How Will I Know? Do You (Or Your Boss) Act Like Jerks As Women in Workplace?

You cand be self-aware or clueless about whether or not co-workers see you as a acting like a jerk.

You cand be self-aware or clueless about whether or not co-workers see you as a acting like a jerk.

Do you act like a jerk at work? Do you even know if you do?

We all know women—and men—to whom we assign that label. She’s the one who may gossip, take all the credit, or make nasty comments about others in meetings. For sure, we don’t want to be her. But how would we even know if we were?

Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at University of California at Riverside and author of Perplexities of Consciousness, writes in Nautilus that studies about self-awareness show there is a spectrum of behaviors that might land us that label of jerk, and that we may not even be aware of them.

“Psychologist Simine Vazire at the University of California- Davis argues that we tend to have good self-knowledge of our own traits when those traits are both evaluatively neutral (in the sense that it’s not especially good or bad to have those traits), and straightforwardly observable.

But we can also be truly clueless. How to know which one we are?

“The first step to the solution is to nail down more clearly what it means to be a jerk,” Schwitzgebel writes. “Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers. To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority.”

In other words, someone who does not consider the feelings of others is a jerk. But there is hope, he writes. Mindfulness or intentional awareness of what we say and do as women in workplace situations can catch us before we act like a jerk.

Someone who does not consider the feelings of others is a jerk. But there is hope. #taketheleadwomen

“We all look through jerk goggles sometimes. But we are not stuck with this vision of the world. Merely by reflecting on it a bit, we can, I think—most of us, at least momentarily—see what is deficient in that vision.”

Is being a jerk just someone who has bad manners? Or just someone who is an introvert?

In trying to decipher the perception of behaviors and manners in social interactions, KJ Dell’Antonia writes in the New York Times, “Society has a rich history of people seizing on social evolution as an excuse for bad manners. From the Romantic poets to the transcendentalists to the Summer of Love hippies, many have rejected a supposed facade of good behavior in favor of being true to their inner nature. Good manners are mere mannerisms, the argument goes, which serve only to put barriers in the way of deeper connections.”

So, she asks, are people we know—or we ourselves– introverts, or just plain rude?

Dell’Antonia suggests that the causal relationships, like those in the workplace, may be harder to create and maintain and may be where our rudeness—or jerkdom—more quickly manifest.

“It’s the looser ties, the ones that have to be created or re-created at each meeting, that are tough,” she writes. “Life is largely lived among acquaintances and strangers. So many fall into problematic categories: some appear different or unapproachable, some we actively dislike, some we’ve failed to connect with in the past. What do we have to gain from even trying?”

If you are in management or a key leadership role at work, you may be seen as a jerk possibly, if the culture has too many rules. And as women in workplace conflicts, you may be at risk for judgment.

If you’re in a management role, you may be seen as a jerk if there are too many rules #taketheleadwomen

“Too many workplaces create rule-driven cultures that may keep management feeling like things are under control, but they squelch creativity and reinforce the ordinary,” writes Lolly Daskal in Inc.

“The more rules, the less passion–which means less motivation. The more rules, the less excitement–which means less powerful performance. The more rules, the less enthusiasm–which means lower profits,” Daskal writes.

And if you want to understand how your colleagues are doing and what they really think about the leadership of women in workplace roles and each other? Ask.

“If you want to know how things are, just walk around and ask people face-to-face. Speak to them, hold a conversation, engage,” Daskal writes.

“The best way to learn what’s happening is to have honest, candid conversations about what is working and what is not. If that’s impossible, you have a big problem with connection and communication–the two most important things that drive engagement. Look to the source and speak to the heart of your people,” she writes.

Yes, of course, leadership is not a popularity contest. You may have to execute some tough decisions, and you may not be perceived as everyone’s closest pal. You may also be at a disadvantage as women in workplace leadership roles, automatically assigned jerkdom just because you are ambitious.

As a woman leader, you might be assigned jerkdom just because you’re ambitious #taketheleadwomen

Wendy Clark, CEO of DDB North America, spoke recently at a panel during  Advertising Week in New York. According to Fortune, Clark said, “’[My colleagues] would say I only got the job because I’m a woman, and there’s a moment there where you can lean into that or use it as fuel. I sort of played into it, but in the back of my mind, I’m like ‘I will crush each one of you. I’m sorry if it’s painful.’”

We need not look farther than the first Presidential debate recently, where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was criticized by Brit Hume not for any of her content, but because she was “not necessarily attractive.” Women in leadership positions are assigned all manner of negativity just because they are women.

All said, it is a good thing to be aware of what you say and how you may be perceived. And know that sometimes gender bias-driven micro-aggressions towards women in the workplace are real.

“Men gain professional status when they act angry, viewed as ‘passionate’ about the job, while women lose status,” writes Jessica Bennett in The Guardian. “So take a deep breath. Speak deliberately. Your anger is valid, but channel it into strategic maneuvers.”

You definitely do not want to be a jerk, but you do want to understand people may think you are one anyway. “Behold the catch-22 of women and power. To be successful, a woman must be liked; but to be liked, she must not be too successful. We may all know that women are perfectly capable as leaders. Yet on a deep, unconscious level we still find the image of an ambitious woman hard to swallow,” Bennett writes.

“For hundreds of years, it’s been culturally ingrained in us that men lead and women nurture. So when a woman turns around and exhibits ‘male’ traits – ambition, assertion, sometimes even aggression– we somehow see her as not ladylike enough, and thus we like her less.”

So how to deal with perceptions of who you are, even if you are mindful of how you come off in the workplace? Understand how you play into those perceptions.

“Advancement for women often times has little to do with skill; and more to do with perception. In the workplace, assertive women are often considered too aggressive or too passive — a struggle to find the ‘sweet spot’ between exuding power without pretense ensues,” according to Makers.

“The tenets of transformational leadership — empowerment, leaning in, and collaboration are starting to challenge common misperceptions about women exhibiting traditionally male associated traits.. Transformational leadership suggests that there are innate strengths women possess that give them a competitive advantage as leaders,” Makers reports.

According to Makers, ” A Business Insider” study about leadership effectiveness found women to be more effective than men over time. Women habitually seek feedback and take action to improve.”

Perhaps that means that those who are acting like jerks today may take the feedback to heart, and be more mindful tomorrow.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon