’t let that shit go on forever.
Then I learned of a special category of bosses—those who don’t just allow credit stealing to go unchecked, they help make it happen.
Consider the case of Kiddy, an interior designer with weak talent but strong connections to the art world.
Kiddy’s boss, Tal, ran a boutique firm that catered to the ultrawealthy. He was eager to use Kiddy’s connections, so he hired her, then showered her with praise for things she didn’t do to keep her happy.
Tal was working hard to impress a client at an art exhibit. “It was Kiddy’s idea to use gold filigree wallpaper in the master bath. A genius move, if you ask me,” he told them. Kiddy blushed. “I really felt myself growing in that moment, using color and texture in new and unexpected ways,” she said.
Kiddy didn’t come up with the wallpaper idea—a newcomer named June did—but why correct Tal? The accolades felt good. Over time, Kiddy and Tal got into a nice little routine. Her team would come up ideas, she would get credit for them, and in return, Tal used Kiddy’s connections to secure art for his clients. They were the shark and remora of the design world.
Then one day, a very fussy client arrived.
Marc learned of Kiddy’s reputation through some art friends, and he was eager to see what she could do to spice up his country property. Marc was a private man, and he hated the thought of the design team crawling about his space like busy little ants. So only Kiddy was given the keys. He also hated the sound of multiple voices on a call, so only Kiddy was allowed to phone him. At the one-month mark, Kiddy had purchased two sculptures by an up-and-coming artist for the loft space, and that was it.
She hadn’t so much as picked a paint color for the garage.
Realizing that rumors of Kiddy’s talent had been greatly exaggerated, Marc was furious. Kiddy got fired, and Tal’s reputation was in tatters.
Sometimes, the person who suffers the most from credit stealing isn’t the victim—it’s the kickback boss who has something to gain from it. If you work for a boss like Tal and there’s a Kiddy on your team, get off the team as quickly as you can. Unless you have very strong connections with people who can overrule your boss, you probably will never get credit for your ideas. Yes, your boss knows what you contributed, but that’s irrelevant; they have their own selfish reasons for enabling credit stealing. And when credit stealing is endorsed by the boss, it spreads like wildfire. Bad behavior at work is contagious.
CULTIVATE YOUR VOICE
At some point, you will likely be targeted by a credit stealer. This is especially true if you work in a competitive organization where your worth is judged by what you produce. Like other jerks at work, intentional credit stealers build up to the egregious stuff. Some slowly eat away at zero-sum resources, such as client lists. Others “borrow” ideas they initially feigned interest in. And when they interact with powerful people, they pretend to be generous credit sharers.
It’s important to look out for red flags and early warning signs, but if you want to get credit for your contributions at work, the single most important thing you can do is have more “voice” than your credit stealer. I mean this literally and figuratively. Your credit stealer probably talks louder than you, but they might also have status and power, which means that when they speak, people listen.
Voice is a combination of a few things. It means that when you speak up, other people stop speaking and turn their attention to you. It also means that after you say something important, people attribute your idea to you, and no one else, long after you’ve said it.
The trick to creating a voice for yourself is to become respected by your coworkers and your boss before you walk into the room; it is tough to gain voice in a meeting without doing some behind-the-scenes work first. People whose bosses and coworkers grant them voice rise up the ladder quickly. They don’t waste time battling credit stealers because they don’t have to.
I knew a boss, Blaine, who was going through a bad divorce. Every Monday for about three months Blaine met with his lawyers for two hours in the morning. He was always in a bad mood afterward.
Blaine was notoriously tough to pin down, so new employees were pleasantly surprised when they learned of two magically free hours in his schedule every Monday from eleven a.m. to one p.m. Those who were lucky enough to know his favorite team member, Kai, knew not to snag the Monday window. “Never meet with Blaine after those lawyer meetings. Hold off for another day of the week—even if that means having to wait an extra ten days,” Kai told them.
Kai was well-connected at work and full of little nuggets of advice. She could tell you which senior leaders Blaine respected the most (and which he respected the least), who in the office could charm the most difficult clients, and which holiday parties were best to avoid.
Blaine was a busy man—he didn’t have time to go door-to-door asking different people for advice about different things. Instead, he relied on a handful of people to keep him in the loop, and he granted them voice. Kai was one of them.
And once she was granted voice, she was recognized for her ideas and hard work. Credit stealers didn’t dare try stealing from Kai; they knew Blaine would immediately shoot them down.
How did Kai get there?
In the largest study of voice recognition to date, Taeya Howell and her colleagues studied more than one thousand employees to ask the question, What does it take to have voice at work? The best predictor of having voice was being known as an advice tie—someone others go to for advice on how to get ahead.
The best way to become an advice tie is to learn from other advice ties. From the moment she was hired, Kai went out of her way to find out who the people were in the organization who knew how to get things done. The first week on the job, she had coffee with several people ranging from office staff to long-standing employees, all of whom could tell her different things about her work environment. One person knew when the president of the company came to the office (“Don’t ask for anything that week”), another knew whom Blaine turned to for advice and whom he had an ongoing conflict with. By connecting with different types of employees, Kai was able to develop a broad social network.
Next, Kai observed how Blaine and other senior leaders behaved in meetings when other people shared their ideas. Who was listened to and who was ignored? Was Blaine receptive to people who cut others off, or annoyed by them? Learning what works and what doesn’t—which varies a bit from person to person—is an important skill to acquire.
Once Kai started to develop a wealth of knowledge of how to successfully navigate the workplace, she was generous with offering advice to others. To become an advice tie yourself, it’s important not only to have useful information, but also to be willing to share with it others. Hoarding it all to yourself won’t do you much good.
As Kai learned, advice ties at work aren’t necessarily the most accomplished or powerful people. They may already be in our social groups—we recognize them from a party, or we were on a team with them before. I recommend building a network of advice ties who have different types of insider knowledge (you don’t want a group of ten people who all know your boss’s dirty little secrets but not much else). Good advice ties can tell you when to ask for a meeting with the boss (“He’s most responsive to requests that are two weeks out” or “It’s either going to happen in forty-eight hours or never, so clear your schedule”), when to approach people and when to avoid them, and who has conflict with whom. I also love an advice tie who has a good sense of my boss’s calendar—when are they too overwhelmed to help (such as the end of the fiscal year), when do they go on vacation, and what days of the week are they most able to squeeze me in.
In chapter 1, I talk about how to find well-connected allies—people who have a lot of relationships with other people in your social network and many weak ties (people they don’t know well but who might be able to help you). These same people can also help you find advice ties. Many of them make great advice ties themselves.
DON’T CONFUSE ADVICE TIES WITH FRIENDSHIP TIES
One strategy you might be tempted to use to gain more advice ties is to ramp up your prosocial behavior. Perhaps you offer to go on coffee runs for busy people or throw your coworker Talia her baby shower. A little prosociality is a good thing, but too much of it can take away from your productivity at work. You won’t be known as the person who knows how to get things done, you will be known as the person who is willing to take on jobs no one else is volunteering for.
Having a lot of friendship ties will not grant you voice at work. In fact, friendship ties can backfire. Taeya Howell found that the more friendship ties people had, the less voice recognition they got at work—especially if they were chatterboxes. Bosses don’t love it when people spend time at work gossiping or making weekend plans—it distracts from getting real work done.
The solution, I should hope, isn’t to stop socializing at work. Instead, try to keep the non-work-related chatter outside the office. You can have lots of advice ties and friendship ties, but the key is knowing when it’s appropriate to use them.
CONTRIBUTE SOLUTIONS, NOT PROBLEMS
When people speak up in a meeting with the boss or during a group discussion, they usually make one of two types of contributions: they bring up problems or they bring up solutions.
Both seem relevant to gaining power and status with your peers, but it turns out that being focused on solutions works better. People prefer to listen to ideas of how the group can get ahead, not to what is holding them back. Once your peers give you status, then they start going to you for advice. Eventually your boss will get wind of your reputation and grant you voice.
RECOGNIZE THE UNSUNG HEROES, AND ECHO OTHERS WHO CONTRIBUTE
At work, you might witness others on your team get shortchanged in the credit-receiving department. Be an ally and give credit to people who aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. Also, think creatively about what it takes to see a project to fruition and make sure all members of the team, not just the ones who take center stage, get credit. Making sure the right people are heard is just as important in combating credit stealing at work as weeding out individual credit stealers.
CONFRONTING THE CREDIT STEALER
I once gave a talk on a panel with two other people on how to make people feel comfortable speaking up at work. Every time I made a comment, one of the other panelists would basically say what I said, about thirty seconds later, acting as if my thoughts were his.
It became comical.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to confront him myself; someone in the audience did.
“Can you please stop repeating everything Tessa says, a few seconds after she says it? We don’t need to hear her perspective twice.”
Everyone sat in silence, unsure of what to do.
I broke the silence with a loud, awkward laugh that I put so much of my body into, my mic disconnected from its battery pack. In attempting to reconnect the two, I nearly fell out of my chair. My shoe fell off.
Confronting credit stealers is awkward business.
There is so much that could go wrong. But the key is to avoid being overly inflammatory—at least at first—so that you can move past this moment instead of letting it define your relationship with your jerk at work.
I like to plan my confrontations carefully and give myself control over the timing of their delivery (it was not fun for me, or my credit stealer, to have him called out in public). And like a lot of advice I give in this book, my plan starts by taking the perspective of my credit stealer when sharing mine.
STEP 1: SHARE YOUR PERSPECTIVE
Not all credit stealers are intentionally trying to sabotage you. Most probably think they deserve at least some ownership over the idea or the work. Instead of accusing your credit stealer of stealing—which will immediately make them defensive—share your perspective on what happened (and yes, use that word). You might say something like, “I noticed that in that meeting, the two of us were sharing pretty similar ideas. What’s your perspective? Did you feel that way too? I felt like I usually contributed thoughts first, but what was your take on what happened?” This conversation might feel like that argument you had with your spouse or roommate over who did more of the housework during the pandemic. You both felt like you did 100 percent of it. Things are no different in the workplace.
STEP 2: IDENTIFY WHAT EACH PERSON ACCOMPLISHED
Next, lay out what you think you each contributed. If the issue comes down to who did more work, be mindful of the amount of invisible labor that you each did. At home, invisible labor includes things such as taking out the trash, folding the laundry, and scheduling kids’ doctor’s appointments. At work, it includes cleaning up documents, checking and double-checking work for errors—boring but necessary tasks. Conscientious people do these things routinely, without being asked. Your credit stealer might be unaware of just how much invisible labor you’ve taken on recently (and vice versa).
If you think there’s a mismatch in the amount of invisible labor you and your credit stealer have done, start with the following: “Lately I feel like I’ve done a lot of work. I did x, y, and z. Do you feel this way too? I think we should have a chat about all of the work we’ve been doing independently because there are probably tasks we are both doing that the other one isn’t aware of.”
The goal of these first two steps is to create a shared reality with your credit stealer. The next step is to think about what the two of you can do to prevent this from happening in the future. I’m often surprised at how reasonable jerks at work can be when they aren’t personally involved in something. By taking yourselves out of the equation, you can work with your jerk at work instead of against them. In the following section, I cover some basic steps that should get you started.
Occasionally, you will encounter a credit stealer who, like Jose, is not motivated to find a solution to their credit-stealing problem. Unless there’s a boss monitoring your credit stealer’s every move (which there probably is not), I would distance yourself from this person at work. Avoid being on teams with them; don’t accept their offer to “look over” your ongoing projects. Don’t share advice.
If you need to explain to this person why you’ve distanced yourself, go with the “trust has eroded between us” approach. Avoid angry outbursts. Once you’ve made up your mind that you no longer want to work with this person, try not to get into a heated back-and-forth. Those conversations rarely do much other than raise your blood pressure.
HOW TO GIVE CREDIT FAIRLY IN GROUPS
So far, you’ve seen how credit stealers violate your trust in order to claim ownership over your hard-earned accomplishments; you’ve also learned how to combat them. But ensuring that credit is given when credit is due looks a little different when you’re working in groups. Instead of a credit stealer trying to exploit your vulnerability, improper credit granting is often caused by a lack of clarity in group decision-making. In some cases, it’s almost impossible to figure out where one person’s contribution ends and another’s begins. We also have some basic biases in human judgment that make us think our work is more visible than it is.
Before I go into how to prevent credit stealing in groups, let’s look at where it is most likely to occur.
IN TEAMS FULL OF LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE
Diversity of thought, experience, and background in teams is important. Diverse teams come up with more creative and feasible ideas than teams made up of similar people. They are also less prone to mistakes. But there’s another perk to diversity that people often overlook.
Because diversity of background breeds diversity of thought, people on diverse teams are less likely to come up with the exact same ideas.
I’ve been on a lot of teams made up of like-minded people. The first time I had an idea “stolen” while on one of these teams was early on in my graduate career. I told my friends about a new research idea at drinks on a Wednesday, and by Friday, my teammate Jessica had already stolen it. Jessica wasn’t even at drinks! I figured someone sold me out.
Jessica’s betrayal was made clear about halfway through her practice presentation, when on slide 15 she laid out, in perfect detail, my study idea as her future direction. At the end of her presentation, she got a lot of constructive feedback from the rest of the team but not from me. My comments were thinly veiled accusations of idea theft, delivered in my mean-girl voice for maximum effect.
My advisor was not impressed with my behavior.
He called me into his office and there sat Jessica, arms crossed, refusing to make eye contact with me. Jessica claimed there was no theft—the research idea was clearly hers. Our boss told us to grow up and that the idea we both claimed ownership over was “the obvious next step. And not a very good one, at that.”
Jessica and I had almost identical backgrounds. We’d both had the same research training, same skill set, same way of thinking. We had been reading the same papers and had an almost identical knowledge base. We had taken the same classes, and we had learned the same methods for conducting psychology studies. It’s no wonder we both landed on the same idea within a seventy-two-hour window.
How can you avoid embarrassing yourself like I did? Changing the dynamic of my team wasn’t an option, so to avoid this problem in the future, I learned to set myself apart. I developed skills no one else had and formed relationships with people outside my training background. Over time, my ideas got less incremental and more interesting and, most important, they never got “stolen” by a Jessica again.
And as I moved through my career, I reminded myself that when people work in the same space, they often come up with similar ideas. Recently I learned of a situation in academia where two sets of authors submitted the exact same analysis of the exact same data to the same journal, within days of each other. Crazy, right? I thought so.
The journal’s solution to the problem was simple: have the authors from both projects come together to create a single project—one that captured all their expertise—and make sure everyone was given the credit they deserved. The authors could have accused one another of credit stealing but they didn’t. It behooved them to find a way to work together, otherwise neither of them would get to publish the work.
IN GENERATIVE TEAMS WHERE IDEAS ARE “IN THE AIR”
Most people think that the best way to brainstorm as a team is to throw ideas into the air. One person comes up with an idea, the team tosses it around like a Frisbee on a nice summer day, and if it’s good, they build on it. At the end of the day, the team creates something innovative and awesome.
Everyone wins, right?
Wrong. People get miffed when they don’t get credit for their own contributions on teams like these, no matter how great the team’s outcomes are.
Here’s an example.
Imagine working on a team that designs dental chairs for patients who are afraid to go to the dentist (yes, this is a thing). It’s forty-five minutes into the meeting and you’ve shared ten good ideas. No one’s ideas are as good as yours. You know this because the head nods, smiles, and thumbs-ups keep coming.
At the five-minute wrap-up, your boss, Jason, says, “Thanks everyone for your awesome work! This was a real team effort.”
What the hell, Jason? Why didn’t you recognize my contributions?
Jason wasn’t trying to ignore you—he was just not paying as much attention to you as you thought (or hoped) he was. You experienced the spotlight effect—a common bias that leads people to overestimate how much other people are paying attention to them. Have you ever fallen on your face on the street and remained embarrassed for a solid ten minutes afterward, even though no one who saw you fall was still around?
That’s the spotlight effect.
When it comes to working on teams, we spend most of our time living in our own heads—we know when we say something smart, who defers to our expertise, and who ignores us—but we rarely grant this level of attention to other people.
In the same way, don’t expect people to pay as much attention to you as you pay to yourself during teamwork. Like you, they are mostly focused on themselves. And when we are focused on ourselves, we aren’t keeping tabs on other people’s contributions.
The best way to prevent the spotlight effect from creeping its way into group work is to have one person keep a list of what ideas were generated and who came up with them as you go. Rotate the role of note taker so that everyone gets experience breaking this bias.
I like to start by creating a simple table that I share with everyone. One column says “Idea” and the other says “Whose was it?” At the end of a meeting, I have everyone spend a few minutes filling out each column. If there are disagreements, we handle them right away, before memories have faded.
IN TEAMS WHERE MOST OF THE WORK IS DONE IN PRIVATE
For the past ten years, I’ve taught a course at NYU where students work in teams of four to create a single project. Everyone on the team gets the same grade.
Students hate this course. Mostly they complain about slackers.
So I came up with an idea. To make things feel fair, I started asking people to rate how much credit they should get for the final project, ranging from 0 percent (I freeloaded) to 100 percent (I did everything). I promised to incorporate these ratings into their final grades.
My strategy failed. Most people claimed to have done 80 percent of the work. No one reported doing less than 30 percent of the work, which is still 5 percentage points more than if each member contributed equally.
What is wrong with my students? Clearly, they overclaimed credit. But I don’t think they’re alone; most of us overestimate our causal roles. And when the work of others is hidden from view, we naturally assume we did more than everyone else.
Like a lot of work in teams, the majority of my students’ work was done in private. Sure, they met once a week to go over what was finished and what still needed to be done, but most of their hours were spent alone at their computers in their dorm rooms. And like invisible labor, it’s tough to know how much credit people should get for work that no one else sees them do.
To prevent this problem from happening, have people record how much time they spend on each task they do privately. Not only will this simple step clear up uncertainties around who should get credit, but it will also uncover hidden roadblocks and bottlenecks that interfere with group progress. Sometimes a task is assigned to the wrong person; learning that Jack took three hours to do something that Josey could do in one will help the group become more efficient in the future.
HOW TO PREVENT CREDIT STEALING IN GROUPS
The biggest issue with giving individuals credit for teamwork is that you can rarely sort contributions into neat little “who did what” piles. But there are some steps you can take to add clarity to your team’s process. The goal here is that at the end of the day, no one should leave the group feeling bitter and resentful that they weren’t given the credit they deserve.
DECIDE WHAT EACH PERSON WILL DO BEFOREHAND
Before you start a group task, come up with a to-do list for each group member. The list should distribute the work evenly (if that’s what you’re going for), and everyone needs to agree on the list before you start. When the work is done, don’t make my mistake and ask people to report how much they contributed to the final product. Instead, have each person rate themselves, and one another, on whether they did the work they agreed to do.
Credit is determined by the discrepancy between the two: what did you agree to do, and what did you actually do? If people know these questions are coming, not only will they be less likely to steal credit but they also will be less likely to slack off. You’ll kill two birds with one stone.
TIE CREDIT TO WORK PUT IN, NOT SUCCESS OF THE OUTCOME
Most of us dole out credit after we see how successful a team product is. In most jobs, it’s not wise to completely eliminate the relationship between quality of work and quality of reward. But when the only way to get rewarded is to work on the team that outperforms all other teams, you wind up with a hearty combination of credit overclaimers and bulldozers (more on that in chapter 3) who will do anything to ensure that their ideas are the ones that rise to the top.
Tie credit to the amount of work people put in, not just the success of the team’s outcome.
I tried this strategy on a team comprised of high-achieving experts, all of whom expected to have a champagne fountain erected in their honor every time they said something mildly impactful. The desire to have “the chosen idea” impaired the group’s performance. People spent more time jockeying for status than getting anything done. I switched things up and told them I didn’t care whose idea they ultimately went with—I cared about how much work everyone did. It was a good lesson in humility. People had to put their noses to the grindstone if they wanted that end-of-quarter bonus.
ASK FOR REGULAR FEEDBACK
Nothing can kill team morale quicker than a boss who looks away from credit stealing. People need to feel like things are fair if they are going to stay motivated and engaged at work. And sometimes team members don’t want to tell on one another for credit stealing, especially in teams with good chemistry.
I’ve come across a lot of these people, whom I refer to as “hesitant complainers.” They love the generative energy of their teams, and they recognize how important it is for people to speak up and share their ideas. But after a big win, they feel slightly miffed. As one hesitant complainer, Jake, put it, “The last thing I want is for people to shoot down my ideas or steal them; I know how good I have it. But come on, everyone knows I did almost all the work here.” I told Jake that when I spoke to his team members, they too each claimed to have done “almost all the work.”
You might worry that if you raise this concern, you’ll sound petty. And if you start and end with the complaint, you might. Instead, suggest to your boss that you have regular feedback sessions that will identify these problems early on.
If left untreated, complaints will fester into resentment, and before you know it, the positive energy of the team is gone. A few short meetings where group members can express concerns can make a world of difference.
EVEN THE MOST EXPERIENCED CREDIT GRANTERS MAKE MISTAKES
The science of granting credit to the right people is an imperfect one. Take, for example, the case of Frederick Banting and John Macleod, the two scientists who won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of insulin.
Frederick Banting, a young orthopedic surgeon, approached John Macleod, the head of physiology at the University of Toronto, to ask for lab space to test out his hypotheses about how to extract insulin. Macleod, who was a big deal at the time, was not initially impressed with Banting’s ideas; he found Banting ill prepared and unsophisticated in his thinking. But over time, Banting persuaded Macleod to help him out. Macleod gave him laboratory space, access to dogs (whose pancreases were used for the insulin experiments), and an introduction to Charles Herbert Best, an honors student at the university.
Macleod took off for the summer while Best helped Banting run several laboratory studies, periodically checking in on their progress. These studies set the stage for the eventual discovery of insulin treatment for humans with diabetes.
When Macleod returned in September, he was shocked at how much progress they’d made. He questioned the accuracy of their data. There was bitter fighting that lasted for years. Much work was done to refine the discoveries—largely by Banting and Best—but with important insights from Macleod.
Eventually, word got out about the work on insulin going on at the University of Toronto, and in November of 1922, August Krogh, a professor at the University of Copenhagen who had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1920, visited the university to see what the excitement was about. Krogh’s wife had diabetes, so he was motivated to learn more. Macleod hosted Krogh for two days, had him tour the lab, give a guest lecture, and even stay at his house. He also (reportedly) spent a lot of time convincing Krogh of his influence over Banting’s work. Krogh left with permission to introduce insulin to Scandinavia. Shortly thereafter, he nominated Banting and Macleod for the Nobel Prize. They won.
When the Nobel Prize was announced, Banting was immediately pissed off. According to Banting’s recall of events, Macleod’s role was negligible. It was Best who deserved to share the award with him. Not one to hold back his feelings, Banting pointedly did not acknowledge Macleod during his victory-lap speeches. Banting had to be talked into accepting the award (largely by Canada, which was super proud of their first Nobel laureate). Macleod, who was famous for his refined tactics and ability to speak eloquently to the press, told people that it was “teamwork that did it.”
Maybe Banting’s response was justified. Decades later, Karolinska Institute endocrinologist and chairman of the Nobel selection committee Rolf Luft made a confession: the worst error the Nobel committee made was the 1923 award to Banting and Macleod for the discovery of insulin. The award should have gone to Banting and Best.
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