By idolizing jerks, we enable bullying and abuse at work

Steve Jobs was a difficult person to work for. He frequently directed high-decibel tirades at subordinates and business competitors. He often manipulated people and played on their insecurities. And yes, he also is one of the iconic figures of the digital age.

Since Jobs passed away, several journalists have asked me whether his genius justifies keeping bullying bosses on the payroll. You can almost hear the silent reasoning: No Steve Jobs, and there go my Mac, iPad, iPod, and iPhone.

But let’s set the record straight: Most jerks at work aren’t Steve Jobs. Some are good at what they do. Many are mediocre. Others are terrible. But only a rare few are such brilliant, innovative, industry-defining people that we should even consider whether the trade-off is worth it.

Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word

UC-Berkeley linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg astutely observes that we live in an era of valorizing jerks. In an AlterNet piece drawn from his new book, Ascent of the A-Word (2012), he writes:

This is an age of assholism simply because we find the phenomenon and its practitioners so interesting — or provocative, or compelling, or compellingly repulsive, or sometimes all of those at once.

Nunberg references the growing pile of business advice books built on the message that if managers simply become bigger jerks, then they, too, will be rich and famous. For example, he cites one book that praises the leadership qualities of General George S. Patton and concludes:

The passage is calculated to reassure even the most abusive manager that he’s on the right track; it’s for the good of the team, after all, and whatever his subordinates may say about him, they’ll be grateful later on.

Where abuse and bad management meet

Often it is possible to distinguish bullying from bad management. Bullying is targeted and abusive. Not only is it personally destructive, but also it has nothing to do with advancing legitimate organizational goals. Bad management, on the other hand, is just that: A boss doesn’t have the personal qualities or skill set to manage effectively and humanely, and at times incivility is a by-product of those shortcomings.

But Nunberg helps us to understand how abuse can be culturally validated as a legitimate leadership style. When such acceptance enters the workplace, everyone but a select few potentially pays the price.


Even if you don’t have time to read Nunberg’s book, his AlterNet excerpt goes into considerable detail and is worth a close look.

6 responses

  1. Hello, David!

    I agree with your premise, and the author’s premise, that we hold these jerks in high esteem. That does leak into the workplace, and certainly into management.

    The problem I have is being sent to a link to an article on a website that seems pretty fringe, or at least demagogic, on other political issues. It seems pretty unserious and biased. I understand that you may hold these beliefs as well, but when your politics leak over into your important work on Workplace Abuse, it undermines your effectiveness, at least in this person’s opinion.

    I find the exact same issue with David Namie, who I’ve connected with regarding my own experience of workplace abuse at a large healthcare organization, and he was so articulate and knowledgeable. Yet the more political his emails, links and blogs become, the less I am willing to forward to my organization’s management. I end up deleting his stuff rather than sharing it with administration.

    It is too bad, because I have made a bit of an impact with our EAP psychologists and HR dept, in at least acknowledging the issue for the first time EVER. They even have done an inservice type awareness training of their psychologists to deal with possible bullying complaints differently than they do with their typical “personality clash/communication problem” situation.

    I really do appreciate your hard and pioneering work in this area. I just needed to share my honest reaction today. Hope you don’t mind.

    Loren Nielsen


    • Loren, thanks for your comment. I think we may have an honest disagreement on some of this, as I do see political and policy implications of bullying and abuse at work. For example, certainly among the most outspoken opponents of legal protections for abuse targets have been the Chamber of Commerce and Society for Human Resource Management. One cannot escape the fact that powerful interests want to remain free to treat workers horribly.

      I also happen to be a proponent of effective unions and believe that without them, American workers are fair game for unchecked employer power, especially when it comes to wages, benefits, and worker voice.

      So…while this blog is not meant to be a general bullhorn for my political views, I’m not going to hide them when I believe they are relevant. (Plus, the fact is that this piece appeared on AlterNet, not the Wall Street Journal website!)

      On the question of what sources I use, I’ve also referenced pieces from Business Week, The Economist, Workforce Management, and other mainstream and conservative periodicals. That said, I concede it’s unlikely you’ll see me positively referencing many sources from the hard right.

  2. David, I find your two descriptions of a bad management style compared with the relentless pursuit of personal destruction of a person by a narcissistic, abusive, workplace bully to be right on target.

    We all know bosses that occasionally yell or get mad at certain situations or workloads that are causing a lot of stress to get done, but these types don’t even come close to the daily attacks a bully will put on a person just to calm their own insecurities.

    Steve Jobs may have been a harsh leader at times but I think that overall, his leadership and vision for Apple was really the driving force behind any attacks that may have come from him. He may have been pushy and unwilling to put up with others shortcomings where a true workplace bully is just into destroying someone because of their jealousy.

    Great post,


    • Judith, thank you. I admit that for me, Jobs is at the intersection of bullying vs. management style. I know I would not like to work for someone like that, and his approach would not bring out my best performance. But obviously he was effective in getting people to do good work. So, it’s a very tough call. Most cases are not nearly as difficult!

  3. This is a fascinating conversation and I will confess that Steve Jobs never was a hero of mine. I didn’t hate or dislike him… I just do not automatically hero worship “leaders” any more. But this discussion is incomplete without mentioning how the Ipad / or is it the Ipod ? is build overseas in cruel conditions worse than sweatshop conditions. People are warehoused to maximize their time on the job, are fed minimally, are denied bathroom breaks, are required to stand in one place for so long that their feet and legs are numb and swollen. When workers seek to escape their nightmare existences through suicide, their families are punished financially. This was part of his legacy whether he knew of it or not and how could he not?

    • Actually, a lot of Apple’s products are assembled under terrible working conditions. Fortunately — and I believe after Jobs died — public pressure in response to media coverage of these conditions has caused Apple to be more responsive. But the story is far from over.

      Apple is not the only computer company using sweatshop labor, to be fair. But when you put yourself out there as a hip and cool company, there will be added (and deserved) scrutiny.

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