It's Easy Being a Jerk

I’ve been rereading The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Warner Business Books, 2007). Stanford Professor Robert I. Sutton argues that variations of terms like creep, jerk and bully don’t carry the same impact as the A-word, and he may be right.

But I wonder if it becomes too easy to slap the A-label on a boss or co-worker, when we don’t see eye-to-eye, or simply don’t like someone for vague reasons.

Everyone knows what Sutton’s talking about. We’ve all experienced the nastiness of an unconstrained egomaniac who abuses power and intimidates others. Sutton defines two kinds: temporary and certified.

I think we get into trouble when we categorize someone as a real jerk, when he (or she) is having a temporary outbreak or a meltdown. Labels tend to stick, and color our perceptions forever after.

Raging maniacs are easy to spot. I think there’s a more serious problem with borlerline jerks. Real damage occurs when someone engages in covert backstabbing and hypocrisy. I’m talking about when someone makes comments that are subtly demeaning. Some people even couch their insults in humor and hide behind sarcasm.

Jerk Behaviors

According to Sutton, everyday jerk behaviors include:

1. Personal insults and innuendoes
2. Invading one’s personal space or territory
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, verbal and nonverbal
5. Sarcastic jokes, teasing and disguised insults
6. Email flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate
8. Rude interruptions
9. Two-faced attacks
10. Dirty looks, grimaces, eye-rolling
11. Treating people as though they’re invisible, keeping them out of the loop

I’ll bet you can add to this list, especially if you’ve been on the receiving line. The problem is that jerk behaviors often go undetected, and they are contagious, worse than any H1N1 virus.

Especially when it comes to humor at someone else’s expense. And it’s hard to pass up a good wise-crack, isn’t it?

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