Most of us work with a jerk—toxic people who seem hellbent on making our lives, well, hell.
But here’s the good news: You don’t have to be completely beholden to their poisonous ways. It turns out toxic coworkers often operate by the same tired playbook. And once you identify and understand what type of work jerk you’re dealing with, you’ll have more ammo to neutralize them.
In her book, Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, NYU psychology professor, Tessa West, lays out some of the most common archetypes of toxic coworkers and then offers strategies for confronting them and taking back your peace of mind.
Here are four common foes.
1. The Kiss Up/Kick Downer
These poisonous people have one singular goal: “To climb to the top by any means necessary,” West says.
Kiss Up/Kick Downers (KUKDs) operate strategically. They mistreat or sabotage the people on their level or below them while simultaneously ingratiating themselves with the higher-ups. KUKDs can make themselves look like team players to the executives, even though everyone else knows they’re anything but.
“They tend to be comfortable with this notion that it’s okay to step on other people to get ahead,” says West.
These coworkers belittle you in front of people you’re trying to impress but shmooze with the high-power people at company parties. They insulate themselves from criticism by convincing the boss that they’re a valuable addition to the company.
“These people are really tough to beat because if you complain to your boss, they will either just ignore you and tell you to suck it,” West says.
How to handle: There is strength in numbers. Find another target(s) of the KUKDer and make them an ally. “The more people you can find that have been victimized to even just document what happened, the better,” says West.
Once you have some allies, ask them if they are willing to speak with the boss. Also, be sure to collect some well-documented and researched data.
“Then when you go to your boss to complain about them, you wanna lead with the strength that person has, acknowledging what they’re good at, and then from there, you wanna convince your boss that the problem is widespread enough that they should care,” West says.
2. The Bulldozer
Bulldozers have two trademark moves, according to West. First, they completely take over any group decision-making process, such as making it impossible to get a word in edgewise at a meeting. Second, they target weak bosses and bully them into submission.
Unlike KUKDs, they’re not subtle. They don’t hide their aggressive behavior—they overwhelm everyone with it.
“Bulldozers don’t complain to the boss. They go to the boss’s boss,” West says. “They’re scary to bosses, and bosses don’t wanna stand up to them.”
How to handle: Pick your battles. Bulldozers love to fight, and you’re not going to win every confrontation. West recommends asking yourself if the bulldozer’s actions are making your life hell in the short term or long term. “I only take on bulldozers whose behaviors only impact the big stuff,” she says.
Once you decide to confront a bulldozer, you’ll need a team game plan before the bulldozer even starts bulldozing. For example, if you know a bulldozer is going to interrupt a meeting, “it’s up to your team to plan how you’re gonna prevent that from happening, especially if you have a weak boss,” says West.
To learn more about the psychology behind toxic coworkers, listen to my interview with Tessa West on the Write About Now podcast.
3. The Micromanager
Seventy-nine percent of people surveyed say they have been micromanaged at some point in their careers, according to West.
Micromanagers oversee everything you do—from how you sign off on your emails to how you schedule your day.
“They’re very bad at knowing who needs a little bit of extra attention and who’s fine on their own,” says West. “The irony is that they work the hardest, but they get the least done because they’re constantly trying to oversee every little step their employees do.”
West has seen micromanagers creep up on her google docs as she’s typing.
How to handle: Make an effort to keep the micromanager in the loop, no matter how annoying that may be.
Explains West, “Micromanagers tend to do it the most when they feel anxious and uncertain that they’re not doing enough. But the structure of short, frequent meetings, where they get check-in lists of what you said you were gonna do what you actually did, can help actually decrease a lot of their anxiety.”
4. The Gaslighter
Perhaps the most sinister of toxic coworkers, the gaslighter deceives you on a grand scale, often by creating an alternative reality. The gaslighter also cuts you off from other coworkers, isolating you by making you feel like you’re part of something special or, even worse, destroying your sense of self-worth.
“Most of us think of a gaslighter as someone who’s trying to destroy us,” says West. “But often it’s the case that what they do is they make you feel privileged like you are the only person who gets this. You’re an insider. You know things other people don’t.”
Unfortunately, the gaslighter has no interest in seeing you succeed—their only goal is to have power and control over you. People unknowingly gaslit may perpetuate or protect their toxic coworker’s dishonesty or theft at work.
How to handle: Beware of the tell-tale signs. Gaslighters often try to cut you off from having everyday interactions with people at work. They’ll try to convince you not to have coffee or go to drinks with coworkers.
They’ll also discourage relationships with other leaders at the company, saying cruel things like these people make fun of you behind your back.
West says getting out of the grips of a gaslighter is like “freeing yourself from a spider’s web.” She recommends documenting everything (writing it down, taking pictures, recording your concerns) that is said and done that doesn’t feel right. “These small records will become invaluable when you’re ready to open up to other people.”
She also suggests building up your social network little by little. “The most important step you need to take when confronting a gaslighter is the very thing your gaslighter spent months conditioning you to be afraid of—turning to other people for help,” she says.