By Barry Robertson – October 3, 2017

“Over the next six months, your assignment is to create a powerful synergistic relationship with the biggest jerk in your company.”

working with a jerk

As the words of our facilitator at The Wharton School Effective Executive Workshop sank in, my head wanted to explode as an image of the biggest jerk I knew in my company appeared in my head. “This is my assignment from hell.”

My mind was reeling as we were shifting from theory to an assignment to apply that theory. The professor was giving me, and 80 other executives at this session in 1983, “homework” for the next six months before we returned for Part II of the workshop. We had just finished Part I with discussions on “How to improve ANY relationship”.

With my fear of conflict in full bloom, my thoughts then shifted to how I could get out of the assignment. “I’ve always wanted to move to the west coast.” “I’m still young, maybe I can change careers”. With those thoughts, and more, running through my fear-addled brain, the professor then shared more information that I did not like.

He asked, “How many people here have an image of your biggest jerk in your head?” It was comforting to see most everyone had their hands up as I raised mine. Then, the professor said, “You are going to hate this, but if the person you are picturing in your head was sitting in this workshop right now, there’s a good chance he would be picturing your face in his/her head.”

He was right. I hated this point. Like most people, I saw myself as a good person, with good intentions. The professor forced me to confront the fact that it “takes two to tango”, that there are two parties to every relationship. In the mind of the guy who I thought was a jerk, we’ll call him “Joe”, there was a high probability that I was a jerk.

The professor made it clear that once we interpret behavior from another person as “not good”, or “lacking integrity”, our perceptual filters start seeing the other person through the lens of that interpretation. We then notice more behaviors that seem to support our judgements.

The last memorable concept the professor covered was via a few questions. He asked, “Is this jerk married? Does he have a close loving relationship? Does she/he have children that love him/her? Does she/he have friends that think highly of her/him?” The answer to all of these questions was yes. Hmmm…

I wondered, “Can I really change an unhealthy dynamic?” I found out, the answer is yes, but it is not easy. It takes courage and persistence. I won’t share all the details of my journey, but here are 10 steps to transform any relationship, building on what we were taught in our workshop:

  1. Get over yourself – Everyone is doing the best they can. It’s not our job to label people as jerks or superstars. It’s our job to learn how to be as effective as we can with everyone.
  2. Apply the 10% Rule as you analyze the dynamics – If you are in conflict, assume your behavior is at least 10% of the problem. Look for the whole story, as you would if you were watching a business drama on TV.
  3. Prepare your confrontation strategy – Using your awareness of the other person’s behavioral patterns and personality, prepare a meeting strategy that will get to the issues in the most effective way. It helps to think of the meeting as a mutual problem-solving session, more than a melodramatic “jerk-frontation”.
  4. Visualize the meeting – In your mind’s eye, experience yourself being the most grounded and non-defensive person ever as you visualize the conversation over and over. Envision several different responses from the other person, from great to difficult. See yourself handle the best to worst responses respectfully and openly, with the meeting always leading to a positive outcome.
  5. First truth’s first – Start the conversation with observations that the other person must agree are undeniably true. This gets momentum going without a debate with your first words.
  6. Ask for help and then describe the issue – Asking for help makes you vulnerable, which in turn helps the other party open up more. Describe the issue in a way that acknowledges your part in it, and add an apology for that, if appropriate.
  7. Lose ego, listen and share as you discuss the issue – Listen to the other person’s points with real intent to learn more. As you authentically listen, the other person will respond better. Be ready to find out what you do not know, including how you or your people are contributing to the problem. Acknowledge good points. Build on something that the other person says, giving him/her reason to build on your points. Share your truths clearly and gracefully. Give and take until everything is clear, and you each agree on the solutions. Remember compromise can be a great thing (something Congress could learn).
  8. Summarize to validate agreements – As you summarize who will do what, when and how, verify that you are indeed on the same page. Include agreement on how you will hold each other accountable for following through on your actions.
  9. Thank the other person – Showing sincere appreciation adds more to the relationship. Acknowledge that it wasn’t easy to discuss, if that is true.
  10. Deliver on what you said you would do – We build trust by honoring commitments. Always be that person. Expect the same from the other person as well.

I hope this will help you be more effective dealing with someone that you may have previously considered a jerk. Remember, the key to changing any relationship is someone making the first move. Most people won’t do this, due to fear of conflict, which was obviously my issue. The more you practice this, the more inner strength and confidence you will build, and the more respect you will earn.

Once you realize you can unilaterally transform any relationship that you are willing to invest yourself in, life gets easier and more enjoyable. Typically, you’ll eventually realize that there are few, if any, true jerks in your world. That is self-transformation of the world you live in.

Best wishes as you learn and grow!