How to Deal With a Jerk Without Being a Jerk

It’s natural to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression.

A couple of years ago I was discussing a study of the habits of great musical composers when an audience member interrupted.

“That’s not true!” he shouted. “You’re totally ignorant — you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Early in my career, I had let nasty people walk all over me. When a client berated me for my predecessor’s error on an ad, I gave in and offered him a full refund. When a boss threatened to fire me for defending a colleague who was treated poorly, I said nothing. But this time, I was prepared: I had trained as a conflict mediator, worked as a negotiator and become an organizational psychologist.

At some point in your work life, you’ve probably had to interact with a jerk. 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.

The natural response is to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression. Take a classic study in which researchers recorded negotiators with different levels of skill. Average bargainers ended up in three times as many defend-attack spirals as expert negotiators. The experts escaped the heat of the moment and cooled the other person down, too. They calmly commented on their reactions to the other person’s behavior and tested their understanding of what the person was trying to convey.

I had been studying and teaching this evidence for years. Now it was time to practice it. I called a break, walked up to my heckler 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?”

I was hoping to start a conversation about the conversation — to redirect the discussion away from the topic and toward some reflection on the tone of the discussion. To my surprise, it worked.

“Well, no …” he stammered, “I just think you’re wrong.” Later, I sent him the data and he sent me an apology.

My heckler was what Dr. Sutton calls a temporary jerk. We’re all capable of those behaviors, and we feel bad about them afterward. Onestudy showed that on days when leaders acted abusively, they ended up feeling less competent and less respected at work — and had more trouble relaxing at home.

But sometimes you’re stuck dealing with a certified jerk, someone who consistently demeans and disrespects others. A few years ago, I had a colleague who had a reputation for yelling at people during meetings. After witnessing it firsthand, I collected my thoughts and called to say I found it unprofessional. My colleague got defensive: “It was necessary to get my point across!”

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. I didn’t know how to respond until recently, when I interviewed Sheila Heen, a conflict mediation expert, for an episode of my WorkLife podcast on office jerks. She suggested finding a way to gently challenge the belief that aggression is necessary: “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.”

Uber vs AirBnB: do you have to be an asshole to found a brilliant start-up?

Airbnb feels benign and optimistic, the way we all used to feel about Silicon Valley. Uber is the dark twin, a symbol of rapacious capitalism and dehumanising technology. On reading Brad Stone’s book, it becomes clear that much of this divergence can be attributed to the personality of each company’s chief executive – Brian Chesky at Airbnb and Travis Kalanick at Uber.

.. watching Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first James Bond movie. In one scene, Bond is driving in the Bahamas and glances down at his phone to check a graphical icon of his car moving on a map. Entranced, Camp became obsessed by the idea of an upmarket limousine service with vehicles that customers could track on a phone.

.. He is irresistibly drawn to unnecessary arguments.

.. Kalanick, to use an expression one would never hear in an elegant restaurant, is an asshole. Yet it is impossible to read The Upstarts and not conclude that he is a brilliant asshole.

.. dizzying swerves of direction that seem reckless at the time but turn out to have been visionary, such as giving up on being an upmarket limo company to become a mass-market ride-hailing service. It is he who sees, almost from the beginning, that Uber is not only a more convenient way of ordering a cab, but a way of reconfiguring the relationship between time, space and money in the city.

.. Time and again, Kalanick makes the risky but right decision after rejecting the advice of clever and reasonable colleagues. It takes a certain kind of character to behave like this.

.. He argued that although a lack of social skills will hold you back in most areas of life, it can be an advantage to the entrepreneur in possession of an innovative idea. Those with a normal desire to fit in with people around them are easily persuaded to abandon original, strange-sounding notions; those who don’t care about being liked pursue them regardless. To be unbending, it helps to be insensitive.

.. An industrial designer by trade, he takes great care over how it feels to use his service. Good designers are usually good listeners, naturally curious about human psychology and behaviour.

.. “Brian was always worried about how do we scale our culture – how does every Airbnb office feel?”

.. He is interested in people in the way a physicist is interested in atoms. What fascinates him about his business is the mathematical complexity of getting enough drivers to enough riders at the right time, and at the right price. Indeed, it is a point of pride to him that Uber minimises human interaction. “We don’t own cars and we don’t hire drivers . . . It’s very straightforward. I want to push a button and get a ride.”

.. “Travis’s Law”. In summary, this states that if a product is so good that the public decides it must have it, all political opposition will eventually cede to pressure and become support. The business imperative is therefore to move fast and be uncompromising: build it, and they will fold.