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.

Working Notes: August 15, 2012

Dear Readers,

From time to time I’m going to use this Working Notes feature to briefly flag items of interest, especially if I’m pressed for time and not able to write up a full blog post about each of them.  Here goes:

Massachusetts Readers — Friday morning, October 19 — Save-the-Date Announcement

The New Workplace Institute will host a program on workplace bullying on the morning of Friday, October 19, at Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston. Details to follow!

The event will be sponsored in conjunction with Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week, October 14-20, sponsored by the Workplace Bullying Institute.

WBI Instant Survey

And speaking of the Workplace Bullying Institute, the latest WBI instant survey gathered online responses from 516 self-selected respondents, who were asked what health impairments they’ve experienced due to bullying at work. Here’s the summary:

In the fourth 2012 WBI Instant Poll (single question), 516 visitors to the site were asked how bullying affected their health. Bullying drove 71% of targets to seek treatment from a physician. Psychological problems included, in rank order: Anxiety (80%), Depression (49%) and PTSD (30%). Many physical stress-related problems were also reported. Suicide was considered by 29%.

For more, go to the WBI blog post, here.

Working in the airline industry

Working for a commercial airline — flying the friendly skies and all that — once was seen as a glamour job for those who wanted to see the world. It can still offer that sense of adventure, but in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ongoing economic crisis, it can be very, very stressful to work in an airborne tin can.

Lisa Shames, writing for Time Out Chicago, offers this piece on the new realities of angry passengers, stressed out flight attendants, ever-present safety concerns, and huge pay cuts even as airline executives reap huge bonuses.

Who was Ayn Rand?

The late Ayn Rand, ultra conservative author and philosopher, is one of the intellectual heroes of the far right. She is back in the news because of her formative influence on GOP vice-presidential designate Paul Ryan. Her influential writings, especially the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, preach a gospel of selfishness and contempt toward any kind of public safety net programs for those in need.

Jan Frel, writing for AlterNet, dissects the essence of Ayn Rand here.

When Boomers bloviate to Millennials

Paul Campos, writing for Salon, suggests that Baby Boomers need to think twice before blithely offering career and life advice to a generation facing very different challenges than they did.  He explains his “list of four things a baby boomer should never say to a millennial” here.

May the spirit of papau inspire us

Let’s start the week with something good: Papau. It’s a great Hawaiian word. To quote from my crumbling copy of The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary (1975):

papau. Deeply engaged, absorbed, engrossed; united, all together.

Papau may be an elusive place; let’s face it, even the best of jobs have their grunt work. But the state of being deeply engaged, absorbed, engrossed; united, all together is something to which we all should aspire. And if our current daily tasks don’t offer this possibility, then we should strive to find things that do. It’s not just about ridding ourselves of the bad stuff; it’s also about envisioning something better.

Isn’t it great that there’s a word for this? (Maybe this explains why the minute you land in Hawaii, your blood pressure drops 10 points!)


Thanks to Wikipedia for the great photo of a Maui sunrise at the Haleakala crater.

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying

It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.

You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.

Med school

Dr. Pauline Chen, in a New York Times blog piece that already has attracted hundreds of comments (link here), writes about a resident doctor who terrified the medical students with his explosive behavior:

Powerfully built and with the face of a boxer, he cast a bone-chilling shadow wherever he went in the hospital.

At least that is what my medical school classmates and I thought whenever we passed by a certain resident, or doctor-in-training, just a few years older than we were.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now see that the young man was a brilliant and promising young doctor who took his patients’ conditions to heart but who also possessed a temper so explosive that medical students dreaded working with him. He had called various classmates “stupid” and “useless” and could erupt with little warning in the middle of hospital halls. Like frightened little mice, we endured the treatment as an inevitable part of medical training, fearful that doing otherwise could result in a career-destroying evaluation or grade.

Chen goes on to discuss studies documenting high levels of abuse directed at medical students, as well as efforts that have been undertaken by some medical schools to change their educational environments — often with disappointing results.

Law school

Lest I be accused of tossing bricks from my glass house, let me quickly acknowledge that law schools are no better at educating their students to be socially intelligent practitioners. Even in the face of pressures being exerted by accreditors and leaders of the Bar to do a better job of preparing students for actual practice, law schools overwhelmingly emphasize the study of judicial decisions, statutes, and regulations.

To the extent that lawyering skills become a part of the law school curriculum through simulation courses, clinical programs, and externships, much of the focus remains on advocacy as the dominant interpersonal skill. Client counseling and personal communications are considered “soft” skills, and they rarely get a lot of attention.

Consequently, a lot of lawyers who possess the intelligence to earn a law degree and pass a bar exam come up short on interpersonal skills. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the legal profession is home to a lot of workplace bullying. Too many lawyers are wired to act aggressively in any interpersonal situation, including dealing with colleagues and clients. Some cross the line and are downright abusive.

Start early

The cues for what constitutes appropriate behavior often are communicated initially in these professional schools. Doctors and lawyers in training may have no idea how to conduct themselves as practitioners, other than being influenced by a lot of unfortunate “role models” on television. If we want to prevent workplace bullying, the training schools for these professions are the first and perhaps best places to start.


Hat tip to Dr. Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State U.) for the New York Times article.

Positive qualities of my best bosses

I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes:

1. They all were very hard workers. They didn’t preach a work ethic; they exemplified it.

2. Interestingly, not one was charismatic or dazzling in terms of personality. And yet, they inspired others and led effectively in their own ways.

3. They were very smart and good at what they did, whether it was managing a retail store staff, writing a complex legal brief, or designing a new curriculum.

4. They earned respect quietly, expressed appreciation when it was merited, and brought out your best. A word of praise could make my day, because I knew it was sincere and meaningful.

5. They gave you room to be yourself, quirks and all, instead of insisting that you emulate them.

6. They didn’t bully or mistreat people. Instead, they treated everyone with respect and dignity.

7. There was no task beneath them. No princes or princesses. They’d jump in and do the same work you were doing if it needed to get done.

8. They arrived at difficult decisions fairly and without hidden agendas.

9. They were trustworthy. Their words counted for something.

I’m not suggesting that these should be the universal factors for what makes a great boss. We all have our preferences, and people may have honest differences over what’s important.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty good list, and I’m betting that many readers will nod their heads in agreement.


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Great leadership rarely appears overnight

Following the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the battered U.S. Pacific Fleet was put under the command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a Naval Academy graduate and career officer in his mid-50s. It would prove to be the right move. Nimitz was a smart, confident, and disciplined leader, and he played a historically important role in winning back the Pacific during World War II.

The stories of Nimitz and other top admirals who led America’s Pacific fleet during the war are brilliantly told in a new book, Walter R. Borneman’s The Admirals (2012). William Halsey, William Leahy, and Ernest King join Nimitz as the five-star admirals featured in the book.

Early career setback

I find myself most drawn to Nimitz, as he stands as the central figure in the Pacific command. Interestingly, his naval career came very close to ending barely after it began. As a young ensign, he allowed his first command, the destroyer U.S.S. Decatur, to run aground, a cardinal sin for any ship’s captain. A court martial found him guilty of neglect of duty, and he was issued a reprimand.

Maximizing opportunities

As penance, Nimitz was relegated to submarine duty, one of the less desirable assignments in the early 1900s for an ambitious young officer. Borneman notes, however, that rather than mope about, Nimitz learned everything he could from those postings and made valuable recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the submarine service. He would continue to shake off the taint of that early reprimand and serve in numerous shipboard and land-based assignments with distinction.

The oft-unseen seeds of great leadership

In many historical accounts of the Pacific naval war, these men are presented to us as fully-formed leaders. The Admirals, however, begins with their early lives and careers, and it is chock full of accounts that show us how many of their critical successes during the war can be traced back to their pre-war education, training, and experiences. When they had to step up, they were ready.

Lessons for our day

In today’s society, we worship and celebrate youth, and this extends to those we anoint as leaders. All too often, in every sector of society, we elevate people to senior leadership positions before they are ready, and not infrequently we pay a price for their inexperience.

As corrective guidance, The Admirals is not only an excellent work of history, but also a set of lessons on the value of tested, experienced leadership.


Related posts

The Let-Me-Impress-You Club (2011)

Wisdom, experience, and leadership (2011)


Nimitz portrait: Wikipedia

Hat tip to Brian McCrane, Capt. (ret.), U.S. Navy, for recommending The Admirals.

The Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts: A progress report

The just-concluded 2011-12 session of the Massachusetts legislature encompassed significant progress in moving the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (MA House No. 2310) toward eventual enactment into law. Although we still have plenty of work to do, there were many positive developments during this session.

Six signs

Here are what I consider to be the highlights:

1. Third reading — Most importantly, the HWB made it to a stage known as “third reading” in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. This means it jumped successfully through two committees and was poised for a floor vote of all the representatives. This was an excellent showing for a bill in its first full session. Less than a quarter of filed bills reach this stage. 

2. Political leadership — Buoyed by the leadership of our lead sponsors, Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark, we had a dozen legislators signing on as sponsors. Many of them testified at the public hearing on the bill last year, which attracted statewide media coverage.

3. Advocates — Our grassroots advocacy group grew to some 3,000 members, many of whom made calls and visits and sent e-mails to their legislators urging adoption of the HWB. This group is becoming a known quantity in the State House.

4. Labor support — In addition to the critically important, steadfast assistance of SEIU/NAGE leadership, staff, and members, we attracted additional support from organized labor, especially the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

5. Targets’ voices — More and more targets of workplace bullying are sharing their stories publicly, an easy-to-miss sign that this issue is no longer a silent epidemic, but rather a recognized form of abuse. These voices lend critical support to the HWB advocacy efforts, as personal accounts are the most powerful form of persuasion with our elected officials.

6. Opposition — We began to attract visible opposition in the form of an editorial in the Boston Herald and an organized letter-writing campaign claiming the HWB is bad for business. The silver lining here, and it’s a big one, is that we’re being taken seriously. Workplace bullying legislation is no longer a novelty.

What’s next?

Quite simply, we’re not letting up. In fact, we’re motivated to build on our success. The momentum is coming not only from within our advocacy group, but also from elected representatives who want to see the Healthy Workplace Bill become law.

We’ll be holding planning meetings this summer and early fall, and then redoubling our advocacy and public education work in preparation for the next session.

Advocacy in state legislative settings requires steadfast commitment and patience. It is rare for bills representing significant, new public policy ideas to sail through the legislature. Usually it takes several sessions to reach the point of being taken seriously. I’d say we’re now slightly ahead of that pace in terms of receptivity toward the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts.


To become part of the Healthy Workplace Bill advocacy effort in Massachusetts, go to our website (here), visit our blog (here), and join our Facebook page (here).

Those from elsewhere who wish to become HWB advocates in their home states can go here for more information.

Go here for my 2010 law review article explaining the basic provisions of the HWB and the history of efforts to enact workplace bullying legislation in the U.S.

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