Service of an Obnoxious Co-Worker

June 20th, 2019

Categories: Jerk, Obnoxious, Work, Workplace Disputes

A friend who directed a large department at a major corporation advised her staff about dealing with difficult people at the office. “They are like mosquitoes,” she said, “they can’t hurt you; they are just mindless irritations that you can swat away.”

At least one insufferable person works in almost every office, organization or business. Most of us have faced or observed them. “They’re the people who demean and disrespect you. They might steal credit for your successes, blame you for their failures, invade your privacy or break their promises, or bad-mouth you, scream at you and belittle you. As the organizational psychologist Bob Sutton puts it, they treat you like dirt, and either they don’t know it or they don’t care.” Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, wrote this and shared his tips on how to best endure in a New York Times article, “How to Deal with a Certified Jerk at Work.”

Becoming defensive isn’t the solution, wrote Grant. He approached a heckler in the audience of one of his presentations. He called for a time out, approached the offender and said “You’re welcome to disagree with the data, but I don’t think that’s a respectful way to express your opinion. It’s not how I was trained to have an intellectual debate. Were you?” The critic had called him ignorant and said Grant didn’t know what he was talking about. After Grant sent him backup data, the fellow apologized. Dr. Sutton calls a person like this “a temporary jerk.”

Grant reported: “Research on the psychology of certified jerks reveals that they have a habit of rationalizing aggression. They’ve convinced themselves that they have to act that way to get the results they want.” The way conflict mediation expert Sheila Heen told Grant that she might respond to an aggressive person is by saying “Really? It was my impression that you were smarter than that, and more creative than that — so I bet you could come up with some other ways to be just as clear without having to actually rip somebody else apart.”

You might not be able to speak with a boss or manager this way so Grant suggested decreasing your independence and minimizing your interaction with the chief while at the same time increasing his/her dependence on you. Dr. Sutton had a different idea: consider the person a “spectacular, amazing specimen” for your study of jerks to change “your attitude toward the situation.”

How have you dealt with an obnoxious creature at work? What do you think the inspiration is for a person to act this way? To use my friend’s analogy of treating work jerks like a mosquitos, what repellant do you use to divert their attention? Are there any positive outcomes of surviving the negative dynamic?

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9 Responses to “Service of an Obnoxious Co-Worker”

  1. BC Said:

    Difficult bosses/co-workers I killed with kindness and thoughtfulness. Worked every time. Especially nurses who at first did not like female doctors. Won them over by helping them with their duties.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Brilliant strategy but a very difficult one to pull off. You clearly have a strong stomach, a healthy understanding of your value and you must be a great actress.

    I knew an admin to a yeller who tore her apart. He was prominent in his field. One of her friends–an executive with a giant corporation–told her that the next time he did this, she should envision where she stored her handbag and mentally get up and go to it, pick it up and walk out. By doing this her posture would change from being whipped to sitting up straight and looking him in the eye. She tried it and said it worked.

  3. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie wrote on Facebook: I am dealing with such on my co-op board. There is no cure for narcissism. If you are a target, (which I am in certain instances), nothing can be done.

    I have to let HIS obnoxious behavior show itself to witnesses who may not experience the same bad behavior directed at them

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There’s a look that I’ve not mastered that often freezes such people in their tracks. It’s a haughty stare right at the nasty aggressor accompanied by dead silence. It implies “I can’t be bothered to respond to the likes of you.”

    What irks me about the instance you share is that others remain silent and don’t come to your defense by saying something like, “Gosh, Charlie, bad day at the office?” I imagine they don’t want to add fuel to the fire. There are gracious ways for onlookers to remove the stinger from such people, usually with gentle humor.

  5. Francine Ryan Said:

    Francine wrote on Facebook: My advice is to let him have it, Debbie. Bullies only learn to back off when they realize the person they’re tormenting is going to fight back, in public. You don’t depend on them for food, shelter or a paycheck? Let them have it. You’ll feel better and they’ll think twice before they use you for target practice. It may take a couple of good fights, but eventually they will get the message. And always wait for them to start in on you.

  6. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie on Facebook: Being on a co-op board requires a different approach. It would be a waste of time & energy. Characters come with the territory. You have to be “lucky” to get a good group w/o a-holes who have an agenda.

  7. Patty Raddock Said:

    Patty on Facebook: How might one handle the situation when the obnoxious one is PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA????!!!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    For starters don’t work for him.

    God bless Senators and Congress people who should probably do what BC suggested in her comment above: kill him with kindness to sooth his voracious ego and have their way with him best they can until the public speaks at the voting booth.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    While I agree with your approach re. bullies, you do have something to lose by blowing your top on a coop board. I have lived in two co-ops and have been on one board and my husabnd on the other. You may need to ask the board for a favor and you will need the board’s OK on the person to whom you are selling your apartment. It is not a good strategy to create enemies or add to the negativity caused by one of the members. Should this board member confront Debbie on the street without witnesses, I’d say “go for it.” Otherwise I still think a frigid glare while looking at someone as though they are deranged combined with silence make for the best approach.

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