In opening my browser today I came across an infographic from Hubspot called, “Is Your Coworker Actually An A-hole?” Surprisingly, the flowchart, and the article it came wrapped in, threw me back to an era of Monday morning jitters I had not felt in a long time.

As a freelance worker for the last seven years, I can plan my week any way I want. Monday mornings typically find me bouncing out of bed, excited to dive into work and see what the week will bring.

Life was not always so grand. I still remember well the pit in my stomach on the Monday morning commute, knowing I would have to face a supervisor that made it her job to be mad at the world, or a coworker who was simply mean or overbearing.

The funny thing about jerks is, they often complain the loudest about others, using the same profane labels we do for the people they detest. So, who is the true a-hole? Is it the person treating you like crap, or should you take a closer look in the mirror?

What is an a-hole anyway?

(Just like writer Erik Devaney, I prefer the less obtrusive abbreviation of asshole, but maybe you noticed that already.)

Both men and women, despite what they say, take things personally. It’s more dependent on personality traits, whether someone can easily shake off an unfortunate interaction, or hold a grudge. To get a clear picture of the anatomy of an a-hole is, take a look at Hubspot’s infographic below:

This is a pretty cool flowchart – not because we are giving a-holes free rent in our brain, but because the illustration shows that we are not alone, that we do not need to take toxic people personally. If there’s one big takeaway from this whole conversation, it’s to let go of your own personal reactions to these encounters.

As my Danish friend Susanne says, “Pour ice water into your veins and look at the situation again with an objective view.”

The post where the flowchart above came from included seven tips on how to survive workplace assholes, published a few years back in Psychology Today. I’ve whittled those tips down to five, because two pieces of advice waved red flags for me.

Number six in the list suggested recruiting fellow victims and witnesses. This kind of behavior can be a slippery slope. Your job is to fulfill your part of the team work, and find solutions to the problems that may come across your desk. You are not getting paid to gossip and form armies that cause divisiveness in the workplace, no matter what your opinion of another is.

The other piece of advice I do not agree with is taking legal action. Okay, if you have the time, money and energy for that kind of battle, go for it. But if the only offense against you has been a few bad insults, you may want to rethink your own anger issues.

It’s not that I condone bullying of any form. My research has uncovered statistics that almost half the population, in all cultures, has been bullied by others, or acts like bullies. Let’s save that discussion for another post.

Back in the days when I worked for a telemarketing firm, my boss was a disgusting cad. He never failed to make a sexist remark when I approached his desk for a signature on a work form. He reminded me of Pizza The Hut from Spaceballs:

One day, after rolling my eyes and saying, “Okay you had your fun. Can I finally get your signature on this form now?” he looked at me very seriously and said, “I just want to say how grateful I am that you put up with my bad humor.” His eyes started to fill up, much to my shock. “I found out that a group of women here have filed a sexual harassment suit against me. Look at me! I’m just a fat, uneducated guy who doesn’t know any better. Seriously, thank you.”

Wow. from that point on, everything changed. I was no longer angry at my older siblings for teasing me, or my father for his gruff insults. Everyone has feelings on some level.

Strengthen your own soft skills in the face of a jerk

The following five tips are good ones, and may help you get through the pain of Monday stress – and the rest of the week with the office idiot:

  1. Start with polite confrontation. Some people really don’t mean to be assholes. They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned. Other assholes are demeaning on purpose, but may stop if you stand up to them in a civil, but, firm manner. An office worker wrote me that her boss was “a major asshole” (he was a former army major, who was infamous for his nastiness). She found that “the major” left her alone after she gave him “a hard stare” and told him his behavior was “absolutely unacceptable and I simply won’t tolerate it.” This is also pretty much what Ron Reagan (the late president’s son) told me on his radio show about how he dealt with assholes when he was a dancer.
  2. If a bully keeps spewing venom at you, limit your contact with the creep as much as possible. Try to avoid any meetings you can with the jerk. Do telephone meetings if possible. Keep conversations as short as possible. Be polite but don’t provide a lot of personal information during meetings of any kind, including email exchanges. If the creep says or writes something nasty, try to avoid snapping back; it can fuel a vicious circle of asshole poisoning. Don’t sit down during meetings if you can avoid it. Recent research suggests that stand-up meetings are just as effective sit-down meetings, but are shorter; so try to meet places without chairs and avoid sitting down during meetings with assholes whenever possible – it limits your exposure to their abuse.
  3. Find ways to enjoy “small wins” over assholes. If you can’t reform or expel the bully, find small ways to gain control and to fight back — it will make you feel powerful and just might convince the bully to leave you and others alone. Exhibit one here is the radio producer who told me that she felt oppressed because her boss was constantly stealing her food – right off her desk. So she made some candy out of EX-Lax, the chocolate flavored laxative, and left it on her desk. As usual, he ate them without permission. When she told this thief what was in the candy, “he was not happy.”
  4. Practice indifference and emotional detachment- learn how not to let an asshole touch your soul. Management gurus and executives are constantly ranting about the importance of commitment, passion, and giving all you have to a job. That is good advice when your bosses and peers treat you with dignity. But if you work with people who treat you like dirt, they have not earned your passion and commitment. Practice going through the motions without really caring. Don’t let their vicious words and deeds touch your soul: Learn to be comfortably numb until the day comes when you find a workplace that deserves your passion and full commitment.
  5. Keep an asshole diary — carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. Carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. A government employee wrote me a detailed email about how she used a diary to get rid of a nasty, racist co-worker. ‘I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times…..basically I kept an “Asshole Journal.” I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn’t really seem to be doing anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.’ Similarly, a salesman wrote me that he had been the top performer in his group until he got leukemia, but his performance slowed during chemotherapy. His supervisor called him every day to yell at him about how incompetent he was, and then doubled this sick salesperson’s quota. The salesman eventually quit and found a better workplace, but apparently because he documented the abuse, his boss was demoted. (Read the whole list at Psychology Today)

For the most part, when you have confidence in your own abilities and don’t take the actions of others personally, sooner or later you will win the trust of the people who matter. Often, it is the trust of yourself – your own self confidence – that you need to focus on.

I hesitated to include #3 in the list above, because the advice perpetuates an emotional battle within the workplace. If you are spending more time bellyaching over someone who has wronged you, then you may want to consider taking some classes in strengthening your soft skills. Changing jobs is not always an answer.

Trust your childhood training, if you were bullied in any way

I’m the youngest of six, and was the number one victim of family teasing. Yet when I came home from second grade one day in tears, my father told me to laugh at bullies and agree with them. What great advice that was for me.  By the time I reached adulthood and got a good handle on soft skills, also known as Emotional Intelligence, I was able to see beyond insults and sarcasm.

There’s always a curtain to draw back from any outward appearance.

Number four from the list is a little weak, too, in my opinion. The tip is good, suggesting you go through the motions regardless of how you feel. Keep in mind that it’s easy to love those who treat us well. One of life’s challenges is to grow compassion and tolerance for those who do not outwardly appear to deserve it.

And when you have built up your confidence, you realize that you just don’t have to put up with all that crazy emotional stress. Lighten your own perspective. You may find what bothered you last month has actually made you stronger this month.

Have you struggled with an office jerk? Share on social media and let us know your thoughts!

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