My old neighborhood in Baltimore, where I lived for almost 14 years, was known for its many bars and restaurants. Reputedly, we had more liquor licenses in a few blocks than in any other jurisdiction in the state of Maryland. As a neighborhood activist and a founding member of the ineptly-named Liquor Advisory Committee of our neighborhood association, I had an extensive and intimate knowledge of how these establishments operated. We needed to form this Liquor Advisory Committee because, with its concentration of drinking establishments, our neighborhood would transform on weekends into a massive raucous street party with all the attendant mayhem one could imagine, particularly when local colleges were in session.
To be fair, many of the restaurants were perfectly respectable and law-abiding. They were quite wonderful to boot. A critical mass, though, catered to the party crowd and contributed to the distress of residents and other business owners without bestowing much benefit. The neighborhood association regularly confronted these owners about their illegally serving underaged or overly inebriated customers and unleashing them onto our streets. We would explain that these same illicit customers destroyed our property, disturbed our peace, and committed any number of crimes from public defecation (sorry if you are eating while reading this, but it is true), to vandalism, to street fighting, to sexual assault, to drunk driving. Invariably, then, the owners, who all lived elsewhere, fell back on a tired array of excuses. The most common was that if the owners were to enforce all the onerous rules and regulations that the oppressive government and intolerant neighbors imposed, their businesses would not survive and the community would lose its vibrancy. Keep in mind that there were many establishments that were run by responsible citizens that did not contribute to the general pandemonium but still somehow thrived and were key to the neighborhood's character.
In short, the recalcitrant business owners honestly believed that the community’s collective torment should subsidize their shoddy business practices and contribute to their financial gain while offering the neighborhood almost nothing in return. Since so many other restaurants did not significantly add to the chaos, I long contended that any business model that required a liquor establishment to break laws or cause undo stress to the surrounding neighborhood was not a particularly good business model. Indeed, such a business was by definition an utter failure, and the recalcitrant owners were in fact bad businessmen (and they were all men).
I describe all this as a roundabout lead-in to my reflection on the relationship between bullying and incompetence in the workplace. Richard Osman recently tweeted this profundity that I wholly endorse: "If you can't do your job without bullying people then you can't do your job." In short, just like the feckless bar owners who could not turn a sufficient profit while operating within the parameters of the law and the boundaries of basic human decency, bullies in the workplace are inherently incompetent.
Perhaps you feel otherwise, that you cannot get ahead except by stepping on others. If so, let's start with the premise that the very essence of your job is to support the flourishing of your organization. Then, how exactly does suppressing others' ability to perform advance your organization? Perhaps you imagine that your competence is best measured by your ability to climb a ladder or to stay in your current position and retain a title. If so, you are demonstrably wrong. After all, how many individuals do you personally know who are obviously inept at their jobs yet are never fired and are sometimes even promoted? You are likely recalling many people at this moment, maybe even your boss, aren't you? Therefore, if you know these outwardly successful people to be categorically incompetent, then you can only conclude that personal success cannot be the measure of competence. Indeed, the meritocracy remains an unfulfilled promise.
So, like the bar owners, if you must break standard rules of decency or break people to do your job and to get ahead, you are not good at your job and do not deserve to advance. If you feel your position requires you to gaslight, manipulate, backstab, bully, or just plain be an asshole, I aver that you are an incompetent. Whether you get the work done is rendered irrelevant by your rancid behavior. (In fairness, such behavior will likely earn you the coveted Niccolò Machiavelli Award for Self-aggrandizement and Overall Post-medieval Behavior. You may collect your trophy over there by that sizable ash heap of the asshats of history.) If, on the other hand, you make an effort to treat people well, (and I mean make an effort. It is not a passive thing) and behave with decency in the workplace, then you have a shot at being competent, but just a shot. There is more to competence, of course, but at least you have not automatically forfeited all claim to competency by being a workplace jerk.
I am not suggesting that you need to be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, a choirgirl or choirboy, or a passive pushover. Not at all. I am suggesting, though, nay, I am insisting that every time you have witnessed indecent behavior in the workplace, you have witnessed incompetence at work, and I say this while confessing that I myself have not always lived up to my personal standards of integrity. No one is perfect. Still, it matters not what lofty title, inflated salary, or slobbering acclaim you have accrued. It matters not how big your house is, how often people fawn over you, or how important you are convinced you are. If you feel you need to regularly act like a jerk and treat others badly, then you are nothing more than a jerk to your core. If you do not have the intelligence, the tenacity, or the fortitude to do your job with integrity and treat others with dignity, you cannot do your job well at all and discredit your organization. Ultimately, that indecent ineptitude you display is your only legacy. Oh, that and your Machiavelli Award. And if all this is hard to hear because it is a dog-eat-dog world and you need to accrue as much stuff and as much adulation as you can before you slip this mortal coil, then as you have no doubt said to others in some form or other, suck it up.
"You must forgive me my unworthiness." Bob Dylan
My decades in higher education have made me all-too familiar with the imposter syndrome, the niggling notion that one is not worthy and therefore a fraud. While this syndrome infects every profession, I suspect that it is most pervasive in academia in large part due to the meritocracy that is supposed to govern higher education. This meritocracy promises that excellence is the primary criterion for achievement and promotion and that this extraordinariness is demonstrated and measured through accomplishments. Thus, witnessing the abilities that one's peers display can be daunting and lead to feelings of deficiency and worthlessness. For faculty this sense of inferiority can start as early as graduate school.
That was my own first experience with the imposter syndrome. I would watch as my fellow graduate students performed seemingly effortless feats of intellect both in and out of class while I slogged along barely able to keep up. To make it worse, I even had a good friend who claimed to read two books of densely challenging literary criticism a day, and she was not lying! My eventual discovery that she seemed to have a peculiar ability to comprehend a whole page in a single glance did not lessen my feelings of inadequacy either. She was more brilliant and more productive than anyone I knew in graduate school, and I struggled to stay afloat in the fading vestige of her wake. If she was the real deal, I was certainly an imposter!
I was fortunate, though, to hear about the concept of the imposter syndrome at about the same time, which enabled me to grasp its pervasiveness and its implications. Even so, when finally ensconced as a faculty member (after a time on the academic job market, which can really dent your self-assurance!), I still felt the sting of others' seeming merit, a sting that accompanied me well into my decade as an administrator. After all, when you are surrounded by a bunch of smart overachievers who all answer to "doctor," having impressive letters after your name can seem a bit unspecial. In some ways and for the better, it was that very feeling of incapacity that helped propel me forward into becoming a dean. Nonetheless, eventually I came to realize that neither an administrator nor a faculty member could afford to indulge the imposter syndrome because it is, at its heart, a gross distortion of reality.
Among my peers, some succumbed to the syndrome and faded into a miasma of self-doubt masquerading as crippling humility. Because they were inadequate, they told themselves, they could never be effective as teachers and leaders and therefore need not try. Their conviction that they were forever feckless was the epitome of a fixed mindset. Others took the opposite tack and counterbalanced their sense of unfitness with an overly large dose of self-regard and, too often, arrogance. These folks were the preening peacocks of the faculty who promoted their own brand above all else and even denigrated and intimidated their peers. The worst practiced a sort of disciplinary snobbery and openly defamed other's academic fields, an act of craven anti-intellectualism that has no place in the academy. I had no patience for disciplinary snobs and marveled at how frequently they were among the least effective and most damaging teachers as well as the most inadequate researchers at their institutions.
Among administrators, particularly those with power, such countervailing arrogance had similarly predictable effects. Arrogance and self-regard bred contempt for colleagues and underlings alike. This contempt is a form of corruption that disallows a leader from seeing how their actions or inactions impact those around them. In the worst scenarios, it morphs into or becomes an excuse for an utter lack of empathy combined with a fatuous disregard for introspection, which results inevitably in a propensity to bully. For these administrators, their position or even just their title was the ultimate sign of their great merit. They were impervious to criticism and could only be challenged by those of higher rank, before whom they groveled and toadied.
Those who best managed their imposter syndrome were the ones who, as faculty or administrators, recognized the syndrome as a phantasm, a self-imposed criticism that fraudulently disguised itself as a judgment by others or by academia as a whole. In other words, they knew that the imposter syndrome was itself an imposter. These professionals realized that just about everyone was suffering from it, and the ones who appeared to have dispelled it by bloviating about their own accomplishments and superiority were usually the ones who were most tormented by the syndrome. The more well adjusted still felt like imposters from time to time, but they put those feelings in context and embraced their role as a faculty member or administrator first. Their goal was to do as well as they could without over-striving, bullying, or cowering. This lot was not perfect, but they did not beat themselves up for all their imperfections. Instead, they accepted that perfection is an impossible and unworthy goal (a matter I will discuss in a later post) and chose instead a growth mindset of constant self-review, adjustment, and improvement. Their efforts could be exhausting and certainly humbling, but they did the least harm.
I write here of higher education because it is the field I know best and the one, as I said, that may have the worse epidemic of imposter syndrome. I recognize and understand that not everyone in academia is affected by the syndrome and that it infects professional fields far and wide. I only hope that readers from every discipline can find something useful in this little essay and whatever hard-earned wisdom I can bring to it.
So if you feel inadequate, like you do not deserve what you have earned, remember that you are not alone. Many, perhaps most around you feel like imposters in their own skin. The best response is not to fix your mind on your own inadequacies. Nor is it to double down on your imposterism and pump yourself up beyond reason. The best mindset is one of recognition, acceptance, and growth. Let's face it. We are all imposters. Indeed, I feel like an imposter writing and posting this piece, but here we are. Imposters may rule the world, but we first need to rule ourselves.
On Election Day, I had the privilege of working the polls in Montgomery, NY. Although understaffed, we managed to process nearly 1,200 votes at that one polling station. My job was to help with the voting machines where voters fed their paper ballots for scanning and storage after making their selections. The voters were, almost to a person, polite and even enthusiastic, particularly when I would reward them with a sticker at the end of the process. The voting sticker occupies its own space in the American imagination as a emblem of honor and duty. After all, without the sticker, only an unceremonious thump and beep from the machine followed by an uptick in its digital counter would mark the august occasion of performing one's civic duty. American stickers may not be quite as satisfying as Australia's "democracy sausages," but they still offer a little thrill for almost everyone. In fact, only a handful of voters that day declined the decal. A few, apparently wary of the added drag of a piece of paper on their clothing, declared that they were "in a hurry." An even smaller number took the sticker and pasted it on before surlily announcing, "I already know I voted." I guess they figured the tag was meant as a reminder not to get back in line, like some sort of mnemonic "election ink." Of the hundreds of voters I processed, though, maybe twenty total declined this humble American electoral tradition, the sticker, and only a very few others were not grateful and gracious.
Just one gentleman stood on his own, though, by taking umbrage at the content of the sticker itself. At first, he accepted the badge as usual and turned to leave, but then he stopped and spun back with an intense look on his face. The sticker, I should point out, had two messages, or, more precisely, the same message in two languages. Across the top of the little oval with the American flag, it said, "I Voted." Across the bottom, it read "Yo Voté." This particular voter incredulously pronounced the bottom line to me as if it were English slang, "'Yo vote?' What is that?" I chose to take him at face value and replied as literally as possible, "it's Spanish."
I need to point out that it is not for the poll workers to engage voters in contentious discussions, so I hoped that my bland statement of the obvious would end the conversation. Instead, he blurted, "What? Spanish?" Struggling to decide if he was being sarcastic or was really confused, I called upon my three years of high school Spanish from back in the 1900s and pronounced it for him, "Yoe voe-tay," and repeated, "It's Spanish."
Instead of just moving on content with my approximation of the pronunciation, he chose to treat me to a spontaneous lecture on how "they" need to learn "our language" if "they" are going to live in "our country." I said nothing at all and looked hopefully toward the next voter in line, which somehow further encouraged my haranguer. "My grandparents had to learn English when they got here," he insisted, "so these people should learn our language." I remained steadfastly silent, which required a tremendous effort, as he started to reiterate the main points of his broadside. He clearly had nothing to add to his argument except an increasingly shrill intonation. Things were getting touchy for no reason I could ascertain, and I needed to defuse the situation and move him along so that others could freely exercise the franchise just as he did.
What is it about languages that we find simultaneously comforting and off-putting? Is it that language is so fundamental to communication, and communication is so fundamental to our interactions in and within society? Or, is it that language is a quick way of forming community and serves as an easy identifier as to whether one is in or out of the fold? Perhaps this voter was annoyed because he was not part of the Spanish-speaking set, or maybe he was irked that Spanish-speakers were not sufficiently part of his set as demonstrated by their persistent use of Spanish. Even so, it seemed a stunted hill to die on, the cause that only English should appear on a voting sticker. Given that my county has a large Spanish-speaking population, the dual-language approach seems a reasonable attempt to be inclusive.
To be fair, I have heard the argument that if we were to be truly inclusive, we would feature the languages of several immigrant groups on our fraught little "I Voted" stickers. I get the logic, which is tantamount to saying that unless we represent all the worthy people who move to our shores, we should represent almost none. In other words, since we cannot be maximally inclusive, we must be utterly exclusive. Remarkably, this argument has the distinction of being both a superb example of a slippery slope fallacy as well as a pristine instance of sacrificing the good on the altar of the perfect.
While English is by far its most common language, the U.S. has no official language, with Spanish as the second-most common tongue. This linguistic split also holds true in my county, where the largest city is more than fifty-percent Latinx. Therefore, printing "Yo Voté" along with "I Voted" on the sticker makes sense and does no harm. It serves as an invitation to our Spanish-speaking population to participate in the most fundamentally democratic right and rite-of-passage our republic has to offer. As for the claim, à la my recalcitrant voter, that "my grandparents had to learn English," while perhaps true, it is complicated by the reality of the varied communities that have immigrated here throughout history. Many such communities retained and replicated the customs, traditions, cuisine, practices, and, yes, languages of their home countries, thus enhancing the richness of today's culture. We can see vestiges of this phenomenon all over. Visit a "Germantown" of 100 years ago and you might observe business signs in German, hear the language spoken on the street exclusively, and read official documents and even street names all in German. In fact, just south of where I live, at least one town is home to a large ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where one can see an example of a cultural enclave. Or, visit Chinatown today in many major cities for a taste of what I am describing. Nonetheless, even if they did not receive that community help, I am sure my recalcitrant voter's grandparents would have welcomed a generous period during which they were able to speak their own language while they learned English, which is notoriously tricky to master, as I hope to one day.
On Election Day I could have said all this and much, much more, but I needed to move my vocal voter along. He was looking agitated, and his voice was angry even though I had tried to appear both as disinterested and as uninterested as possible. I guess he wanted me to agree with him, which itself could have been an inducement to keep on spouting. In the end, I could only go with the truth of the matter. With a look of profound incomprehension in my eyes and as much exasperation as I could muster, I shook my head and replied, "It's just a sticker, sir." He left then. Maybe my pleading tone embarrassed him a bit, but I doubt it. As he strode out the door, having surprisingly donned the dual-language decal, I processed the next voter, who welcomed her sticker with a gracious giggle.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.