Is your boss a bully? Can you not seem to avoid crossing paths with the office jerk? Are you surrounded by toxic, difficult people all day? Working with dullards and jerks can make your workweek a living hell. Not only are you having to walk on eggshells around certain people, but you also might feel like your hands are tied in trying to retaliate or avoid their wrath. It can ruin your mood, affect your life away from work, and make you miserable.
So, how can you get out of these types of situations? It isn’t easy — and sometimes it’s better to just find another job and wash your hands of the toxicity completely. But that’s not an option for everyone. One way you can mount a stout defense and create some space between you and the office jerk and other difficult people you work with is to get inside their heads.
What makes these people tick? Why are they acting like this? We now have a better idea.
New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says that it all comes down to contempt — and self-esteem. Basically, people who act out negatively toward others (be it their spouse, co-workers, friends, etc.) are doing so due to their own insecurities and self-loathing. In other words, they’re incredibly fragile underneath their tough exteriors.
The psychology of difficult people
If you’ve had to deal with difficult people before or are perhaps related or married to one, you can probably see the underlying truth here. For a lot of people, putting up a tough exterior or abrasive attitude is a defense mechanism, meant to distract from the flaws lying under the surface. We see it all the time in movies and TV shows, where frightening, powerful villains are reduced to shadows of their former selves when the hero figures out that there are emotional or self-esteem issues at their core.
“Despite its importance, contempt has not been investigated at the level of personality,” reads the study, which was conducted by researcher Roberta Schriber and her team at the University of California, Davis.
“Across 6 studies using self-report and emotion elicitation in student and MTurk samples, we examined its (a) nomological network, (b) personality and behavioral correlates, and (c) implications for relationship functioning,” the study continued. “Dispositional contempt was distinguished from tendencies toward related emotions and was most associated with dispositional envy, anger, and hubristic pride.”
So, by studying students and volunteers recruited from Amazon’s MTurk platform, researchers related contempt with negative emotions you might encounter in the workplace — anger, envy, etc. And here’s the meat of the findings:
Somewhat paradoxically, dispositional contempt was related to being cold and “superior,” with associations found with narcissism, other-oriented perfectionism, and various antisocial tendencies (e.g., Disagreeableness, Machiavellianism, racism), but it was also related to being self-deprecating and emotionally fragile, with associations found with low self-esteem, insecure attachment, and feeling that others impose perfectionistic standards on oneself.
In other words, people who act out are really just insecure and are lashing out as a result.
Deciphering the office jerk
With this knowledge in hand, how can you go about vanquishing your toxic co-workers or socially difficult colleagues? You know that their behavior is symptomatic of poor self-esteem and insecurity, so you may need to enact a few strategies stolen from psychologists to smooth things out.
For one, keep in mind that you can’t control the other person’s feelings or behavior — you can only control your own. Use this kernel of Stoic knowledge to keep yourself composed and confident when confronted with a difficult situation. Let people vent, if need be. They may become unhinged for a short time, but genuinely listen to their concerns and see if there’s actually anything you can do to help.
Second, you’ll need to match their frequency in order to effectively communicate with them. Difficult people often don’t listen to the concerns of others because they’re not in tune with them. Imagine you’re trying to stop a freight train. You don’t stop the train all at once — that’s like hitting a brick wall and leads to disaster. You need to match the train’s speed, hop into the driver’s seat, and slowly apply the brakes.
Take the same approach with your difficult co-workers or boss. Match their speed, and slowly apply the brakes. This way, they’ll be more receptive, and more open to the feedback you’re giving them regarding their behavior.