In my 20-plus years of writing for the Society for Human Resource Management, probably no article got more attention than the one I wrote in 2007, "Jerks at Work." This topic seemed to resonate with everyone.
Fast-forward to today. I no longer practice employment law, where I encountered innumerable jerks. Yet as a workplace coach and consultant, I notice that "work jerks" haven't gone away. Indeed, the pandemic seems to have given rise to a disturbing increase in jerkish behavior.
So here are my rules to create a work-jerk-free zone. I recommend they be applied in two ways:
- For managers to guide their own behavior and the behavior of those they manage.
- For HR professionals to use when coaching managers and others.
Rule 1: Keep It Civil
Treating people with respect is the bedrock. No matter the message, never be judgmental and always behave in ways that allow others to maintain their self-esteem.
Rule 2: Disagreement Is OK
There's nothing inherently wrong with disagreement. In fact, it can be productive. The key is how to handle it.
You're free to disagree with anyone, anytime about anything, provided you first confirm the position of the person you're about to disagree with. "Jim, if I understand you correctly, you believe we should adopt policy 'X' based on 'Y.' Is that correct?"
It's only after the other person confirms that you correctly understood him or her that you should express a contrary view.
In other words, don't make assumptions!
Rule 3: Keep It Solution-Oriented
When problems arise, address them promptly, directly, and with a view to what caused the problem and the remedy, both short term and long term. The key is to look for solutions rather than blame. It's not about who screwed up. It's about where we go from here.
What happened in the past is the rearview mirror. Most of your attention should be on the road ahead. Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR executive with the state of Arizona, describes a great mentor of hers: "He often said, 'We fix the problem, not the blame.' He lived by that, too, in the way that he addressed problems. This kept all of us focused on the big picture and the greater good as opposed to our own egos or who deserved to 'win' or 'lose' the point."
This doesn't mean suspending accountability. In this example, the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation against a senior government official led to his resignation.
Rule 4: Confront the Well, Not the Elephant
Have you ever encountered an elephant in the room? Instead of confronting the elephant, we tend to avoid it. As a result, it gets bigger and bigger.
Instead of the elephant, I prefer the metaphor of the well, based on a biblical story in which the negotiation of using a well at Beersheba produced the longest period of true peace between two peoples.
The lesson was this: To resolve conflict, the parties must disclose all their "wells," which are those things that could undermine a potentially positive and collaborative relationship.
When a grievance arises, the person feeling aggrieved should ask: "Is this a well?" The answer might be "yes," "no" or "I don't know yet." If the answer is "no, I can live with this," then let it go. If the answer is "I don't know yet," monitor the situation and periodically revisit the question.
If the answer is "Yes, this is a well," that means that if the parties remain on the present course, there will not be the mutual trust and respect necessary to function effectively. The immediate next question should be "What's my plan?"
In putting your plan together, I especially recommend the No-FEAR confrontation method.
Rule 5: Talk First, Write Second
Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago has conducted fascinating research on written versus spoken communication. The bottom line: When we convey a message in writing, there's an excellent chance it will be interpreted differently than we intended. This is because we tend to construe written words more negatively than we do spoken words.
If possible, don't use writing to convey a message that could produce an emotional response. If there's a difficult issue to discuss, arrange an in-person meeting.
There is a highly useful role for writing, however. Following the in-person conversation, send a note that conveys your understanding of the discussion's key takeaways. It will help to cement mutual understanding.
Rule 6: In Meetings, Be a Facilitator
If you lead a meeting, act as a facilitator, not an oracle. Express your view only after soliciting the views of others. If someone recommends an idea that you planned to voice, don't take credit; give it away.
Your job is to tap the individual and collective wisdom, experience, insights and ideas in the room and to work toward a resolution, not to build your brand or demonstrate your omniscience.
Rule 7: Senior Leaders Must Be Role Models
You won't get very far unless your most-senior leaders model these behaviors. "The unique responsibility, role and contribution of the leader and leadership team is to hold themselves, their team and all the stakeholders responsible and accountable for our working together," said Alan Mulally, former CEO at Ford Motor Co. Read how Mulally solved a jerk-leader problem at Ford.
Perhaps Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News journalist who filed a harassment case against Roger Ailes, then-chairman and CEO of the network, put it best: "When it comes to workplace behavior, the buck stops at the top."
Rule 8: Conduct Periodic Checkups and Check-Ins
Select a day on your calendar to assess how you're doing. Are the above rules being followed consistently? Are all participants feeling comfortable and working toward shared goals? Are there any adjustments you need to make?
In organizations, people will sometimes rub each other the wrong way. The key to resolving conflict is a non-negotiable commitment to the above rules of behavior. By committing to these principles, you empower everyone in your organization to hold themselves and one another accountable.
Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of Organization Development Network Oregon and was named by Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.