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Bob Sutton knows all about them, explaining how destructive they can be in his best-seller, “The No A--hole Rule.” Now, the Stanford University professor of management is offering practical advice on what to do if you encounter such toxic personalities in his new book, “The A--hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.”
“The worst ones for me to deal with are the strategic smart ones. They can be the most successful, too, because they’re the ones who know when to turn it on and off,” Sutton told TODAY.
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“They know what to say about you behind your back, what to say to your face. They’re the ones who don’t lose it and start screaming in public. People who are strategic jerks are really, really dangerous.”
Sutton’s research niche has hit such a nerve and attracts so many personal stories and comments from readers that he’s resigned to be always known as “The A--hole Guy.”
Here are nine of his tips:
1. Don’t fall victim to "a--hole blindness."
If you have a mean boss, scheming co-workers or toxic friends, don’t deceive yourself about just how awful things are, Sutton advised.
“When we get in situations where we know things are bad, we start telling ourselves essentially lies to get through it: ‘It’s not really that bad,’” he said. But tolerating abuse can impact your physical health, relationships and sleep patterns.
Sutton’s main advice is to try to get out of the situation, if possible. He knows it’s not easy: “If it’s the best job you can get and you don’t have any other options, or if you quit right now and it ruins your career — sometimes in life, you just have to stick it out.”
2. Keep your distance, literally.
There’s good evidence that the closer you sit to a jerk — within 25 feet — you’re “likely to catch the disease,” Sutton said. Emotional contagion means you’ll unconsciously mimic the behavior of the people around you. Ask for a desk far away.
In open offices, anything you can do to get a little farther away from the jerk will help. Take breaks and escape to a coffee shop, hallway, bathroom or another “a--hole-free zone" to regroup.
3. Get emotional distance, too.
Reduce your interactions with the jerk to a trickle since he may enjoy watching you react.
“If you’ve got somebody in your life, especially people who are Machiavellian — their brains light up and it makes them feel good when you feel bad, seem hurt or disturbed — try to slow the exposure,” Sutton advised.
If you can’t outright ignore the person or stop seeing them, take hours or days to reply to their email and stretch the time between face-to-face meetings. Throw off the jerk’s rhythm and reduce your communication with him as much as possible.
4. Lay low.
This approach may be painful if you’re talented and productive, but being unnoticed and not making waves can shield you from an jerk’s wrath.
“If you’re charismatic or exciting, it draws more attention to you,” Sutton said. “When you’re boring, it’s amazing what you can get away with because people don’t pay attention to you.”
5. Focus on how you’ll feel in the future.
When a jerk upsets you, imagine the situation as if it's already behind you. Say to yourself: “A week from now or a year from now, this won’t bother me at all.”
This is Sutton’s favorite technique: “We as human beings can do imaginary time travel,” he said.
6. Kiss up to the jerk.
It can also be effective on “petty tyrants,” people in low-prestige positions with some power over your fate. They can be nasty and vindictive as a way of exercising control and making themselves feel more important. If you cozy up to them, you may get less grief and turn them into allies, Sutton noted.
7. Fight back.
Experts haven’t figured out when it’s best to fight back. If you’re tempted to do it, Sutton suggested asking yourself some key questions first: How many employment options do you have? How strong are your allies? Can you have a one-on-one conversation with your oppressor and see if it will affect his behavior? Can you form a posse of supporters so you can complain as a group? Can you document the abusive behavior?
8. Wait them out.
“If you’re patient and have the wherewithal when you’re fighting an a--hole and you’re not winning now — if you keep building allies and you keep documenting, the time may come when you can push the person out. It depends how long your time horizon is,” Sutton said.
9. Figure out if you’re the a--hole.
Perhaps you’re the problem or you’re supporting somebody who is a jerk, Sutton said. When you're contributing to the problem, you generally don’t have good self-awareness of it.
“The mantra… is: Be quick to label yourself as an a--hole and slow to label others,” he advised.
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