What’s So Great About Jerks? Nothing.

Presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar was recently all over the news for her alleged abusive behavior against her own staffers, including demeaning and belittling their work, throwing a binder across a room in an angry tirade, and trying to sabotage some staffers’ attempts to leave for other jobs. And now there’s the latest New York Times story recounting a bizarre incident involving a comb and a salad.

As soon as the allegations came out, people lined up to defend the senator, including some of her former staffers.  According to a Vanity Fair article, one former staffer defended Klobuchar’s conduct, stating, “Her job wasn’t to be my mentor and cheerleader. Her job was to get shit done for Minnesota.”  Other Klobuchar defenders complained that she was being treated more harshly than her male colleagues who had acted similarly.

Bosses shouldn’t be expected to hold their employees hands and sing Koombayah. But I seriously doubt that getting shit done for Minnesotans requires throwing binders across rooms. This “tough boss” defense sounds a little like battered spouse syndrome. And I get the feminist argument, too. But that’s just saying it’s okay for everyone to behave badly, unless only some people get called out for it. Abusive behavior is abusive behavior is abusive behavior. The end.

And the senator’s own response is troubling.  She explained her behavior as having “high expectations,” of herself and others.  Sorry, Senator, but having high expectations doesn’t justify insulting staffers, or throwing things at them, or calling their new bosses to tell them to rescind job offers.  That doesn’t sound like having high expectations, that sounds like cruelty.

Our culture has developed an exceedingly high tolerance for jerkish behavior, as long as the jerk is extremely successful.  It’s as if we’ve collectively decided that excelling at something gives us a pass to treat our fellow human beings poorly.

If a homeless man screams at other people on the subway, he gets arrested. If a company manager screams at other people in an office meeting, he just might get promoted if he’s otherwise good for the company.

When did we become a nation of jerk apologists?  The internet is filled with articles touting studies proclaiming that jerkish traits will get you far in life.  Author Malcolm Gladwell has posited that Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad may not have built such a successful business had he not been so disagreeable.  Only after Steve Jobs died did people start speaking publicly about his jerkish behavior.

Of course, jerks come in all forms—they’re not all binder-throwing screamers. Jerks can also engage in subtler cruelty, like the master manipulators who quietly screw you over while they smile at you and shake your hand. The Frank Underwood character in Netflix’s House of Cards comes to mind.

Psychologists use the term “dark triad” to describe a cluster of traits of people who might fall under the category of “jerk” in the workplace.  These people have high traits of narcissism, Machiavellinism, and psychopathy, which all have the underlying goal of exploiting others for personal gain.  It’s an attitude of limited resources rather than abundance, where there’s not enough cake for everyone to get a slice, so you better get yours.  It’s a one-up, one-down mindset.  For me to win, you have to lose.

And some people simply have anger-management issues.  Their fears drive them, they usually feel out of control, and they rage at everyone around them.

Eventually, most jerks meet their comeuppance.  Their personal and professional lives usually implode under the weight of their negative personality traits. In other words, most of the time, karma happens, and decent people enjoy their moment of schadenfreude. But why must we? Why can’t our culture prioritize and cultivate kindness from the outset? What happens to a society when its workers start to believe they must strive for the lowest common denominator to become successful? Why must we continue to make excuses for “highly successful” jerks?

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