In many ways, today's workplace can be likened to the wilderness. There's a clear pecking order, with C-suite employees positioned at the upper echelons of the food chain. Much like the wilderness, the workplace is teeming with a host of different creatures -- some are nurturing and supportive, while others are toxic and/or deadly. There's typically one especially destructive creature. In Jurassic Park, it was the T-Rex. In today's workplace, it's the a-hole. To stay alive in the wilderness -- and to avoid being devoured by the T-Rex -- every good adventurer needs a survival guide. Unfortunately, no such guide has existed for the workplace, until only recently. 

Thankfully, organizational behavior expert Bob Sutton recently penned such a guide. It's called "The Asshole Survival Guide." 

Following are three strategies, sure to increase your odds of survival: 

1. Maintain Physical Distance   

A Harvard University study found that our proximity to colleagues in the workplace impacts our productivity. That is, there is a spillover effect. The study found that substituting an average performer with one who is two times as productive results in neighboring workers becoming, on average, 10 percent more productive.

Alas, in the context of toxic workers, the study found the opposite case to also be true. When a toxic worker (a seemlier sobriquet for "a-hole") was situated next to a non-toxic worker, the non-toxic worker was more likely to become toxic. According to Michael Housman, an author of the study, "If you add a toxic worker to within a 25-foot radius of a focal worker, the chance that the focal worker becomes a toxic worker themselves more than doubles (112.5 percent increase)." Being a jerk is as contagious as poison ivy in the wilderness. 

The best way of avoiding workplace contagion by toxic workers is to minimize contact. Research by TJ Allen found that people are four times more likely to communicate regularly with individuals who are seated two meters away versus 20 meters away. Sutton recommends moving your desk away from workplace jerks, as you'll be less likely to be the target of their actions and behaviors.

2. Slow the Rhythm

A study spearheaded by University of Chicago researchers found that individuals with "aggressive conduct disorder" (i.e., those who exhibit toxic penchants such as bullying, lying, and stealing) display distinctive signs and symptoms. MRI scans have revealed that, in contrast to other individuals, the brains of such individuals "light up" when they see images of people experiencing.

Workplace jerks, it seems, seek pleasure in knowing they've inflicted pain on their targets. Given this predilection, Sutton recommends that you slow the rhythm of your exchanges with toxic workers as much as possible. By doing so, you'll deny the abuser the positive reinforcement and pleasure they crave when they abuse others. In order to slow the rhythm, several tactics can be employed. Reduce the frequency of communications. Limit meetings such that they are only scheduled on an as-needed basis. As well, when possible, minimize email communications and delay email response times.

By slowing the rhythm, not only will you deny workplace jerks undeserved pleasure, you'll also minimize the likelihood of self-regret. When we're frustrated or feel victimized, we tend to be quick to respond to an aggressor with rash rejoinders and retorts -- with what Daniel Kahneman's calls our System 1 mind. Because our System 1 mind operates on emotions and intuitions, it is highly susceptible to error. It is "gullible and biased," according to Kahneman. In contrast, our System 2 mind is our more logical and controlled method for delivering responses. While it is more deliberate and rational than our System 1 mind, it is often superseded by it. By slowing the rhythm of your collaboration with toxic workers, you'll increase the likelihood that you engage your System 2 mind and produce a more logical and well thought out response that you won't regret.  

3. Develop an Early Warning System

In the wilderness, an ability to foretell weather is a most valuable skill. Adventurers know the importance of taking cues from their surrounding so as to predict weather changes. Right before a storm, for example, birds and bees will disappear from their normal habitats. 

In the workplace, says Sutton, it's prudent to also develop an early warning system for workplace jerks -- one that forewarns of potential for humiliation, sabotage, abuse, etc. Consider the effective early warning system adopted by employees in the film "The Proposal," starring Sandra Bullock. In one scene, as Bullock's character (a cruel book editor who meets Sutton's criteria for a workplace jerk to a T) enters the office and her executive assistant (played by Ryan Reynolds) promptly sends an email to employees, alerting them of Bullock's presence by warning: "The witch is on her broom".

Oftentimes, an early warning system is best developed with the succor of a toxic worker's secretary or executive assistant. Because these individuals spend their days catering to the wants and needs of the assholes, they are best suited to predict rash behavior and/or mood swings. If you're able to successfully enlist individuals in the know, they can be invaluable in terms of alerting you not only of an asshole's presence, but also of his/her daily levels of "asshole-ness."

One chief engineer recently described to me an early warning system that he had established in partnership with his chief executive officer's secretary. Each morning, the secretary greeted the jerk with the words, "Good morning, Mr. Smith (true identity undisclosed)" so as to alert the engineer of his presence and, depending on the relative volume of the greeting, the predicted degree of toxicity for that particular day (a low volume indicated low probability levels, whereas a high volume was indicative of high likelihood levels).

Sutton notes that we are currently living in peak "a-hole" times. It's now more important than ever before to avoid succumbing to victimization by jerks at work. In the interest of self-preservation, Sutton's survival guide is a great place to start.

Published on: Nov 2, 2017
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