How to Love and Lead a Jerk

By: Josh

It’s inevitable – we will always be working or associated with THAT person.

Maybe it’s a boss who is self-promoting and self-serving. He routinely takes all the credit for success, shares the blame with you and others when something goes wrong, and he doesn’t listen to anyone let alone shut up. He always has all the answers.

Or maybe it’s a coworker who seems to do nothing but complain all the time. She is always so negative. She has a complaint about every decision, situation, and person at work. And she is always more than happy to share her opinions, regardless of whether people ask for them or not.

It might even be the super competitive neighbor who always needs to have the best things on the street. He might have the best-looking house and yard, coolest gadgets, and fanciest cars. His kids can do no wrong and his family are top performers in any area. He is proud of his status on the street and isn’t afraid to flaunt it.

The truth is that we all have jerks in our lives. At work, in our community, our kids’ schools, and even in our own family – we can’t escape them. The jerk in our life might be negative, blind, self-serving, close-minded, a know-it-all, two-faced, or even cruel. Hopefully, they may simply be annoying and an inconvenience. Realistically, a jerk can be damaging to our quality of life, leading us to outright dread going to work, out onto our neighborhood street, to our kids’ school events, or to that upcoming family function.

But leaders have a hard truth we must face when it comes to these jerks in our lives: we are called to love and lead without conditions, and that means even if they are a jerk.

So, how exactly do we love and lead jerks well?

I have found two perspectives particularly helpful in loving, or at least being able to be patient with and tolerate, those I’m responsible to lead and work with. Let’s quickly explore each as I believe they can also help you be your best around the jerks in your life.

Perspective 1: Identify the Need They are Filling

All behavior has a motive. I’ve found that most negative behaviors exist to fill some sort of personal need.

The self-promoting and self-serving boss might have a lot of shame and self-confidence issues that he doesn’t want exposed, so this behavior is a tone-deaf way to compensate for that.

Or the negative coworker doesn’t really feel seen, heard, or valued at work and uses her complaining as a way to get attention.

Maybe our competitive neighbor feels he doesn’t receive the respect he deserves in other areas of his life, so he seeks it on the neighborhood street.

Ultimately, I’ve found that a jerk’s behavior is ultimately about them and has nothing to do with you or other people. It might be easy to judge, get frustrated with, and ignore their behavior. However, I encourage you to pause instead and consider what need they might be trying to fill through that behavior.

This way, we focus on the person and their needs, not their poor behavior. We become more curious and patient. We even become a better colleague, neighbor, family member, and leader. We focus on what we can control (ourselves and our attitude) and not on what we cannot (other peoples’ behavior). We take responsibility for the situation and the relationship, not letting the jerk behaviors dictate it.

Perspective 2: Understand That All Behavior Makes Sense with More Information

Behavior is a function of personality and the environment. To better understand a jerk’s behavior, we could (and should) investigate these two things before we judge:

  1. Their personality: What about their past, upbringing, and values govern this behavior?
  2. The environment: Is there something about their current environment that I might not be seeing that’s affecting them? We all have life, struggles, and battles that others don’t see. What might we not be seeing about their environment? We usually only see a fraction of the other person’s life. There might be a lot going on in the other areas we don’t see.

It might be easy to judge, condemn, or minimize a jerk’s behavior. However, a more intentional response could be to show patience, give some grace, and be willing to seek to understand before we jump to conclusions.

Putting the Perspectives into Action

What can patience, grace, and curiosity look like when dealing with jerks?

First, I encourage us to simply take the time and make the effort to appreciate their situation. Show care, be vulnerable, be supportive, and be invested. That can be as easy as listening to them without judgement or eyerolling.

Second, we might not know their situation and may never actually find out what might be going on in their life. But I do know that I’ve never regretted giving someone the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know what’s going on, so who am I to judge?

Finally, if you feel that you might be in a position to or that your relationship warrants it, consider putting the other person’s behavior on the table and confront it. Don’t do so to call them out, to judge, or to condemn. Do so in love, with the purpose being to seek to understand. We can gracefully offer “I perceive this behavior from you, and it routinely has this impact on me and our organization. I’d like to talk about it with you if you’re willing. Anything going on that I’m not aware of?”

In the end, I continue to think back on a quote from Bob Goff, author of Love Does, that has had a profound impact on how I treat and interact with people. He said that “most people need love and acceptance a lot more than they need advice.”

I firmly believe that applies to all of us, even (and especially) the jerks.

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