Episode 1. Story of a Workplace Asshole-Part 1
+ [Section I: Introduction]
Welcome to the Work Stories Project. I’m your host Carol Xu.
Oh, workplace assholes. Have you ever worked with one? Have you ever wondered what’s going on in their head when they’re making other people miserable? Well, I’ve got an interesting story for you. We’ll hear the victims’ perspective first. Then, we can also get into a workplace asshole’s head and poke around a little and ask him questions like “So, were you aware that others regarded you as an asshole? And how did that feel?” So, let’s get started.
+ [Section II: The Coworkers’ Perspective]
Our story took place in a silicon valley startup named Bisnet in the early two thousands. The main product of the company was an online platform and database to help other companies manage their employee data, such as payroll, insurance, and employee benefits.
Mark was the lead software engineer in the company. He was regarded as the workplace asshole by many of his co-workers, especially the implementation coordinators. The implementation coordinators, or let’s call them ICs from now on, had to interface with both Mark and the clients. They just HATED working with Mark. Here’s what Letitia, an IC at the time, recalls her experience working with Mark:
Letitia: He wasn’t very popular. Some people thought he had a self-righteous attitude. And he was exhibiting more signs of “Well, I’m the most important person here.”
For example, Mark once proposed in a group discussion that as the web master of BISNET’s website, he’d like his email to be God@BISNET.com
Letitia: he wanted that to be his email for if you have any questions or comments about this site or whatever. That was shot down rather quickly. But that’s kind of how he saw himself, at least in my eyes and other people. I think they thought he viewed himself as God of Bisnet.
Miles, the executive vice president at BISNET at the time recalls going to one of the Company’s Christmas parties. He heard Mark’s mom talking about Mark in front of the group,
Miles: His mother would try to elevate his status and raise how important he was… And so, we already know what Mark’s ego was on that topic. And you got the mom. And you saw some of the dynamics going on. That’s what I remember.
Although Mark didn’t have any formal managerial power over others, he played an indispensable role in the company. Because he was in charge of developing BISNET’s sole product, the company’s business to a large extent relied on his work. Miles likened Mark to someone who holds the keys to your car.
Miles: Again, the situation was challenging when you got somebody that’s hard to work with that holds the keys to the car. It’s not a place you’d like to be. He had a little bit free reign, because he could do what he wanted, because he had the keys to the car. If he walked, we would be in big trouble.
In everyday work, the ICs felt like they had to beg Mark to answer technical questions or to improve the software to accommodate customer requests. Here’s Letitia again,
Letitia: Oh, there were many people that just hated dealing with him at all. It’s like they would do anything to avoid having anything to do with him because there was a little bit of the “awkh, what do you want now?” kind of thing. And the conceit, you know, ‘you need to bow to me because I’m the one who’s gonna be able to fix this for you.’ That doesn’t always work very well. (laugh)
I ask her whether Mark had the power to directly affect her job security,
Letitia: while he may not necessarily have the power to affect my job directly, he could affect how things got done for the customers that I had to be face-to-face with. And that’s a biggie, because I had one customer that, while I was face-to-face with her, she started crying because she was spending so many hours fixing problems that the system was creating. That made me feel just awful! I wanted to fix it for her. I probably thought that I would piss him off and he wouldn’t get my customers enhancements or requirement changes taken care of. And then I’m still hanging out there having to face the customer. It became more of a personal ‘I’m gonna do this for you,’ instead of ‘my job is to improve the system for our clients.’ And that is dangerous territory for any employment situation, any professional environment. You can’t make it about a personal situation ‘I’m doing this for you.’
More than 14 years later, Letitia still vividly remembers this one time when the whole team including Mark were working on a project overnight,
Letitia: I think one of the things that he emphasized was something like ‘I can always find another job. I’m just worried about the rest of you.’ Oh wait a minute, what you were saying is that none of the rest of us is bringing any value. And we are here because we can’t get another job? (laugh) It’s a real put-down.
I also get to talk to Bret, one of the few friends Mark had in the company at the time. Mark introduced Bret to work at an IT support position at BISNET. Bret recalls that Mark liked to argue with others.
Bret: I saw a few times he would... He was really good at arguing. [Laugh] He should’ve been on the debate team when he was in school, because he definitely had a point of view and he defended it till the last. I’ve seen incidences where he would…He didn’t exactly yell, but he made people feel small. Like he wouldn’t out loud say ‘you are an idiot.’ But he would essentially imply that with what he would say. I did hear that a couple times.
Making people feel small—I really like Bret’s way of putting it. It kind of summarizes our experience dealing with most assholes. Why would they do that? I’ve got to talk to at least one asshole to find out!
[short music break]
+ [Section III: The asshole’s perspective]
So I manage to have a series of long conversations with Mark over the period of 3 months. You may wonder whether it is hard to track him down and get him to talk. Well, it is easy in this case. He happens to be my husband. And in fact he has volunteered the story to me.
He worked at BISNET long before we met. I had little knowledge of his BISNET years. When he shares the story with me, I treat him just like any other story contributor to the show. I don’t try to make him look better or worse than who he is or was. My role is to provide a special space for reflection. Imagine a space where you can feel at ease and be yourself without any internal or external judgments. That’s the space I hope to co-create with all my story contributors. You may think of your work experience as monotonous and boring. To you, it may taste like bland water. But to me, every drop of your experience has a unique sound and feel. I want to be a soundboard that reflects all kinds of qualities in the human experience of work.
Mark and I start our first free-form conversation in our living room on a Saturday morning. When I ask Mark to tell the story from the beginning, he starts with his back story.
Mark: Well, I think it’s important to hear a little of my back story. It kind of helps to explain things. Keep in mind that the people at the company didn’t really know much of the back story. They didn’t know what to expect from someone who had my history. In any case, the history is I grew up poor. My dad wasn’t around…
His parents divorced when he was two years old. At some point in his childhood, his family relied on social welfare to survive. He taught himself computer programming in high school. BISNET was his first full-time job. He was 21 when he started. To his surprise, some big companies started to use the program he wrote.
Mark:…We eventually got some big customers, like Ebay and Etrade. These are software companies and they are using our software to manage their online employee health benefits. So, that was kind of mind-blowing. So, it was kind of a mix of humble beginnings and being in a very unfamiliar situation for which I was not prepared. And also a situation that kind of blew up my ego a little bit. I thought ‘well, I must be pretty good, if we are having so much success. And it’s just me by myself, bla bla bla. But at the same time, I’m think ‘well, the software has all these problems. The website is kind of ugly. I’m not really good at design… Anyway, the whole thing was just emotionally weird for me, not really negative or positive, just weird. It was all surreal to me. So, the kind of humor that I would engage in would be the stuff that, in retrospect, is really only funny to me, because I don’t think it was very surreal to anybody else. I was the fish out of water there. But they were used to that environment.
I ask him to give me an example of his jokes.
Mark: My jokes would be about how surreal the whole thing was to me. So there was this one incident that really highlights that aspect. There was an investor meeting. They had a series of A fundings, series B and series C, whatever… So we had this meeting where the investors are meeting the employees of the company in this big conference room. And everybody’s introducing themselves. And I said something along the lines of ‘I am the original programmer. Almost all the code is written by me. So I guess that makes me the God of Bisnet!’
Carol: And you actually threw your hands in the air?
Mark: Something like that. I thought I was being funny. But there was this kind of silence in the room. And maybe the perception was that I actually thought of myself as the God of Bisnet? Maybe they thought of me as not being the humble nice guy that I thought I was. And I always just thought of myself as the nice guy, the nerd.”
Carol: So when you said ‘I guess I’m the God of Bisnet,’ what was going on in your head? How did you feel when you said that?
Mark: [pause][sigh] I don’t know. There was some pride mixed in with all of it. It was pride plus also just the feeling of absurdity. So it was both of those things. I grew up in an environment that encouraged putting all your emotions on your sleeve at all times. Just be honest and always tell the truth. I kind of have faith in that as a way to get through the world, as way to interact with the world. Everything would work out in the end, if that’s the way you live. Because it did in my house: I would do that and stuff would come up and we would talk about it. And stuff would get dealt with.
Carol: So, for example, if that happened in your family, you would say ‘Oh, look I’m the God of this family!’
Mark: [Jumping in] Everybody would laugh and go ‘yeah, right!’ They wouldn’t be afraid to take me down a peg or whatever. Maybe everybody in that (conference) room thought if they laughed at me, my ego would be hurt. As far as I know, I’m not really that averse to having my ego hurt, if it means I get a laugh. I’m happy to give up my ego for a laugh. I was giving them the pitch, and nobody swung.
Carol: So to you, it was a joke.
Carol: And you were waiting for a laugh.
Mark: Right. Waiting for someone to take me down a peg. Gary [Narration: Gary was the founder of BISNET] could’ve chimed in and said, ‘Well, I don’t know if we’d be here without me, Mark?’ Somebody could have said something. I just didn’t want things to be all stodgy all the time, people holding their cards close to their chest. Just get it out there and have a discussion. If I say something absurd or stupid, just say ‘wow, Mark, that was pretty stupid and absurd!’ I’ll be like, ‘yup, sorry!’ (laugh) You know. Just have more fun. So that’s my perspective on it.
Carol: And yet the investor meeting is supposed to be a serious thing. You are supposed to give a serious front and give them a good impression.
Mark: Yeah. If I were any older, maybe I could’ve figured that out. But at the time, I needed somebody to tell me that. I didn’t know what an investor meeting was. I didn’t know what any of this shit was. I didn’t know what I was dealing with or who. I don’t know who these people were. They were just white men in suits.
When BISNET grew bigger, they hired ICs to interact with the customers. It gave Mark more time to work on the software. Yet, two unexpected problems sneaked in. One was that Mark used to get instant satisfaction from working directly with the clients. Now with the ICs being in between Mark and the clients, he felt a little removed and isolated.
Mark: I guess I missed that customer interaction, the instant gratification, the instant reward: a customer calls me and we work out a new way or feature. Then I get on it. Then the next day, it’s there. They (the customers) are like ‘oh, thank you!” I get that instant feedback. So (later) we removed that from the equation. And then the job turned into me sitting in front of a computer all day.”
The second problem was that most ICs had little to none programming background. When they encountered technical problems, they often had to ask Mark for help.
Mark: They had access to me all day, every day. So, if I was working on something complicated, the only time I could actually work on it was at night. I have to work late, ‘cause I felt like during the day there was always the chance that someone would come in and…[pause]
Carol: interrupt your work.
Mark: Right. [pondering] I just don’t know how to describe or generalize thousands of individual interactions. But just that feeling that you get when someone comes to you with a question. And it just indicates that they didn’t write down the answer that you gave them last time. That feeling that you get is the feeling that kept coming up, that I didn’t hide: my impatience. In a business setting, you go to war with the army you have not the army you want. You don’t really know this person. You don’t know what they are doing all day. Just ‘cause you pass their desk a couple of times and see them looking at wedding photos of their friends, that doesn’t mean that that’s all they do all day. But at the time, I was getting a certain impression of these people that was negative. And also, I was socially awkward. Let’s face it. I have anxiety talking to people. So that taints everything. Just the anxiety of trying to talk to people. But then on top of it, I think my face is expressive. So if somebody comes to me with what I feel is an inane question, then on my face you are going to see impatience and physical pain. You are going to see it all. [Chuckle]
Besides asking technical questions, the ICs would also relay clients’ requests to Mark about adding new features to the software.
Mark: There’s feature requests. But then there should’ve been a time rather than when I’m in the middle of programming for them to come to me with a feature request. Things just weren’t organized. So I kept getting interrupted. I’m just there, programming away and getting interrupted constantly by this or that. I’m definitely not an organized person. That’s just wasn’t mine [pause]… Maybe I had more power than I thought I did? Maybe if I had sat Gary down and said ‘hey, we need to re-organize things here.’ I wasn’t a company builder. I was 21 when the whole thing started. All I knew was I had code to write and I had people interrupting me constantly with things that I thought could’ve been set aside for later or brought up in email so I can get to it when I have time, or written down in a manual so it wasn’t coming up all the time.
In addition to the constant interruptions, Mark’s work was getting increasingly challenging and stressful.
Mark: We kind of got to a point where the thing was so big that new features ended up being a real pain in the ass. I had already picked the low-hanging fruit. There’s a few new features. They are like ‘oh man, just a nightmare.’ Sometimes I would do it. Sometimes I’m just like ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ [chuckle] Or I’d say ‘maybe I can do that.’ And it would just sit on the back burner forever. So there was the stress of that, of having some features that I’ve promised just sitting on the backburner waiting for me to feel inspiration, enough inspiration to get it done… [sigh]
Here’s what it felt like for Mark to deal with both the interruptions and burnout at BISNET:
Mark: As a programmer, you load up your entire, we call it, stack space. the short term memory has to put so much of the program into your head, so you know what the interlocking parts are and what things are doing. Just to be able to work on one line of code somewhere you need to know how it’s gonna interact with all the other stuff. So I can spend an hour just looking through the code and try to figure out how something work and start in on how I’m gonna add this feature or change how this thing works. And somebody would come in and destroy the last hour’s worth of work by asking a question about something else. If that was an important question, something that I needed to pay attention to, like ‘oh the website’s down’ or something like that, that’s okay. I need to hit the reset button and go work on this other thing. That’s fine. But if it’s a question that I already answered…
Carol: [interrupting] you think you already answered
Mark: …a question that I think I already answered, then this person just destroyed an hour’s worth of my work to save themselves 10 minutes. That’s what I always felt like. That’s where the grimaces and the sighs came from... Maybe they are thinking that I hate them. But what’s going through my head is I finally got my burnt-out self to load on this bullshit so that I could do this thing, and you came in and destroyed that. It’s your job to know this in the first place. And could you please write this down and not ask me again? This was before Wikis. Maybe Wikis would have solved everything.
I ask Mark whether he had ever suggested the idea of having an office hour to avoid the interruptions.
Mark: I didn’t know how to say, ‘look, we need to organize things a little better. Eventually I did. I tried, ‘okay, this is my office hours during the day. But by the time we did that I was so burnt out. I wasn’t even getting that much done. I was kind of checked out at that point anyway. So it was too late by then.
It was too late in the sense that Mark’s reputation as an asshole was already established. ICs avoided interacting with him at all cost.
The unpleasant situation lasted for about 3 years, even though Mark had no real awareness of what others thought of him. One day in Mark’s 5th year at BISNET, an interesting twist happened. For Mark, it was a life-changing moment. That day, Mark approached Miles, the executive VP whom we heard earlier, to complain about something related to the ICs. Mark couldn’t quite remember what it was.
Mark: I was complaining to Miles about how the ICs were bothering me, something along those lines. I think that’s when Miles shot back that if they took a vote, the ICs would vote to have me fired instead. That was the shocker. Yeah, that kind of blew my mind. It just never occurred to me that I was disliked. I want to be liked. I hate being disliked. So the idea that my self image of being a nice guy that people generally like… To have that idea destroyed like that was eye-opening and painful. It’s like a revelation, like this thought path I’d just never gone down for whatever reason. And then finally, I went down and realized ‘oh well, I’ve been ignoring this thing for so long.
I ask Mark whether Miles told him why the ICs hated working with him.
Mark: I don’t know if he even told me why they didn’t like me. I just thought about it and realized, ‘oh yeah, I can see why. It just kind of reframed everything. So okay, they were kind of scared to come to me because I was such an asshole when they did. So in their mind, for them to even summon the internal strength to walk up to me and ask me what they knew I would think of it as a dumb question. But they needed the answer, and they couldn’t see any other way. For them to do that was like them confronting the bully. Up to that point, I’d only see the interaction as they were being lazy and not taking it onto themselves to create some kind of permanent record of all the questions that I had answered, so I wasn’t answer the same things over and over again.
In a later conversation, Mark reflects further,
Mark: I don’t like drama. I’ve always been anti-drama. To find out that I’ve been causing drama, and that it was in my hands to decrease it. That was a revelation: “Oh these things are important.” I can’t just ignore the personal. There’s no such thing as somehow freeing up the energy for the technical by ignoring the personal. It sounds good to a programmer who thinks of things as a zero-sum game: “Yeah, I can just focus on the technical and forget the personal. And I’m freeing up the energy.” But the reality is that by ignoring the personal, you are making things much less efficient than it could be and just causing more drama, wasting a lotmore energy than you could ever conserve by ignoring the personal. That was a big paradigm shift for me.
Mark uses a lightening metaphor to describe how it felt like before and after the paradigm shift.
Mark: It feels like a lightening. Over the years, the electrons were gathering in the clouds, building up and building up. Everything looks normal on the surface. All you see is a cloud. And there’s the Earth. But then this one day, you realize how many electrons are sitting in the cloud. And it just bolts right back into the ground. And that’s it. So yeah, that was kind of mind blowing. I just realize what an asshole I’d been. And I regretted it. I had a lot of regret. It was just horrible.
So yeah, I talked to my mom about it that night. She made the suggestion that I gave everybody a flower with an apology note. So I went and bought the flowers. One flower for each IC and a little note saying, “I’m sorry I’ve been such an asshole…”
Carol: [interjecting] So you put the word asshole in there?
Mark: I think so. Yeah. So I got to work early and put one on each of their desks. And they all came to work and saw them. And there was like this moment… The details have faded. But there’s something of… This may not be it, but the feeling of it is right: I think they all came in to where my desk was. I think they all came in together. I think they gave me a hug or something.
Mark: Yeah. I think everybody gave me a hug. There was reconciliation. Apologies and coming together. It just turned the whole thing around.
Miles, the VP, has a similar recollection of Mark’s flower gesture: he says that once Mark found out that others hated working with him,
Miles: He took action and spoke very loudly. From what I can remember, people were truly touched by the fact that he was making the effort.
Later in our conversation, Mark reflects on why the flower gesture made an impact,
Mark: I didn’t think the flower thing would work. But it did. The fact that it worked told me so much about human nature: the other person just wants to know that you care. [laugh] That’s it. “I just want to know that you care. Then we can work together. If you care about how I feel about you, okay now I’ve got something to work with. I can tell you that what you did made me feel this way or that way. And I can trust that you’ll make adjustments trying not to do it any more.” Suddenly, people are your friend again, even after years of antagonism. Boom, “oh you actually care? Okay.” It switches up. Maybe you weren’t an asshole I thought you were. ‘cause you know assholes don’t care. That defines an asshole, right? If you prove to somebody that I’m willing to admit to having been in the wrong, I’m willing to let you win the battle, I’m willing to give up some status in order to convey to you that I care about how you feel about me. That’s what I think the flowers did.
The flower incident was certainly an uplifting moment for both Mark and his coworkers. The former IC Letitia said that she felt Mark became more approachable and genuine afterwards. But warm and fuzzy feelings aside, I can’t help but wonder whether a symbolic gesture like the flower incident would really resolve years of conflicts. And also, can people’s behavior and habits be changed overnight? We’ll find out in the next episode when Mark and his coworkers continue to tell the story. What’s more, my conversation with Letitia took an unexpected turn in the next episode.
Letitia: There were people that gave feedback to Mark by calling him an asshole to his face.
Carol [in surprise]: Oh really? Was that before or after the flower incident?
Letitia: Yes, before.
Carol: So they actually told him, “Oh you are being an asshole here.” But he didn’t really respond. And he just continued his way?
Wow, why doesn’t Mark remember any of that?? I thought he never got any feedback about his asshole status until the flower incident? Have you ever wondered what kind of feedback may actually sink in or stick around in a workplace asshole’s head? We’ll explore that question next time we meet. Meanwhile, check out our website www.workstoriesproject.org. Maybe you have your own stories to share. Maybe you want to predict on how Mark’s story may end. Feel free to leave any comments you want. You are also welcome to join me in a subReddit forum titled work stories project. And don’t forget to subscribe to our show in your podcast app. That way, you’ll be notified about new episodes automatically. All the details are listed on our website Workstoriesproject.org.
Let me thank all the story contributors to this episode, Letitia, Miles, Bret, and my husband Mark. Without you, all of this would remain buried deep under the ocean of your experience. I’m your host Carol Xu. And the music is by Mark. Okay, that’s it for our show. See you next time!