“It’s happening at 8:30 tomorrow morning” my husband told me without preamble when we called me on his way home from work last night. He did not even have to explain the “it” he was referring to; I knew immediately that the “jerk” he works with was finally being fired. I felt a sense of relief that my husband would no longer have to deal with this person who had made his work so much more frustrating, but I also felt sad. Sad for the individual being let go as well as the person tasked with doing the firing. It was a difficult situation.
As I lay in bed last night wishing I could just fall asleep instead of dreading what was going to happen in the morning I found dozens of question swirling around my head. There was one in particular that I kept coming back to. Does behaving like a jerk translate into someone actually being a jerk? No, I concluded. Just because someone acts like a jerk it does not automatically make them a jerk. But then how do you decide when you need to separate yourself from someone versus try to help them deal with a difficult situation in a better way?
When I listened to the interview of Dr. Bob Sutton at Stanford University, I was absolutely in agreement with his ideas of dealing with and reducing our contact with “jerks” in the workplace. This morning though, I find myself still wondering how we get to the point of slapping the label of “jerk” on someone.
It seems like a prime example of the fundamental attribution error to label someone as a “jerk” instead of attempting to understand what caused them to react in a negative way. But perhaps it’s not that simple either; I do believe that some people are predisposed to be mean no matter the situation they find themselves in.
To gain better clarity I took a deeper look at the attribution process and in particular at Kelley’s (1973) covariation model. According to Kelley, we can estimate whether the root cause for someone’s behavior is internal or external by determining levels of the following (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012):
- Distinctiveness – Is this behavior unique to this situation?
- Consensus – Are others behaving in this same way in this situation?
- Consistency – Is this typical behavior for this situation and person?
This method can help us determine if the behavior stems from an out-of-character reaction to an external situation or if the behavior should be attributed to internal personality/character factors.
So then, should we default to labeling someone a jerk if it turns out that the behavior stems from internal factors? I think not, and I think it can even be detrimental to the individual being labeled. I believe that the average person who is labeled a jerk is aware of the stigma they carry. They usually know that they rub people the wrong way and that others don’t like them. While some may seem to be jerks down to their souls, could this be a self-fulfilling prophecy in others? The jerk knows they are disliked but perhaps they don’t think they have the power to change who they are. As a result, they don’t attempt to better themselves and instead write off their membership in the jerk club to innate and unchangeable personality deficits; the “jerk” lives up to the label.
Instead of labeling people we should focus on describing their behavior. Rather than calling someone a jerk, we could say that they responded inappropriately. Thus, it would be easier to detach the behavior from the character of the person. It would allow the person to still see themselves as “good” and choose to view their bad behavior as an exception rather than defining them.
In the workplace, perhaps we could identify the behaviors that we are wishing to encourage instead of focusing on the behaviors that we want to abolish. Instead of saying “no jerks allowed” we could institute a mandate that requires that employees always respond with kindness. The emphasis would be on promoting positive behaviors instead of labeling people by their behaviors, good or bad. I propose that by discouraging bad behaviors, instead of condemning individuals, we could have success changing the way people handle difficult situations.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Bob Sutton (Stanford University) – The No Jerk Rule | Stanford eCorner. (2007). Retrieved from https://ecorner.stanford.edu/podcast/the-no-jerk-rule/