“Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

“Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

October 18, 2013
james adonis

Work In Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia’s best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work In Progress

“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

A new biography on Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is due to be released next month. He may well be an inspirational entrepreneur but, if the excerpt is to be believed, he is also an impulsive megalomaniac with a sharp tongue – especially toward his employees. Here’s a collection of his more venomous comments:

  • “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
  • “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”
  • “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”
  • “Why are you wasting my life?”

Many of us have probably thought similar sentiments at some stage in our working lives, but to actually come out and say it in front of others takes a staggering amount of chutzpah. Or a whole lot of power.

I would not allow this employee to breed.

Back in 1997, Fortune magazine published a selection of absurd reflections written by bosses in their employees’ performance appraisals. Some of the quirkier ones included:

  • “Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.”
  • “I would not allow this employee to breed.”
  • “This associate is really not so much of a has-been, but more of a definitely won’t be.”
  • “He would be out of his depth in a parking lot puddle.”
  • “He sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them.”

Some of those are quite funny, but a case currently under way in the American court system suggests the opposite. A worker named Laura Siv has filed a lawsuit for US$6 million against her employer, claiming his insults led to her brain haemorrhage. He allegedly said she looked like Susan Boyle and, when he saw her eating at an office party, he commented: “Fatty here is having a cupcake.”


Very little research has been done on workplace insults, but one work particularly stands out. Published in The Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, the researchers wanted to find out whether there are certain workplaces in which it’s more acceptable to publicly insult an employee.

They set up a boardroom-style scenario where colleagues were witnesses to an employee being insulted by a superior. Afterwards, they were asked what they thought of the insulter. Some of the briefings were held in China, others in the United States.

The researchers discovered the Chinese were far less likely to judge the insulter’s actions harshly. The reason? Chinese workplaces are strongly defined by power structures, which means people are reluctant to criticise their boss. In the American groups, however, the insulter was seen as acting inappropriately.

In essence, the more hierarchical your organisation, the greater risk there is of your leaders exercising their perceived power to insult. Indeed, power is the reason people insult others in the first place.

In his new book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt – And Why They Shouldn’t, Professor William Irvine argues that insults are hurled precisely because people seek to retain or advance their social status. And that is also the reason we’re hurt by them. We feel as though our status, too, has been diminished.

Michael Scott, from the US version of The Office, humorously summarises the mindset behind such behaviour: “There’s always a distance between a boss and the employees; it’s just nature’s rule. It’s intimidation mostly. It’s the awareness that they are not me.”

So what can you do about it? One of Professor Irvine’s suggestions is to turn the insult into self-deprecation. The mere feeling of being hurt gives substance and credit to the insult. By ignoring it, acting indifferently, or even laughing at it, we defuse the offending remark, thereby rendering the insulter impotent.

That advice might work in theory, but not when the insult verges on bullying. That’s when it ceases to be a laughing matter.

What’s the worst/best insult you’ve heard at work? How did you deal with it?

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/blogs/work-in-progress/are-you-lazy-or-just-incompetent-20131018-2vq7s.html#ixzz2i7hrYKSS




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