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.
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.