Welcome back to the Work Stories Project. I’m your host Carol Xu. In today’s show, Mark and his co-workers will continue with the workplace asshole story. In the last episode, Mark had no real awareness that his co-workers hated working with him for four years. When his manager Miles incidentally broke the news to him, it was a painful revelation to Mark.
Mark: It just never occurred to me that I was 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.
To redeem himself, Mark went and bought flowers for the implementation coordinators (ICs for short),
Mark: One flower for each IC and a little note saying, “I’m sorry I’ve been such an asshole” and… I think they gave me a hug. There was reconciliation. Apologies and coming together. It just turned the whole thing around.
However, notice there were limits to what a symbolic gesture could accomplish. There were no real conversations where Mark and the ICs sat down and actually got to know each other. Mark thinks that the flowers were a good beginning, but shouldn’t be the end.
Mark: It should be “let’s sit down and have a conversation and figure out what’s actually going on with our emotions and the interplay, and what exactly is happening here,” and be honest with each other and get to the heart of the matter. That’s what I value.
But in the culture at BISNET at the time, such honest conversations seemed impossible.
Mark: That’s corporate culture or whatever. You just can’t talk about that stuff. It could get heated. Maybe it was better the way it went down: “Let’s at least pretend that I’m not an asshole. And you pretend you don’t hate me. Maybe we can actually get to a point where you don’t hate me and I’m not an asshole, [laugh] if we just pretend long enough.”
I ask Miles whether there were any lasting changes after the flower gesture,
Carol: Do you remember any changes after the flower incident, in terms of people’s interactions or their reluctance (to interact)?
Miles: No. I think like most things, it’s hard for people to change, both for Mark to change and for anybody else to change. I see it as a blip and everything kind of falls back in the realm of people’s behaviors.
After the flower gesture, Mark spent one more year at BISNET. During that year, Mark and his co-workers were more patient and tolerant with each other. But his co-workers still didn’t know Mark’s upbringing or understand his particular sense of humor. And Mark still got frustrated by the interruptions and wished in private that the ICs would put some extra effort in writing a problem-solving manual or take some programming training. In 2002, Mark helped to find a well-trained programmer to gradually take over his responsibilities. Mark left the company, on good terms, in early 2003.
But our story doesn’t end there. After Mark has volunteered the story to me, I try to talk to as many of his former co-workers as possible. My conversation with the former IC Letitia reveals something surprising [sound: phone call with Letitia]. It turns out that there is one major difference between Mark’s version of the story and that of Letitia’s. According to Mark, nobody gave him any feedback about him being difficult to work with before the flower incident. Had he known that others hated working with him, he could’ve apologized much earlier. Yet, according to Letitia, she actually heard others calling Mark an asshole to his face, more than once.
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?
Letitia: Yeah. But I don’t think it came out as ‘you are being an asshole’, I think it was ‘you are such an asshole!’ (laugh) I think that he had that said to him more than once and by more than one person. I would wager money on that.
Hmmm, from Mark’s perspective, he seems to have completely forgotten about being called an asshole more than once at work. Letitia goes on to say that she also gave Mark direct feedback in the form of an email once. One day Mark left work in the morning.
Letitia: He just left. Basically left all of us hanging. I don’t remember what the big overhanging requirement was, but there were a lot of clients affected and a lot of employees of our company that were being affected. That was the time that I sent him an email. I said things to him that probably nobody else did, because I need to let him know, ‘Dude, I don’t think you are a team player.’ And that, in my mind, is one of the worst things you can say to an employee that’s part of a startup, ‘cause you gotta be team player. You gotta work together. You gotta come together for the greater good. And he was exhibiting more signs of “well, I’m the most important person here…”
According to Letitia, soon after the email, Mark apologized to every IC with the flower gesture. I ask her how she felt about Mark’s apology.
Letitia: I felt a little bit vindicated. I felt like he heard me.
So, this is interesting. According to Letitia, the coworkers did give Mark direct feedback along the way. And Letitia’s email probably even directly led to the flower apology. But why doesn’t Mark remember any of that? I need to have a follow-up with Mark to relay Letitia’s perspective.
Carol: Letitia remembers others calling you an asshole before the flower incident…
Mark: To my face?
Carol: Yeah, to your face, like “you are such an asshole” or “quit being such an asshole”.
Mark: [long pause] I would think that I would remember that. If I don’t remember it, my only explanation for not remembering it is because it would have to be in a context where that could’ve been a joke or something. Maybe I took it as a joke. Or maybe [pause] I was in the middle of trying to defend some technical thing. My brain wasn’t in processing-emotions mode. It was in talking-about-technical-things mode. Maybe when someone said it, it just bounced off ‘cause I wasn’t in the space to really think about it. I don’t know. As an off-hand comment maybe. Nobody sat me down and said ‘Do you understand that everybody here dislikes you, right?’ Maybe it was a kind of willful ignorance on my part. Maybe I just felt so justified in everything I said and did, that any kind of criticism bounced off until the Miles’ thing? I don’t really know.
I then bring up Letitia’s email and the fact that it happened one or two days before the flower apology.
Carol: She specifically remember that after the email, she said either the next day or the day after, you brought everybody flowers.
Mark: Right, well, part of my problem is I don’t remember the context of the thing very well. All I remember is I talked to Miles. But why did I talk to Miles? So it probably was after some incident that she’s describing.
Mark tries to recall what happened
Mark: Now that I’m thinking of it, her email was definitely part of it. Okay, this is one scenario that may have happened. But I’m not 100% sure, because it’s so long ago. I think her email spurred me to talk to Miles myself. She may have been the one who told me how bad things were. Then I go to talk to Miles about it. I think I was already upset by the email. When I talked to Miles, he basically confirmed everything in the email and said “It’s not just Letitia.” That was the order of events. I think her email upset me.
Carol: do you remember specifically whether she said you were not a team player? Can you recall that phrase? Or what part upset you?
Mark: [pause] Okay, a lot has started to come back to me right now. [laugh] So far what I’ve mentioned is…
Mark goes on to say that now thinking back he was probably picking up some antagonizing feedback from the ICs along the way. But he didn’t understand what it meant. At the time, he just felt that Letitia and the other ICs had a misunderstanding of him. And they probably put him in the asshole box.
Mark: I couldn’t get out of the box, the asshole box. Anything I said or did just reinforced it.”
But because Mark never thought of himself as an asshole, all the feedback before the meeting with Miles didn’t sink in. Instead, Mark felt that he was the victim. So he started disliking Letitia.
Mark: Because I felt she was the one that had wronged me, that had put me in the asshole box. And I was just some young dumb kid, trying to put some code together for them. Now I’m being labeled as something I don’t feel like I am. I always thought of myself as a nice guy. So when she wrote that email, my initial reaction to it was “this is bullshit!” After all the stress I’ve put myself through for this company and all the shit I put up with. After all that, for her to tell me I’m not a team player. Basically reinforce the idea that I’m some kind of asshole. It just seemed so wrong to me, ‘cause I didn’t see myself as an asshole. So yeah, I got defensive and I went…
Mark went to Miles’s office to complain about Letitia’s email. It was then Miles turned around and told Mark that everybody else was on Letitia’s side.
Mark: That woke me up and made me realize that I can’t defend my behavior. It doesn’t matter if she’s part of the problem. If she is antagonizing me to a point where I ended up becoming an asshole, that doesn’t mean I’m right to be that way.
As our conversation goes on, Mark tries to make sense of why the feedback like Letitia’s email didn’t directly help him and instead agitated him.
Mark: I think that was the problem. She just didn’t have an accurate model of me. Her model of me made me out to be an asshole. I feel there were legit explanations for why I was the way I was. That email, I feel was just even more antagonism. That was just her way of trying to tell me how to improve. But it was the wrong way. It was a bad way. Maybe I felt like she was trying to prove that I was an asshole. And I was defending myself the whole time. I’m not an asshole. But we couldn’t have a really deep discussion or anything. She couldn’t ever get a more accurate model of me and what was going on there. She just had some caricature of some guy who thought he was the king, and all her assumptions of me were based on some caricature of somebody who thinks he’s God or whatever. but I couldn’t really address that. All I could do was to really disprove it, to give them the flowers and say “I’m sorry that I’ve been an asshole. Let’s be friends.” That disproves everything she thought about me, whereas everything I’ve been doing up to that point was just reinforcing her preconceived notions.
I ask Mark what’s the difference between Letitia’s and Miles’s feedback. Why did the latter finally get through to him? Was it because Miles had power over Mark? But ICs didn’t?
Carol: Is it because Miles was your boss and the others are your peers?
Mark: Just like Letitia thought of me as an asshole and misconstrued everything I did in that light, I put Letitia into a box: she was an IC who didn’t want to learn anything, who saw feature requests as some kind of personal favor or battle and took it upon herself to antagonize me until I did what she wanted, and to then insult me and call me an asshole if I didn’t do what she wanted. We kind of both caricaturized each other. And Miles kind of stayed out of everything. He was kind of independent third party. So for him to validate her email to me, it added more weight to it. So it wasn’t just Letitia being Letitia…
In another conversation with me, Mark compares two kinds of feedback, one straightforward and the other more subtle.
Mark: I think there are different kinds of feedback. There’s the “they are gonna quit or we are gonna fire you” type of feedback. That obviously worked. Then there’s this more subtle expressions on their face, the fact they don’t invite you to their houses, the fact that when you try to engage them in small talk, they don’t seem interested. Probably, they think that they are communicating with you, but you are oblivious. And you just think everyone else is being a jerk.
In Mark’s case, he felt he had to prove even harder his value to the company.
Mark: I was taking in a lot of the negative emotions that people had in reaction to things I said and did. But without addressing this things directly, that just made it worse. The negative emotions and my picking up on them just made me act worse. Then I felt like maybe I had to prove even harder my value to the company and what I’ve done for everybody. “You should be giving me some kind of deference because I’m working so hard and I’ve done so much. Why do you dislike me? That doesn’t make any sense.” I was just confounded by the whole thing, not understanding what was going on or how to get people to like me or… [pause and sigh].
Remember Miles mentioned earlier that Mark’s mom was trying to elevate Mark’s status at the Company’s Christmas party? To Miles and many others, it was an example of Mark’s big ego. When I bring it up to Mark, he explains where he and probably his mom were coming from.
Mark: You know, people who stroke their egos, they are doing it for a reason. It’s not because they really have big egos, it’s because maybe they are not feeling so great about themselves and need some kind of propping up or whatever.
So, to Mark, maybe much of his ego-stroking behavior was an attempt to simply get others to like him. But to the other people, it was exactly the reason for not liking him. Now we have a vicious cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, when the co-workers caricaturized Mark to be an asshole, he actually became more asshole-like.
What’s more, because the feedback didn’t match with Mark’s view of himself who identifies as a nice guy and a nerd, it never actually sank in. So now we have a disconnect between the two parties. For the ICs, they thought they were providing feedback to Mark along the way by calling him out as an asshole or telling him that he was not a team player. But somehow Mark never changed or maybe got even more asshole-like. I can see how frustrating it must have felt for the ICs. Yet from Mark’s perspective, he felt that he was wronged by the ICs. In his mind, the feedback was, therefore, never registered as accurate, useful information, and thus easily forgotten.
So, if the meeting with Miles hadn’t happened, what kind of feedback would get through to him? From whom? I ask Mark.
Mark: It takes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of perspective on things and an ability to, like a kind of optimism [smile], ‘let’s just hope that this is well received, because it can always back fire when you are honest with somebody about that kind of thing. So there has to be some magical fairy person at the job who’s willing to stick their neck out and tell the asshole, “you should not act like that here with these people. Maybe in some contexts that would work, if you were in a group of people that are just like you. But you are not and you have to make adjustments.”
So I do think that if someone had been able to set aside whatever trepidations they had about talking to me frankly, sat me down and said, “the people here don’t like you, do you know that?” At any point, if they had done that, then I’m pretty positive that I would’ve responded and “okay, how do I fix that?” [silence] But that’s not how people communicate. They just don’t do that in the real world, or especially in the workplace. Why don’t they? Is it because there’s a fear of… Is it because they are also in the kind of haze? They know that they are tormented by this guy, but they just don’t, they kind of put it off in a corner and try not to deal with it and avoid it as much as possible? So maybe everybody is in this similar kind of haze where “I don’t get along with that person. So whatever.” or “It’s not my job to deal with them. So I’m just gonna tell his boss and just try to get my work done and deal with my stuff.
Well, we are all busy after all. Who has the time to play the “magical fairy person” at work? But I think what’s even rarer than time is the kind of optimism Mark mentioned. The optimism to even entertain the crazy idea that maybe just maybe the asshole also has an untold story waiting for you to explore.
Mark’s story only serves to begin the conversation between you and me or among your colleagues at work. If you want to share your story, please drop me a note on our website Workstoriesproject.org. I’m happy to be your personal researcher and curator on any work-related topics. While doing research for this episode story, I’ve come across so many interesting materials. For example, there’s a blog article by a senior Facebook software engineer. He reflects on his experience of being kicked out of his team once. If you visit the webpage of this podcast episode, you’ll see the links to all the resources that may help you build an asshole-free workplace. [Professor Bob Sutton, one of my mentors at Stanford, even devotes a whole book to the workplace asshole, titled “The No Asshole Rule!” It’s an interesting and provocative read. Tell me what books or resources have helped you surviving an asshole or building an asshole-free workplace.] I’ll keep updating the list as we go.
You may wonder what’s the topic for our future episodes. Well, it largely depends on your request. You tell me what to explore next, as long as it has the slightest connection with the human experience of work. We can always revisit old topics and explore new ones. So reach out to me on our website, Facebook, and Twitter. You are also welcome to join me in a sub Reddit discussion 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. Sometimes revisiting the past can be painful and confusing. You all are very brave and generous. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from talking with you. And I hope I can pay it forward. I’m your host Carol Xu. Our sound engineer is Jason. And the music is by Mark.
Hello, you are still there? You must be one of those people who sit through the whole credits after a movie. Are you waiting for a bonus clip? I’ll tell you a secret: I do have some fun behind-the-scene clips from the interviews for you. For example, in one clip, Mark and I kept going back and forth about whether he could be technically called an asshole. Here’s a little sample:
Mark: So was I really an asshole? Or am I a special Silicon Valley brand of workplace-too-honest, temporarily autistic, not-paying-attention-to-other-people’s emotions (type of asshole?) Is there a name for that? Nerd? Is that it? I’m not shying away from being called an asshole by other people. That’s fine…
Carol: … If we actually have a heart-to-heart with 10 assholes who are recognized by their colleagues, I go interview those 10 assholes. Maybe 9 out of 10 would go, “What? Really?”
Mark: [bursts into laughter] You really think so?
Go to the webpage of this episode and click on the link that says “behind the scenes clips” and enjoy! Okay, that’s it for our show. See you next time!