When it comes to workplace abuse, evil still trumps stupid

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman offers a provocative, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek thesis about bad leaders: We should fear the stupid ones more than the evil ones. In support of his point, Burkeman cites a humorous 1976 essay by economist Carlo Cipolla:

Cipolla has a technical definition of a stupid person: someone “who causes losses to another person [or group] while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses” – as opposed to a “bandit”, who pursues selfish gain at cost to others. “Day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments,” he writes.

…What makes stupid people so dangerous is that you can’t refer to their own self-interest to predict or explain their actions. “An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit,” Cipolla writes. “The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality.” Not so with the stupid.

True, anyone who has worked under not-so-bright leaders knows the havoc that they can wreak. These leaders may also suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias where incompetent individuals vastly overrate their abilities. A lot of dumb, absurd, crazy-making stuff can happen when such people are in charge, leading to massive frustrations and squanderings of time, effort, and money.

But when I apply the Burkeman/Cipolla thesis to workplace abuse, I find it grinding to a halt. When it comes to workplace bullying and mobbing, it’s the evil leaders we should fear the most — the ones who maliciously abuse others, encourage a culture of such behaviors, and/or look the other way when they occur.

True, work abuse may have no seeming rationality, in that it is bad for everyone (exempting perhaps abusers and their enablers), thus technically qualifying for the label of stupid. But make no mistake about it, genuine bullying and mobbing behaviors are motivated by a desire to instill fear or distress. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great American jurist, wrote that “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked” (The Common Law, 1881). Most of those who have been savagely mistreated at work know the difference as well.

Of course, on occasion we encounter those folks who are both evil and stupid, while possessing the power to impose themselves on others. If they are aware of their lack of competence (the opposite of Dunning-Kruger Effect), it may fuel insecurities that can drive bullying. When combined with their capacity for malevolence, abusive behaviors may well follow. And if they are in leadership positions, then really bad things can happen to subordinates who challenge them.

3 responses

  1. “When you blame one group for something and you declare another group superior, and then thirdly you reserve the power to this superior group, it lines up the inferior group to be used at the service of the superior group. The temptation for members of the elite is to hold themselves blameless for breaking certain codes of behavior, and even for thinking themselves above such codes.” Baltimore Magazine, Dec. 1995

  2. David-
    Currently in my state , and I’m sure in others , the teaching profession has become unrecognizable with the onslaught of alternative methods to gaining licensure , and the growing number of charter schools. I myself have worked for 3 charter schools where the leadership of the building ( principal , asst. principal ) had less than 3 years classroom teaching experience and 2 did. It have a license on file at all. In addition , because of changes to our tenure law – if you have 25 years experience in a school district – and move to another school – you can be PAID as a 25 year teacher – but you are a year 1 teacher in that district- it isn’t until year 3 that a school district has to cancel a contract with cause . As you can probably already see how this creates a
    breeding ground for workplace bullying – veteran teachers are sitting ducks for 2 years and are under the thumb of whomever they are stuck with as a lease – stupid ? Maybe – evil? Maybe – it doesn’t matter – at any given time , for 2 years a teacher who is high paid for years served but low totem pole for years in the district – is vulnerable to the proverbial ” we aren’t inviting you back ” which usually comes with falsified evaluations and smear campaigns to justify the termination…which by law – isn’t even needed in year 1 or 2.

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