Although some may think that Bob Sutton of Stanford fame started this discussion with his recent book, The No Asshole Rule, Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy prof, beat him to the punch in 2005. Frankfurt’s tome, though scholarly, is little more than a brief essay entitled, On Bullshit. Still, his work provides a useful analysis of the subject.
Let’s frame the issue this way. I’m approaching these personalities as a serious attempt to build your vocabulary and your street smarts. In fact, the haphazard or spontaneous labeling of someone as an asshole or bullshitter provides little in the way of realistic cues for effectively managing such a person. And as most will admit, it’s very important to learn how to manage these difficult people.
What’s actually driving my blog, though, is a comment that one reader made on a previous blog , Five questions for testing relationship behaviors. She began with a compliment and ended with a consciousness-raising insight:
It’s possible that you’ve misconstrued the situation based on your own experience and assumptions but from what I read here, you are pretty smart and well educated and there are a lot of jerks out there. Sometimes you have to go with your hunch (that the guy is a jerk) unless he starts to show otherwise.
So in the interest of workplace relationships and rhetorical accuracy, I intend to deal with four frustrating personalities, including assholes and bullshitters. In a later blog I’ll make some suggestions for dealing with them in the workplace.
Sutton defines assholes as employees who are insensitive to their colleagues: corporate bullies, bosses who just don’t get it. He writes that they are flat out rude, selfish, uncivil, mean-spirited, and don’t really seem to care about whom they step on. He goes on to distinguish the asshole as a person whose language and relationships leave people feeling threatened and demeaned. I believe that assholes are planful and intentional which makes them very painful.
Frankfurt makes it clear that bullshitters are in a different category. He compares bullshit to humbug. Bullshit, he writes, is short of lying and those who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a certain way. The bullshitter is always trying to get away with something, and has no interest in the truth of what he or she says. These folks, when trading their wares, seem to be intense, even passionate when telling stuff that they want you to think is significant. But it’s not “for real.” Like assholes, their behaviors, too, are quite intentional.
I’ve never seen an analysis of jerks. However, jerks exist in a still different category. Contrary to Sutton, I think it’s a miscalculation to confuse assholes with jerks. In my mind, assholes have a pretty strong sense of what they’re doing and they delight in it. Jerk behavior, like muscle spasms, is involuntary and not usually intentional. Jerks, in contrast to assholes or bullshitters, are socially dumb and dumbly unaware. They merely blunder on in their ways and can’t read the body language that they get from other people.
Though many think of these characters as male, that’s merely because in the corporate world male managers outnumber managers of the other sex. Anyone who’s ever been in retailing will have stories about plenty of females who fit these categories.
I don’t have a colorful name for the fourth category, but I can spot them from a mile away or within seconds of a conversation. I’m troubled because they are showing up more and more in the workplace, made visible because of the growth of religious fundamentalism. I think of them as the “professionally religious.”
When I was in the parish ministry, which, by the way, was loads of fun and a glorious experience, I stayed away from these people as much as humanly possible. I often held a quiet little party when they left the church. They were religious in the worst sense of the word. Always sincere, and, oh god, were they humble (at least they wanted everyone to think that of them), often inept, except that they wanted everyone to believe that they were paragons of virtue, goodness and religion. Although there are more and more men fitting this category, women seem to have a lock on the personality structure.
A few years ago, I was bitching to a seminary faculty member about a certain church organist, complaining about her uninspiring performance and lack of organ color (I’m a nut about great organs and great organists). He suggested that she might not last. I commented, to his laughter, that she was “very sincere, extremely religious and terribly humble, all of which meant she’d keep the church organist position forever.” In my mind, that personality is a form of well-practiced bullshit that many parishioners think goes with the territory and which some seem to believe to be appropriate. It is not involuntary, like the jerk, but quite intentional.
Stay tuned for part 2 on the subject which will focus on some suggestions for dealing with these characters.