It isn’t easy, because people don’t like to give negative feedback. But there are ways to find out—
and fix things.

By Daniel Yudkin and Tessa West June 11, 2023 12:01 am ET

We all know who they are. The colleague who takes credit for others’ contributions. The boss who
seems to enjoy embarrassing subordinates. The know-it-all who won’t shut up in meetings.
Identifying the jerk at work is easy. Unless, that is, the jerk is you. In that case,
there’s a good chance you’ll never know it.
The reason for our blindness is clear: People hate giving negative feedback. So when people do
things that offend, irritate or make others uncomfortable, nobody tells them.
To understand how much anxiety people feel about giving negative feedback, consider one study we
ran in which we had two people negotiate with each other. We then instructed the winner of the
negotiation to give feedback to the loser on what they could have done differently. Instead of
providing constructive feedback (for instance, “You came in with a really low offer, it made me
think you would
settle”), most winners gave overly positive, noncritical feedback that was basically useless (“Your
negotiation skills were so great—you really killed it!”).
Yet even with this sugarcoating of the facts, advice givers still found the exercise extremely
stressful: They delivered positive feedback through tense smiles, with hearts pounding. Apparently,
the mere prospect of giving negative feedback made people apprehensive, even though the advice they
actually gave was milquetoast.
(Then again, advice givers have plenty of reason to be wary. Even the most carefully worded
negative feedback can result in unpleasant consequences for the deliverer—like anger, dismissing or
devaluing the advice, and criticizing the advice
giver in return.)

Totally oblivious
This absence of productive feedback obviously creates a big problem when it comes to people knowing
if they are a jerk.
For a striking illustration of this ignorance, consider the popular Reddit thread “Am I the
Asshole?”, in which users write in with a description of a personal experience, and other users
comment on whether the person was the offending party. Our analysis identified some 40,000 cases of
workplace jerkishness ranging in subject matter from the ethical status of an office crush to
whether someone is in the wrong for “ruining the company’s group photo” (how, we’ll leave to your
The sheer volume of posts suggests people aren’t getting enough real feedback about whether they
are the jerk at work. Why would people take to Reddit for ethical insight if it was readily
available to them from their friends and colleagues?
Yet as uncertain as these would-be jerks are, the people rendering verdicts are far less equivocal:
Of all the posts we analyzed, only 15% failed to receive a consensus verdict.
In other words, what may feel like a terribly ambiguous moral conundrum
from your perspective is likely as clear as day to the outside observer. The people
around you know if you’re a jerk or not. They’re just not telling you.

What to do
So, that leads to the most-important question: How can I know if I’m the office jerk? Fortunately,
social science has identified a number of ways to spur communication between advice givers and
receivers (for those brave enough to hold up that mirror):
Realize that jerk-at-work behavior can come in all shapes and sizes.
When people call to mind the types of behaviors that could lead them to be
perceived as a jerk at work, they focus on those that are widely acknowledged “bad actions”—lying
and stealing, for example. If you aren’t engaging in those kinds of behaviors, it’s easy to write
off the idea that you may be a jerk.
We examined the content of jerk-at-work posts in the aforementioned Reddit thread, using artificial
intelligence to categorize the situations to see which behaviors are the most likely to get you
labeled the jerk.


What do you think are the most “jerkish” behaviors in the workplace? Join the
conversation below.
The clear winners (well, losers) were behaviors considered to be overreactions and judgmental. For
example, one poster was universally maligned for “calling out an annoying and weird colleague in an
all-staff email.” Another was condemned for gifting soap to a supposedly unhygienic co-worker
during the office holiday party. In other words, an outsize display of emotion, or a lack of
tolerance for others’ potential lapses, puts you at high risk of being seen as a jerk at work. In
many cases, we are jerks not because we did something mean, but because we were too
judgmental about other people’s behaviors.
That awkward joke you made on Zoom the other day? Unlikely anybody remembers it. But the judgey
comment you made about someone else’s awkward joke? That indeed, might land you in jerk-at-work
Don’t wait for people to deliver the bad news.
At best, you’ll learn that you’re the jerk at work through the absence of positive
feedback (think recommendation requests left unanswered and recruiters who can’t gain traction on
what you’re like to work with) rather than through the presence of negative feedback. Instead, the
key is to actively solicit advice in a way that reduces anxiety on the part of the advice giver by
signaling your willingness to receive feedback and channel it constructively.
Tailor feedback requests to your specific behaviors, not to what people think of you in general.
In our feedback study with negotiators, one reason winners layered on the compliments was because
the losers asked for very general feedback (“How did I do?”). People typically feel uncomfortable
passing judgment about the overall person, which is what general feedback feels like.
But get more specific, and the reluctance fades. In our study, those who asked for specific
feedback (for instance, “When I opened with the offer of $10,000, did you think that was too low?
Why?”) got specific, accurate and useful answers.
Keep in mind, though, that when you ask for specific feedback, it’s best to do it right away.
Memories are fallible; you want to get people’s thoughts right after the behavior in question, not
during your quarterly review.
Ask for feedback about “ideal behavior” rather than about your own behavior.

You can grease the feedback wheels by framing your questions around what the ideal version of the
specific behavior should be, rather than what they think
of your behavior.