What A Jerk? What A Star!

“The perfection preached in the Gospels never yet built an empire. Every man of action has a strong dose of egotism, pride, hardness, and cunning.” – Charles de Gaulle (quoted in The New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1968)

A recent issue of the Harvard Business Review featured a case study of a certain Andy Zimmerman, who is great at delivering the bottom line but abrasive with co-workers and subordinates — especially when he believes they are slacking off. The question posed: What should be done about him? The expert (Gary Namie, a social psychologist and consultant for something called “the Work Doctor” in Mt. Vernon, Washington) answers: Either manipulate him (through rewards, threats, or flattery) or isolate him. After all, as one panelist said, “Andy is extremely narcissistic. It’s all about him.”

The study had made it clear that Andy was passionate about finding new customers and keeping existing ones. His occasional bouts of bad temper were directed at executives who were coasting along, paying more attention to their personal lives than their work.

I wanted to know: What’s so narcissistic about that? How is caring about business a form of self-interest? In fact, weren’t the other executives, the ones who put other things (personal things) ahead of business, the narcissistic ones?

However, Namie rued the fact that “bright but intimidating manipulators like Andy are nearly always promoted over the groups they torment — Andy is the prototypical bullying American manager, fed and sustained on the dogma of social Darwinism. As long as the bottom line is met, his cruelty is excused.”

Namie predicts that Andy will cause “significant health and liability issues.” His studies have found that “a bully’s co-workers manifest depression (in 41% of targets), disabling stress (in one in three female targets who suffer posttraumatic stress disorder), and the onset of cardiovascular disease from job strain (as documented by medical research).”

Bullies are too expensive to keep, Namie argues, because they cost the businesses they work for in turnover, litigation, extended sick leave, increased use of medical insurance, and difficulty attracting and retaining talent. “American businesses must stop forgiving  people like Andy because they help ‘make the numbers.’ Companies cannot afford to tolerate destructive, health-endangering bullying.”

Gary Namie seems angry. Perhaps he was bullied on the job. Perhaps he was bullied as a child, on the playground.

Gary Namie and like-minded thinkers want to correct the meanness in the world by going after the meanies. I’m all for that. But Gary doesn’t want to confront the bullies himself. He wants someone else to do it.

I don’t like bullies. And I don’t think a good and healthy business would tolerate a lot of bullying. But I don’t think “the government” or “management” should police these matters. At least not until they become so bad that they violate some reasonably objective standards in regard to, say, physical abuse, threats, or screaming.

There are laws against that kind of bullying. And there should be. But there shouldn’t be laws — governmental or corporate — against verbal nastiness. We all know the difference between “If you come in here again, I’m going to break your face” and “I cannot believe you are late with that report.”

Andy Zimmerman — the subject of our discussion — never broke the law by making the first kind of statement. Rather, he demonstrated his commitment to getting the work done by making statements like the latter. Both statements can make you feel bad. However, one is a physical threat, while the other is only a verbal slam.

Gary Namie worries about the stress such statements cause. Screw him and the wimps that can’t stand up for themselves!

That’s how I see it. I’m going to go yell at someone now. See you later.