I was just returning to the office after a morning run when my boss called me into his office to show me something. He’d received an email from his own boss sharing an innovation initiative proposed by one of my peers. The email lauded the effort, going to great lengths to celebrate the initiative while challenging others to rise to the occasion. “You want to get on the boss’s radar, that’s how you do it,” he said.
For a brief moment, I was silent. Then I took a deep breath and said, “Can you pull up the document properties?” He did, and there it listed my name as the author, not the person claiming credit. “Wait,” my boss said. “You created this? Why did he claim credit if it was your work?”
“I wish I knew,” I responded. My staff and I have been working on this proposal for a couple of weeks. We shared it with a handful of others to get feedback. One of those people – someone who hadn’t offered any feedback whatsoever – changed the title slide, emailed it up the chain, and was now taking full credit for something he had nothing to do with.
Anger swelled up inside me. How could I allow myself to be duped like this? What kind of person steals credit for the work of others? And, more importantly, what was I going to do about it?
The Not-So-Magnificent Seven Types of Work Jerks
In military circles, we refer to someone like that as a Blue Falcon. It’s a time-honored title for someone that makes a career out of making everyone else in the workplace miserable. This particular individual earned a reputation for claiming the work of others, but his antics paled in comparison to those of many of the other Blue Falcons I’d encountered in the ranks.
But Blue Falcon seemed too generic a term to capture the wide array of misdeeds that occur. Then, along came Tessa West, a social psychology professor from New York University, whose recent book, Jerks at Work, expanded my understanding of these people and their impact on the workplace. West identifies seven types of toxic coworkers, each of whom incites a special kind of hate in the workplace.
1. Kiss Up / Kick Downers
People who fall into this category have, according to West, one goal: “climb to the top by any means necessary.” They’re on their best behavior when the boss is around but treat everyone else like competition. Peers and subordinates exist only as cannon fodder, to be crushed and discarded at the earliest convenience.
2. Credit Stealers
On the surface, the credit stealers seem like great colleagues, right up until the moment you generate an idea they see value in. While you’re preparing to pitch your brilliant plan, they’re working 24/7 to outmaneuver you and claim your idea as their own. All that’s left is for that confused look to cross your face when you hear the boss lauding someone else for your work.
3. Office Bulldozer
The office bulldozer is a familiar sight: someone who will go to any lengths to get what they want. They constantly shop for “yes” and won’t hesitate to go through, around, or above their own boss to get a different answer. A bulldozer doesn’t compromise. A bulldozer plows down anyone and anything between them and what they want.
4. Free Riders
West offers the perfect definition of free riders: “experts at doing nothing and getting rewarded for it.” Free riders are fundamentally lazy and will seek out high-performing and hard-working individuals and teams and stick to them like glue. They know that others will do the heavy lifting and they’ll be along to share credit.
There are countless reasons why micromanagers do what they do, none of which eases the aggravation they fuel in subordinates. They don’t just tell you what to do, they tell you how to do it. In nauseating, over-controlling detail. They don’t delegate. Every decision – even the most inconsequential ones – are held at their level. Micromanagers think they’re effective leaders when, in fact, they’re driving people to quit. And when they see those turnover rates increase, it’s always someone else’s fault.
6. Neglectful Bosses
You know this person all too well. They disappear for months at a time, then anxiety and panic kicks in for some reason, and they turn into a micromanager overnight. Neglectful bosses lead organizations plagued by chronic uncertainty, as people are never quite sure when the control freak is going to make an appearance, and everyone will be working nights and weekends while they catch up.
A gaslighter in the workplace is pretty much exactly what you’d expect: someone who lies as a means to an end. The level of deceit is off the charts, and if you happen to catch wind of something that seems amiss, you’ll never get a straight answer. Peel the onion back on the office gaslighter, and you will likely find cheating and stealing on a grand scale.
A Fighting Chance
West offers tips for dealing with each of the toxic coworkers mentioned, but experience – and I have the scar tissue to prove it – with these types of people has taught me that there are five key tasks to reining in the not-so-magnificent seven.
1. Build a coalition.
Don’t get angry. Get even. Start with a network, one that gives you both context and perspective. These aren’t necessarily victims, but people who have a deep social network and are broadly connected across the organization. They are essential to learning how widespread the problem is and who else might be a victim.
2. Identify the targets.
Toxic coworkers leave a path of destruction in their wake. Identify the victims, band them together, and use your collective influence to counter the toxicity. Toxic co-workers generally thrive through a “divide and conquer” approach. A tightly networked group of people with a singular focus can defend itself better than individuals.
3. Establish a buffer.
If information is power, then the lack of information is absolute power. Confronting a toxic co-worker isn’t always the best approach and can often escalate matters out of your control. Instead, limit their access. Reduce their information feed. Build and maintain an information buffer that leaves on the outside looking in, where all they can do is guess what’s happening around them.
4. Engage the boss.
As individuals, approaching a supervisor rarely works out. Toxic co-workers often are wolves among the sheep, mixing in well and often well-liked. Instead, leverage your network influencers to engage leadership. Leave the emotions at home and let the facts do the talking.
5. Be patient.
Just because you can’t see the mechanism inside your watch turning doesn’t mean it’s not. Give your boss time and space to deal with the problem. If you’ve done your job, they’ll do theirs.