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Dealing With Assholes at Work

A simple fact of life is that there are assholes everywhere. When possible, most of us will turn and walk away. Not worth our time. But we can’t always do that at work. You get who you get as colleagues and we just have to figure out how to cope.

When someone behaves horribly these are my first thoughts.

  • #@$*!!!
  • How come you haven’t been fired a million times?
  • No amount of counseling will fix you!
  • Please leave me alone.

Then I move on to some awful voices inside my own head.

  • I must have done something to set him off.
  • What hoops do I need to jump through to be granted some respect?
  • I need a thicker skin so I don’t take this personally.
  • I feel so small, bad, angry…and a host of other feelings.

Finally my rational brain takes over.

  • What an unhappy, insecure, miserable person. I’d hate to be him.
  • His behavior is a reflection of his own shit. It has nothing to do with me.
  • I’m not going to feed the beast by engaging in any meaningful conversations with him.
  • The less air I give to the asshole, the more quickly he’ll move on.

It’s no secret that this person “ain’t right” (that’s a clinical diagnosis!) but we are forced to interact with him because he is our boss or team mate or key colleague. We don’t have the luxury of just walking away and we don’t see anyone moving to fire him. We are stuck. As awful as it is, there are things we can say to ourselves and things we can do to make the situation just an ounce easier.

It is important to understand that the asshole is fundamentally troubled. He is not the normal amount of anxious or insecure or narcissistic or egomaniacal or perfectionistic. Most of us have these traits to a very manageable degree. Assholes have gone way beyond that point where they cannot effectively control these behaviors. Their desire to control others or their environments is so intense that they flip out when people and things don’t fall into line according to their (often random and grandiose) plans for the immediate universe. A compassionate view of them is that they are in a living hell. And that is why they make the rest of us suffer so much. They believe that if only we did exactly as they dictated that life would be rosy. But of course, that never happens. So they keep hammering away.

So with that little bit of compassion, what can you do to deal with this asshole?

  • Don’t play his game or march to his drum. This creates a never ending and always unsatisfactory cycle. Instead conduct yourself as you would with a less volatile colleague. March to your own drum even if it is received poorly. Do not enter the battle.
  • Consciously decide what you want to ignore and what you want to stop. If the asshole is your boss you can ignore the constant harangues and seek feedback on your performance from another leader. If he is your peer you can tell him to stop being such an asshole…that you won’t allow him to treat you that way. You’d be surprised how effective this can be.
  • Report him to HR. If his behavior creates an unsafe work environment for you, get it on record with HR. You won’t be the first one to complain. This is handy when a superior won’t move to fire the person. A good HR leader will press the issue with the executive and point out the liabilities.
  • Repeat a mantra: It’s not me. It’s him. Take yourself out of the mental equation so the negativity doesn’t seep into your being. Don’t let an asshole make you doubt your own abilities.
  • Don’t assume he is intimidated by you. In these situations there is a tendency to proclaim “Oh, he’s just scared of me”. Who knows if that is true? But that thinking will send you down a rabbit hole that won’t help you. Asshole screams. You say to yourself, I’m too smart for him. You start to play one-up in your head which locks you into a battle of wills. Even if you never have that discussion out loud, you are feeding your own ego in ways that could turn you into an asshole with someone else.
  • Minimize the time and energy you spend dealing with him. That means don’t gossip with others about the latest crappy thing he did or replaying the incident over and over in your head. It means don’t try to fix the moment or him. It means shake it off. Don’t let his unhappiness become your unhappiness.

All that said, there is no denying that assholes can make you feel like shit and zap your energy. It’s hard to let it roll off your back. You are simply human. But so is the asshole. Don’t make him more important or bigger or louder than your own internal voice.

Find some healthy ways to cope with assholes. They are in every company at all levels. So figure out what works best for you.


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