Earlier this fall, the Washington Post‘s Jena McGregor wrote a snappy piece titled “A field guide to jerks at work,” where she identified and commented upon five types of individuals who fit the description:
- “The lone ‘bosshole'”
- “The powerful bully”
- “The clueless jerk”
- “The petty tyrant”
- “The overbearing client”
I’m sure that many who are familiar with bullying, mobbing, and incivility at work can recognize such characters from real life. I’ve used the term “jerks at work” myself, on many occasions. In fact, way back in 1998, invoking that phrase resulted in my first-ever quote on workplace bullying in a national publication (USA Today).
However, I now grasp that “jerks at work,” along with “bosshole,” “tyrant,” and other terms, can underplay the nature and impacts of the most virulent strains of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment. These targeted, malicious behaviors are frequently perpetrated by individuals who demonstrate traits of severe narcissism, sociopathy, or psychopathy, enabled by organizations that either actively validate such behaviors or conveniently look the other way when they occur.
Instead of “jerks,” I find myself sometimes associating the term “soul stalkers” with these types of workplace aggressors, borrowing from the title of Dr. Marie-France Hirogoyen’s Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed., 2004). Dr. Hirogoyen, a French psychiatrist and therapist, provides an important analysis of emotional abuse in private lives and in the workplace.
I know that I’m beating a familiar drum here, but I again want to urge that we not confuse incivility and being a jerk with abuse and being an abuser. Our souls can usually survive dysfunctional bossholes and the like, however unpleasant and stressful they may be. But bonafide abusers may exact a much greater toll, and we need to figure out how to neutralize their toxic powers in the workplace and elsewhere.