Jerks at Work

Can you work effectively with arseholes?

I use to think so. That I could have a ‘professional relationship’ with people I nether liked or respected and still deliver.

Now I think I was wrong and that it was damaging to me personally. It’s why today I have a strict ‘No Arseholes’ rule.

As author of ‘Jerks at Work’, Tessa West, explains (link in comments), we all experience low-level arseholery at work but we are not taught to deal with it. Instead, we deploy a range of tactics that don’t really work and often lead to us behaving like arseholes ourselves.

Her conclusion is that we need to train people in how to communicate with each other and in conflict management. Whilst I am sure these would be extremely beneficial (and, incidentally, are often a feature of self-managing organisations), I think the causes run deeper.

The real problem is that we exclude emotions from the workplace and so downplay the importance of relationships. We tell ourselves a story that the workplace is about rationality and clear-headed logic and that emotions have no role to play, so we ignore them.

We actually self-identify as cogs in the machine. That’s why I thought maintaining a ‘professional relationship’ with arseholes would work for me. We believe that processes and procedures are what makes an organisation work rather than the relationships between the people, so we emphasise the former and ignore the latter.

These ideas are pervasive, even though the evidence of our eyes contradicts them. No emotions in the office? Well, if you ever been chewed out by an enraged boss you’ll know that isn’t true. Rational? Well, if you’ve ever tried to get a business case through senior management you’ll know their decisions are often driven by bias and ego. 

Yet we still try to remain ‘professional’, suppressing our emotions, pretending that the everyday slights and persistent low-level arseholery doesn’t affect us. We hold it within us, where it eats away and undermines us.

This causes us chronic stress and persistently heightened levels of cortisol that is extremely damaging to our physical health. Maintaining the self-delusion that it’s perfectly normal and OK is damaging for our mental health too.

It’s time we blew this up and recognised the power of emotions in the workplace, that it’s relationships that make organisations work and create value.

I was always ‘professional’ at work. I bit my tongue, stay composed, held my emotions in check, remained polite and rational.

Now, I wish I had let my feelings come out. I wish I had raged at people, called them out, demanded apologies, not turned the other cheek for the greater good but at cost to myself. Let them know I cared about what I was doing but, most importantly, about myself.

So, no, you can’t work effectively with arseholes. Nor should you be expected to.

I don’t want you to learn how to deal with jerks at work. I want there to be zero tolerance of them.

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