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Is There a Jerk at Work? Here Are 7 Tips for Staying Sane

Stanford professor Robert Sutton offers a slew of suggestions for how to break up negative vibes in the office.

We’ve all done it, had to interact with an asshole at work. Sometimes its the customer who will never be truly happy with their service and yet inexplicably keeps showing up for more service to complain about. Sometimes its the coworker who just enjoys walking all over everybody else on their way to the top. Some of us have even had to endure the sadistic boss who enjoys watching other people suffer.

More than half of all Americans have endured some kind of workplace bullying, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. Dealing with a jerk at work is one of the most common problems you can have. It can also be bad for your health, as Stanford professor Robert Sutton says, “There are longitudinal studies that demonstrate pretty clearly that people who, for example, work under assholes for many years end up being more depressed, more anxious, and less healthy.”

But, what can we do about it?

In his book The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, Professor Sutton proposes several solutions to how to deal with jerks based on your situation and their position. For him, an asshole is “someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt,” and is a person who does these things consistently. We can all be guilty of this kind of behavior from time to time, but if someone is doing it constantly that's what is known, in scientific terms, as a real piece of work. Professor Sutton offers us a slew of suggestions for how to improve our situation, in no particular order.

No Jerk Policies
A lot of workplaces have “No Jerk Policies”. As strange as it sounds, these policies can be effective. Sutton claims that, at Stanford, questions of how a person will behave once they have a job are openly discussed when making hiring decisions. The idea then is that civility will be enforced as a workplace rule.

Freeze out
Of course, even at Stanford, sometimes the No Jerk Policy fails. A jackass makes it past the interview process and is now working with you. Sutton relates how he and his coworkers will be cordial to such a person in the office, but will make no effort to interact with them unnecessarily. Avoidance of a jerk is one way of solving the problem in the short term. 

Move out
Sometimes the schmuck causing you stress is your boss, or is otherwise too entrenched and powerful for you to ignore. The best thing to do here, says Sutton, is to leave. “If you’re stuck under a certified asshole, that means you’re suffering. And if that’s the case, you should get out — it’s that simple.” He recommends first attempting a transfer within the same company, but leaving the entire organization if you must. Don't accept a worse job just to escape: look for a better opportunity. What's that saying about the best revenge is to live well?

If you can’t leave, and not everybody can, trying to solve the problem by making it a group issue is an option. “To begin with, you've got to build your case. You’ve also got to build a coalition.” Having several people complain to HR with a large body of evidence that another person is being abusive stands a much better chance of working than just one person going it alone. This will also give you an opportunity to take stock of how other people view this alleged jerk: are your concerns shared by others, or are you inflating a gripe into a grudge? Now is a good time for reflection, and to help you in that, here is a little wisdom from Carl Jung to keep in mind: "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other. This advice from Ben Franklin rings true with assholes as well. Sutton agrees, “If somebody has a long history of hurting you, and they have a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they understand is a display of force. If that’s the case, the best way to protect yourself is to fire back with everything you’ve got.” Being an asshole right back might have the bonus that they try to avoid you. 

Ignore them
One of the simplest and best solutions is the most difficult to use. It requires the patience of a saint. Ignore them, don’t let them cause you pain or at least don’t let them know they got to you. A lot of jerks just do it for the response. Deny them that, and you take the wind out of their sails. 

Talk to the jerk
Lastly, a lot of people don’t know they are being assholes. While that might be hard to believe, it is the case. Consider how the same studies that show that more than half of Americans suffer workplace bullying also show that less than one percent of people admit to being the cause. If the person causing you grief is doing it out of ignorance rather than malice, taking them aside and explaining the problem could solve the problem.

But, how do I know if I am the asshole?

Humans are flawed, we can often have a hard time understanding our own personality problems. We can best understand our own occasional assholery by listening to a trusted friend. Ideally, we would all have a friend or family member who would call us out on this kind of thing, but not everyone does.

If you have to rely on your own self-reflection, we still have advice. Demographically, you are more likely to be a jerk if you are wealthy, well educated, and prestigious. While the idea of the entitled jerk who thinks they are better than everybody else can bring back bad memories for a lot of people, statistically you are at risk of doing this too if you move up in the world.

Almost every workplace has an asshole in it, but you needn’t suffer too much for it. Taking even simple steps to avoid a toxic person like the walking pile of radioactive fertilizer they might be can do wonders for your mental health. After all, life is too short to let them get the better of you.

Stay humble, and flex your empathy skills with Alan Alda:

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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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