If the words, “Life is too short to work with jerks” have never come out of your mouth, you either have a very short memory or you’re just not being honest with yourself. Nobody likes to work with jerks. I didn’t either, until I realized I was one.
You heard right. I’m a jerk. But here’s the thing: I’m not a jerk all the time or to everyone. It depends. Relationships are funny that way, especially at work. They’re two-way streets, highly subjective, and situational, as well.
Look at it this way: The workplace is a diverse melting pot of personalities, personal baggage, and different perspectives. And everyone reacts differently to the pressures, stresses and uncertainty of competitive markets.
If you want to survive and thrive in a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment, you’ve got to learn how to handle all kinds of people, including those you may think are jerks. This is how successful executives and business leaders do that.
Look in the mirror. People are often jerks to those they feel threatened by and those they perceive to be jerks. It’s always a good idea to make sure you’re not contributing to the problem. If you’re not sure, then ask a trusted confidant or deal with your nemesis directly and try to clear the air.
Address the problem, not the person. Confrontation is good for business, if you know the ground rules. Perhaps the most valuable tenet of constructive confrontation is to always discuss the issue and never make it personal. It’s one thing to say you don’t like someone’s idea, but if you say you don’t like him, that’s inflammatory.
Resist the urge to label or judge. Once you slap a label or pronounce judgment on someone – even if just in your own mind – it’s hard to shake it. Even worse is inventing motives out of thin air. You’re not a shrink, you have no idea why people do the things they do – oftentimes they don’t know themselves – so you’ll most likely be wrong.
Get your priorities straight. Business is about business; it’s not about you and your personal issues with someone else. Focus on your priorities and finding the most effective way to get the job done. After all, that’s what you’re paid to do. If that sounds like tough love, you’re right.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. I was trained in conflict management as a young manager, and the most effective tool is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and try repeating it back to them: “Let me see if I understand. Are you saying _____ ?” You’ll be surprised how well that defuses tense situations.
Be the bigger person. When I was a kid, I had a fight with my best friend and went home crying to mom. She said I should apologize. “But mom,” I whined, “He started it.” “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s probably telling his mom the same thing.” So I apologized and everything went back to normal. Lesson learned … to this day.
Don’t get into turf battles. You’re not going to get anywhere in life by protecting your turf. Trust me on that. It might seem important today but, someday, you’ll look back and wonder why you got so bent out of shape over petty nonsense.
Deal with it in real time. While it’s sometimes good to walk away from a heated argument and let emotions settle down, letting ongoing problems fester is also a bad idea. Dealing with issues openly and directly as they occur is usually the way to go.
Let an outlier weed himself out. A well-functioning business culture will usually cast out a dysfunctional pain in the butt eventually through peer pressure. A top executive once told me this old Japanese proverb, “If you wait by the river long enough, you’ll see the body of your enemy float by.” It’s usually true. Patience is rewarded.
Get plans on the record. The toughest people to deal with are passive aggressive, meaning agreeable to your face then sabotage behind your back. If you confront them, they act like nothing happened or flat-out lie. Avoid that sort of “he said, she said” by getting agreed upon plans on the record in front of the entire team. Simple.
Notice there’s nothing about whining to your boss, complaining to HR or fighting fire with fire. Not only is that a waste of time, you’ll probably get labeled a troublemaker and end up on the chopping block yourself. Not a good result.
As a last resort, you can always quit. Just remember, if you find yourself running for the exit, muttering, “Life is too short to work with jerks” more than once, there’s a good chance the problem is you.
If you liked this post, you’ll love Steve’s new book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur. Pick it up today; it makes a great stocking stuffer for all the aspiring business leaders in your life.
A version of this originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.
Image credit Horrible Bosses, Warner Bros.