Help Me Understand Why You're Such a Jerk
January 6, 2013 2:36 PM   Subscribe

From a psychological point of view, what makes some people power-trippers, or just generally not nice?

I'm currently working at a job where my manager is becoming a real pain in the ass. He constantly criticizes our work without buffering it with constructive feedback, and generally lacks the self-awareness to understand that employees might be upset with this approach. If you try to justify yourself, he always has something to say to negate your point of view. I'm learning to just give up and go along with things until I find another job.

I am more of a pushover, introvert, people pleaser etc., so I find it difficult to be around people who don't naturally behave/think this way as well. Help me understand power-trippers! I'm really curious about what makes some people bullyish and more interested in bossing others around rather than wanting to make sure others feel ok about the interaction. Info about psychological theories on this topic would be great, as well as personal experiences with the matter.

Also, I realilze that being a people-pleaser isn't a great way to be either. I'm actually partly asking this question because I'm tired of being so sensitive to other's needs and their perception of me and am hoping this question will help me learn to adjust these traits in myself a bit.
posted by oceanview to Human Relations (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of managers, especially junior and mid-level managers, don't actually have any management training. They get promoted because they're good at the task they do, be that graphic design or engineering or whatever, or because they have a lot of experience, not because they're (necessarily) good at managing people.

So a lot of times, they flail around and do whatever works. Sometimes, that's micromanagement and being pushy. Sometimes, that's being a nitpicker and a stickler to assert their authority because it's the only thing they really know how to use to get things done. Sometimes, they're an asshole, but because they were a good whatever-their-previous-role-was, everyone is willing to overlook it because, well, dude's a good whatever and he's been here a long time so it's obviously his turn.

And sometimes, they're assholes because they're working with unrealistic expectations from up top. The IT Director at an old workplace of mine was a notorious asshole, but when he got out, he turned out to be a very fun and friendly guy that I'm pretty good friends with. At the time, though, he was basically trying to run a team (which he had 0 experience with), keep all our ancient Windows 95 machines running when we were trying to do advanced video editing and hardcore graphic design on antiques because they wouldn't give him a budget to do anything resembling equipment upgrades, trying to run the web and network infrastructure of a bunch of content websites to the point of getting in and doing some very hardcore programming on the web CMS himself because they wouldn't give him a budget for someone to work on the CMS, and keep the office online when the company would regularly get cut off because the company didn't want to pay his bills. So of course he was stressed and came off as an asshole when we wanted machines that wouldn't crash when opening Photoshop, but he couldn't say any of that at the time and he didn't have the communication or management skills because he was basically a Web programmer and sysadmin that wound up in charge because he'd been there a long time and nobody else would work for what they were paying him for.

Very few places even have a management training or executive training programming because there's so much of an emphasis on hiring people with previous experience, so what you get into is a situation where people who've got experience bounce from job to job because they've got experience so they must know something

Point is, a lot of management troubles stem from The Peter Principle or, more cheekily, The Dilbert Principle.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:48 PM on January 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

I've always chalked the power-tripping/aggressive/lack of self-awareness that manifests as antagonistic/judgmental dicketry down to poor self esteem (and needing to have an outside 'example' of someone they perceive as lesser than them in some way to feel more competent). I guess you could argue that it may be the other end of the esteem spectrum too - like narcissistic over-valuation of one's worth - but I've always suspected even that was deeply rooted in a lack of accurate self-judgement and a perception of low self-worth.

In the workplace I think of these people as 'petty dictators' and place every out-of-line comment they make into the 'Aww, this person is so sad inside they need to piss on someone else to make themselves feel better. How pathetic and terrible for them!' bucket, which makes me less inclined to take anything they say of that nature personally and thus deprives them of whatever gratification they may have been hoping to get from me being bothered by their commentary.
posted by par court at 2:56 PM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

I find that many managers are people who have been promoted for their ability to perform a job.. and not for their ability to manage people. Unfortunate. But people who are aggressive and pushy often target people who seem to be quiet, introverted... the type who will not resist.

I suggest taking on a more dominant posture at work. You don't have to match your bosses pushiness, but if you present yourself as dominant at work, your boss may think twice about trying to be aggressive. Try simply posturing yourself in a more dominant way when you are around your boss. And make sure your opinion is known.

I occasionally find that my boss is outright mean to people. 2 years ago, I decided that I would make sure she was aware of the comments or behaviors I found to be mean. I don't call her out in public, but I ask to see her privately in her office and I make her aware that her actions may have negatively affected some of the other employees. In my case, she is unaware. I don't call her names, just point out situations that may reduce employee moral. She seems receptive when I do so although she is too proud to outright appoligize. But I find that when I'm direct, I get results.

Good luck.
posted by makeshiftjoy at 3:07 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, stress is a key factor as is lack of experience (and the desire to hide this as much as humanly possible).

If you project a certain persona (bullying power-hungry overlord), it keeps people from questioning you and noticing your flaws. The side of effect of this is that people will come to expect this as the norm and put up with it or leave. You give the air of knowing what you're doing (even if you don't) and you create fear so that people think you're scary and won't take you on.

Of course, stable, secure, non-stressed, competent people don't need to behave in this way. What the bullying power-hungry overlord is doing is protecting their highly insecure and fragile self. When they are challenged, this will often fuel their retaliation; when people behave submissively, this reinforces their behaviour.

Basically, bullies, narcissists, and abusers tend to have very low self-esteem and a fragile sense of self that they take out on others to make themselves feel better and to have power and control over others to compensate for their feelings of inferiority, worthlessness, and lack of personal power.
posted by heyjude at 3:07 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think there are probably as many reasons people are mean as reasons people are nice.

Insecurity, sociopathy, having a bad day, having a jerk for a dad, having a jerk for a mom, bad messages in school, being picked on, having a mean older brother, blinding desire for success, inability to remember their own mistakes. Wearing pants that are too tight.

I do not think there is a single reason. There's nothing wrong with having a preference to work with people are nice. It's one value among many you might give greater or lesser weight to when choosing a place to work.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:09 PM on January 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

Oh, and entitlement - my position entitles me to behave in x way.
posted by heyjude at 3:10 PM on January 6, 2013

5 Scientific Reasons Powerful People Will Always Suck.

This explains everything.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know a business owner who openly disputes the notion that it's worthwhile to "make sure others feel ok about the interaction." He ascribes his success to being authoritarian. By financial measures, he is indeed successful. Some people are jerks because they think it works.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:41 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing A Terrible Lama that the answer is more complex and varies from person; anything from lack of confidence, overworking, no training, to ...okay, just being a bully.

So I'm going to give you a more elaborate answer.

Go to your supervisor once with a specific request. Since it sounds like it bothers you how your supervisor gives direction, then it could be --"when you tell me in this manner, it makes me feel Y. Please still offer critiques, but could you do it in this way (specific example)." Give the person a while to respond and see if changes happen. I actually said something similar once and ...the supervisor did try to make those changes, which indicates that it was probably due to a lack of training and then you can work with that person. I've also had bosses who had problems and there were no changes, too (also observe how the person treats everyone else ...does he or she yell at other employees or talk about all the other employees behind their backs ...then there is a problem there that will not be fixed). Based on the feedback that you get and observe, decide what to do next, which may be get another job.

But I'm going to also suggest that you try to change how you view your work since you are also introverted (as am I). Always view your work with following questions 1) What do I need to do the best possible job; 2) How can I improve what I am doing (for current task and future tasks) and 3) How did I do on the recently completed task; 4) How can I improve on future tasks based on recent performance?

So let's say your task is to make a widget and they give you a widget press and paint with vague directions. Go ask the best widget maker in the office for 5 minutes of his time (ask what he does,any recommendations, would he give you 5 minutes later to review your widget, too). Go ask the best widget painter for suggestions, too. Make your widget. Assess. Get feedback from the experts. Assess. Make a checklist for future widgets if you notice that you make a mistake over and over again or the client gives feedback on the widget (i.e. we want purple widgets). But if you do these things, what your boss will say really won't mean as much because you know that did everything that you could, you will modify what you do in the future, and you will always assess and make it better. So you are doing these tasks to your satisfaction, not your bosses satisfaction.

The other voices will become less important.But do continue to learn, assess, improve.
posted by Wolfster at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Depends what industry you work in.

In something fast and "immediate" deadline oriented (broadcast television, restaurant or catering, event planning, I'm sure there are heaps other examples...) then you should EXPECT to be handled in this manner by your superiors.

To be specific, when I manage in this way, the folks who are capable, talented, and reliable understand the pressure we are ALL under in the moment. There is no time for warm and fuzzies when the pressure is on.

Just to give you another perspective. This type of management style is not always about ego.

In kitchens, newsrooms, studios, and any time there are repeated deadlines in short periods of time, or performance for a client or audience is necessary, managers are direct and brisk. Even, obnoxious. Or worse. (Worse is NOT acceptable. Just common.)

When I've been that manager in this type of situation, the only type of employee who took it personally, were the ones who could not keep up with their job.

And, this includes me back when I was an employee and "green" in my role!!

Again. Just another perspective. Everyone seems to be assuming an office setting, but in Retail, Entertainment, Hospitality, and the like... it's kinda normal to be hot if your staff is not getting the job done.

Could be a poor fit all around, if you are in any of the industries I touched upon.
posted by jbenben at 8:21 PM on January 6, 2013

As others have posted previously, the manger's approach depends a lot on the industry that you are in. I'm assuming office, if that's not the case, let me know. I think dickery is generally a cover for insecurity. Many people will be openly rude, (or covertly backstabbing) when they feel threatened. A good way to diffuse this is to ask the manager for advise. (Don't overdo it, as this person's time is limited.) In other interactions, just kill them with kindness. It's hard for someone to cop an attitude to a person who is kind and treats them with respect. When it gets hard to be kind (which it will) remember, this person will make a good reference for the next job opportunity. (Several of my former bosses were not my favorite people, but I never let them know it and they have all provided me with stellar references.) Good luck!
posted by neanderloid at 9:47 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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