do you have to be a jerk to succeed at work?

A reader writes:

I wanted to email you about an issue that has come up often in my career in regards doing the right thing. I am a late-20s male who has been working in a technical environment for the entirety of my career. I don’t know if it has just been the companies that I’ve worked for, but there seems to be a prevailing issue of image vs. actions in regards to people’s behavior when working in an office environment. When things go wrong, which they inevitably will because nobody is perfect, there tends to be a flurry of finger pointing and claims of innocence with no accountability of the issue. Accountability is brought up a lot, and what I mean by accountability is the person holding themselves accountable for their own quality of work. I find myself to be a person with integrity who does not like throwing people under the bus. I will also readily admit when I have made a mistake. The thing I have an issue with is that if I am the only one who does these things, I end up looking like a screw-up instead of building a reputation as someone who is honest with themselves. Even worse, those with Machiavellian tendencies can achieve a lot before people see the “person behind the curtain,” if at all, and will steamroll over people like me if I wait for the higher-ups to “see through” what is happening. Office environments are full of these types of people who will kick and claw and tear others down to look useful to their boss or others. I want to succeed but I want to do so honestly and I want to earn it. Am I just not cut out for working in an office?

  • What am I supposed to talk about in one-on-one’s?
  • My coworker doesn’t keep his records up-to-date
  • I could be the snippy boss

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Operational Chaos*

    I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever got with regards to being a woman (or anyone, really) in the workplace was : Show up, turn it out, stand your ground, and be a pleasure to work with.

    That last one always gets tricky given the beast that is interpersonal relationships and office politics being what they are. But it’s served me well and it’s an easily digestible phrase that can be passed on to people I’m training or mentoring in the same way that I was taught myself.

    1. Database Developer Dude*

      Except many times, those who push the ‘interpersonal relationship’ aspect of the workplace only mean it one way, and it’s never in your favor.

    2. anon today and tomorrow*

      I find women are told to be a pleasure to work with far more than men are, and I think that type of advice can have gendered implications that doesn’t really benefit anyone.

      I know when I’ve heard that type of advice directed at me, it’s been in the “smile, always say yes, and never disagree” vein, at least.

      1. Operational Chaos*

        That kind of stuff is why I mentioned standing your ground immediately before being a pleasure. I would never advocate for someone being a smiling simulacrum of a human being or being a doormat of any kind.

        But you can still be an approachable, enjoyable person in the work place without playacting at being nice or playing into societal/gender obligations. Being a jerk, the topic presented, is going to stomp a lot of toes and get you no where except spoken about behind hands by the workplace.

      2. Database Developer Dude*

        men of color get that as well, anon today and tomorrow. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve been admonished about relationships at work (not those kind)….but it turns out what was meant is one-way, not two way.

    3. AnonAcademic*

      I wish this sort of advice wasn’t necessary but I’ve found a similar approach to be very helpful when working under a toxic boss who retaliated for a mistake I made by freezing me out of projects and bad mouthing me to my colleagues. Since those colleagues had had nothing but pleasant interactions with me, several of them chose to relay my boss’s actions to me rather than believe his account. It actually strengthened my relationship with my peers because they felt defensive of me and had either experienced or worried about my boss’s hatchet jobs themselves. Even my boss’s boss took notice and when my boss was trying to fire me, she offered me a job working for her instead. Ultimately the whole debacle just reinforced my boss’ reputation as a jerk and a bully, and I came out looking like the professional and mature one.

      1. Tea Fish*

        I had a similar situation with a passive aggressive and territorial coworker who took me standing my ground and taking ownership of my tasks as an intrusion into her lane. Going out of my way to ~be a pleasure to work with~ really took the wind out of her sails when she tried to vent about my behavior to other coworkers (who had only ever had pleasant, non-intrusive interactions with me).

        (This does have a happy ending– eventually I was able to win her over and she settled her ruffled feathers and we work relatively well together now.)

      2. Operational Chaos*

        I’ve unfortunately had similar situations and was so thankful I had my reputation with others to reinforce that there was something totally misaligned when I was being bad mouthed by someone superior to me in the hierarchy and definitely reinforced my mentality about this.

        I’m sorry you went through something similar. It’s such a frustrating thing and it’s easy to second guess yourself, especially when all the negativity is coming from an authority figure. I’m glad it worked out for you!

  2. Etak*

    Sorry if this is off topic, but for LW #1 (Caller #1?), you have a phenomenal voice and speak so wonderfully and clearly, I would listen to you read the dictionary! :)

    1. GinaE*

      Just getting a chance to visit the site and read comments on this episode. I’m caller #1 and you’re too kind (Etak & Lena Clare). Thank you (that makes me laugh because I recorded that call about twenty-five times before deciding “WTH – just send it!”)

  3. RickTq*

    I have worked with a few scheming weasels over the years and have found Email Is Your Friend, along with having the reputation for immediately owning your mistakes. Having a reputation for holding yourself accountable is a shield, and the records of who said what when is the sword to protect your reputation. When everyone knows “Joe owns his mistakes” it makes it harder for others to assign the blame to you.

    Document EVERYTHING with those people, including sending a “to confirm our discussion” email documenting what was said/not said and any agreements made during the discussion.

    At my job I’ve worked with some untrustworthy people. Most are gone but I still prefer to communicate via e-mail so I have a record.

    1. Czhorat*

      I didn’t get to listen (at work in an open plan office), but YES.

      I make mistakes. We ALL do. The ones who try to point the finger at someone else? That becomes part of their reputation. If you doubt that remember that it is, at the very least, part of how YOU see them and your view of them is a part of their larger reputation. Perhaps someday you’ll be in a position of authority, or adjacent to someone who is. Perhaps it will be someone else who had that experience with the blame-passer. In any event, if everytime something goes wrong they’re looking for an excuse that is far, FAR worse than making the occasional error and owning up to it.

    2. Amber Rose*

      Yeah. It’s brutally hard to stand up and say, “That mistake was mine” but you gotta. The only thing worse than being the person who made the mistake is being the person who made the mistake and tried to pretend they didn’t. Also a reputation for honesty and accountability is the silver lining from messing up, so you might as well make the most of it.

    3. Ann Furthermore*

      Definitely. I recently learned the hard way that one of my co-workers is sneaky and duplicitous, and tries to make herself look good by making others look bad. I have zero direct conversations with her now other than the usual “How are you?” type exchanges, and every single work-related thing we talk about now is documented in email.

  4. President Porpoise*

    Regarding what to talk about in the one on one, for normal status meetings, I typically prep a list of Accomplishments, Problems, Opportunities, and Upcoming Events/Issues. This typically helps structure the meeting a bit.

    Full disclosure – I did not listen to the podcast, due to not wanting to distract others at work, so if this doesn’t actually make sense in the context of the question/discussion, I’m very sorry!

    1. GinaE*

      I was the caller – makes a ton of sense and totally in line with the questions I have! New to managing humans, my background is actually project management.

  5. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I really liked your suggestions for how to handle one on ones.

    My follow up question is how to realistically make that happen in a schedule already packed with meetings. Everywhere I’ve worked, it seems supervisors/managers are pulled in a dozen different directions and sometimes don’t have time to even read their email. If you supervise a team of 10, doing weekly one-on-ones could be 1/4 of your week and that seems unlikely to work in a lot of companies.

    I guess it depends on the effectiveness of one-on-one coaching in the eyes of upper management to determine how much of a priority it’s given. Are there any studies or information out there that look at this kind of thing?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you supervise a team of 10, management should really be the vast majority of your work — definitely at least a quarter of your time and probably more.

      That doesn’t mean that your company will see it that way, but that’s a large number of direct reports and it’s unrealistic to think you’ll have time for much more if you’re effectively managing them. (With exceptions for circumstances like if they’re all doing very basic data entry work that doesn’t require a ton of conversation.)

      1. Theory of Eeveelution*

        I came to the comments to ask further questions about this. I’ve been in my current job for nearly a year, and my manager has NEVER done one-on-ones. We’re in a meeting-heavy work culture; my team rarely sees our manager, partially because she’s always in meetings, but primarily because she really doesn’t prioritize management. If she’s physically around, she doesn’t interact with us. As a result, our team is kind of a mess. A functional mess, but still.

        It would feel really tone deaf to request regular one-on-ones because of how crazy everyone’s schedule is, but I really feel like our team would benefit from it! Is there anything to do in this situation?

        1. Qwerty*

          Does your whole team ever get together? If the team is kind of a mess, than it might need a big picture plan to start with. One of the best things a former manager did was stick the team in a room and have us create a list of “Things to stop doing” and “Things to start doing” (he left the room and one person was designated as the writer to preserve privacy). It let us as a team work out what we wanted/needed from him and we even added a “Things to keep doing” column because it helped us realize which strategies were working for us.

          For the manager without any time to meet – is there anyone who could be deputized to go to those meetings for her? I’ve often been the team rep at meetings when my manager is busy. Sending the more senior members to the meetings related to their work seems to help with communication and feeling ownership of a project.

          If you really want face time with your manager, maybe try bringing it up at your review? I’m assuming end of year reviews will be happening soon, so that’s an easy place to bring up the topic without having to awkwardly ask for a meeting. Even a quarterly one-on-one meeting could be useful and won’t eat up a huge chunk of your managers time.

      2. 12YearOldAOLer*

        “That doesn’t mean that your company will see it that way, but that’s a large number of direct reports and it’s unrealistic to think you’ll have time for much more if you’re effectively managing them…”
        This is interesting to me. My boss has 8 direct reports (according to the org chart) but I conduct one-on-ones for 2 of them, give them weekly tasks along with deadlines and guidance, remind them to do their required training, etc. I have done this for 18 months already. To my knowledge, my boss has never conducted a one-on-one with either of them. The only time he notices stuff is if there’s a problem of some kind.
        How should I approach this? I’ve already asked for the extra responsibilities to be reflected in a title/compensation, but he recently gave me an evasive response when I brought up the topic again. I am supposed to be “patient” and “wait for the reorg to calm down”.
        Frankly, I think I’m being conned/used here, but I’m not sure where else locally I’ll get the same amount of pay, and I’m not in a position where I can absorb a pay cut. How should I approach this?

        1. Person from the Resume*

          If you conduct one-on-ones for 2 people, give them weekly tasks along with deadlines and guidance, remind them to do their required training, etc them YOU’re their boss/supervisor. It sounds like it’s not reflected in your title but if these people take guidance from you and your own boss is happy about it them those two people are not your boss’s direct reports.

          IDK, though. your boss has ignored you on this, and you have been doing this for 18 months. This isn’t a I just got an increase in responsibility, I should get some more pay situation. it sounds like your boss is not listening to reason.

          I sympathize because you are managing two people, but it may just help your piece of mind (since you seem stuck if you can’t move) to think that your salary includes pay for managing those 2 people.

        2. Kes*

          Did your boss ask you to do this or did you just start? Assuming you’re doing this with approval, it sounds like you’re their dotted line supervisor, and are being groomed to move up but it hasn’t happened yet, which could mean they’re taking advantage of you or that he’s trying to get you promoted but it hasn’t worked out yet for various reasons. Does your company normally promote at any time or on a yearly basis? Might be worth asking your boss if he can provide any kind of timeline of when he thinks you might be able to get promoted

        3. TardyTardis*

          I’ve been told ‘just be patient’ before, and it meant ‘we’ll pretend until you decide to retire, and then sigh with relief that we don’t have to come through’.

          1. 12YearOldAOLer*

            I’m one of the few women in the office, and I don’t know of any male colleagues who’ve been told “just be patient”. A few of them have been promoted not once but twice during the same 18 month period. Often they are promoted and then given time/space to “grow into the role”. I don’t know; but I really can’t shake the feeling that gender is a factor here. Of course, I have no concrete proof.

    2. NW Mossy*

      I’ll chip in some thoughts as a manager of a team of 12 who does weekly 30-minute one-on-ones, which I’ve been doing since I started managing this team 18 months ago.

      It does feel like a ton of time, especially in the first couple of months while you’re calibrating your schedule. Expect this, and don’t let it discourage you. It gets a lot easier after the initial change because you start to see the beneficial effects it has on your schedule overall. Your employees will start accumulating non-urgent issues to discuss in their one-on-one then rather than emailing/stopping by when the thought strikes them, you’ll get fewer double-bookings as other people adapt to the schedule, and you’ll be able to make more efficient use of other meetings because you can use one-on-ones to keep your staff updated on things they need to know.

      One tip I read for scheduling one-on-ones is to begin by scheduling the first one 3-4 weeks out. Your calendar is more open further out, so you can start getting the time reserved before it gets booked for some pop-up meeting. Also, I found it helpful to chunk them into blocks where I do 2-3 back-to-back – it keeps them from running over and others seem to respect a longer stretch of blocked-out time more than a 30 minute meeting by itself. And finally, pick one day each week (I like Fridays) where you have no regular one-on-ones scheduled – it becomes your spillover day for any that you need to reschedule due to conflicts earlier in the week.

      And to Alison’s point, they’re essential to doing the job well. Consistent, regular time with your people really helps you know their strengths, weaknesses, goals, worries, capacity, and more, which makes your decision-making about who should tackle X or Y much faster and more aligned to what your people need for their development.

    3. Bulbasaur*

      I found Alison’s answer on this one really interesting. She had a lot of useful advice that I felt would be helpful for me, but some of her suggestions didn’t seem to apply quite so well to my situation.

      I manage a team of mostly senior staff who typically look after themselves and don’t need much help. They also tend to work within the context of a project team so I don’t have a lot of day to day contact with them, and they are more likely to go to their project manager or account exec for matters relating to their day to day work. My role as their manager is more about the bigger picture: picking up any lingering issues, ensuring that their day to day work matches up to their planned career track, following up on company-wide updates and getting their feedback, that kind of thing.

      In that context I tend to have mine once a month. For some of my staff even that is too much – I have people that will regularly cancel theirs because they say they have nothing they need to talk about with me. Others that are dealing with an issue like rethinking their career direction, for example, might want to use the full hour every month. It’s very much dependent on the person, and can sometimes change over time as well (sometimes they are very short until the person decides that they can trust me, then it all starts coming out and we’ll spend an hour and still not be done).

      Alison’s tips on structuring the meetings were very helpful and gave me some ideas on how to make them more relevant. In my case there is an additional step I feel I need to take since I don’t routinely work with any of my staff day to day, and that’s to catch up with their project managers on occasion and find out how they are doing.

      This is unfortunately a necessity in a project-based organization where people may completely change teams several times a year. You can assign managers based on the teams, but that has all kinds of negative consequences (people change managers a lot, the process of staffing new projects becomes much more difficult and politically fraught, and so on). In practice this kind of partly delegated management structure seems to work best, with project managers handling the day to day matters and line managers handling the bigger stuff like career goals.

      1. LQ*

        My job was like this for a while (I would routinely go weeks and even months without talking to my boss) I have a different role now and I wish he’d taken (or been able to take) the time to have some more strategic conversations with me occasionally. It was the thing we talked about when we did talk but it was very infrequent. I suppose this matters because that’s the role I’ve been moved into and hindsight is 20/20. But I think those big why and strategic conversations can be really important if you are very project focused because it’s easy to loose track of how they fit into a bigger structure.

        1. Bulbasaur*

          Agreed, and it was the main thing I wanted to achieve when I signed up for the role. Previously managers at my level had (a) managed vast numbers of people, say 30-40 and (b) been extremely hands off. It would be fairly common for somebody to give notice and have it be a complete surprise to management, then you’d ask around and find out that they’d been unhappy for months or years, had felt stuck in a rut, wanted to change career path but didn’t know how to do it, didn’t know who to talk to or how to get support… the list goes on. My main goal was to never have that happen for any of my staff, and I think I achieved it. (That’s not to say that none of them ever left, but nobody ever left for obvious and easily fixable reasons that we didn’t know about or act on, as had happened all the time before).

          What would have been an ideal frequency for you? I suspect one of the reasons monthly occasionally felt too frequent was that I didn’t do a good job of structuring them, and I could make them more useful/worthwhile if I implemented some of Alison’s suggestions. But it does feel to me generally that while the career/strategic discussions are definitely important to have regularly, they don’t need to be as frequent as the tactical ones about the nuts and bolts of the job.

          1. LQ*

            I think 2x per month would have been good for me. When I was new I would have needed more time with my boss anyway, and there wasn’t really a lot of time when I wasn’t either too new to need help, or ready to start getting introduced to the strategic conversations.

            Oddly when I mostly was moved to reporting to my boss’s boss, my boss and I started having more one on ones (he started having them with all his staff which is great). We were having them weekly though one or the other of us would cancel about half the time which worked out fine.

            And I’d much rather have a 1 hour 1-2/month than 30 minutes/week. 30 minutes feels like it’s just scratching the surface of a good strategic conversation so then you have to go, well can we go longer, and everything slides. So an hour is much better for those.

            That said I’m doing a very strategic role now and I meet with the director weekly and at least 75% of those conversations are strategic. (Though since it’s my role it’s the nuts and bolts…maybe?)

            1. Bulbasaur*

              That makes sense for your situation – if you’re in strategy or senior management then naturally strategic conversations would be much more central to what you’re doing. My reports are in delivery so most of their day is taken up with actually building stuff, completing projects etc. By and large if they’re happy with the work they are doing then they just want to be left alone to get on with it, and will deal with any day to day issues through their project team. (It’s when they’re unhappy that they want to talk). It does vary from person to person to some degree – one of my reports likes to bring me technical problems that she’s facing and use me as a mentor/sounding board, which is fine too.

              Strategic conversations at the level of my team very often seem to boil down to: the company should be doing more of [thing that I am interested in]. A fair amount of what I do is helping people figure out ways to plug that into the overall company strategy if it’s feasible, or helping them find alternatives if it’s not. The latter tends to be harder and sometimes ends up with them leaving to pursue their dream elsewhere.

            1. Bulbasaur*

              Yes, that was quite a unique style of managing while it lasted. I would describe it succinctly as “not managing”.

              One of my managers genuinely thought the fact that he could have 30-40 people reporting to him and still have 80% of his time available for other things meant that he was really good at his job. Needless to say I never had one on one meetings with him. Annual reviews were generally a pat on the back and “Good work this year, clients are happy, keep it up!” This could happen even if your work had been questionable and clients were kicking up a fuss, provided that news of it hadn’t reached the manager yet, which was not at all uncommon.

      2. M. Albertine*

        As a staff person, I had weekly check ins with my manager to update projects and assess workload, but one of those per month also included a check-in based on the goals set at the yearly performance review. I found it really helpful to keep in mind the bigger picture of how my work fit into the overall vision for the company, we were able to adjust expectations and plans on the fly based on current input, and made the yearly performance review a snap because we had been talking about it all year.

    4. Kes*

      Weekly one-on-ones seems like a lot to me, although I think it’s also somewhat context-dependent – if you have a lot of very junior reports who you don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis but need to stay on top of their work, weekly would make sense to me. If you have more senior reports and/or are working with them on a regular basis anyway, I would think every two or three weeks would be enough.

  6. Database Developer Dude*

    Do you have to be a jerk to succeed at work? If that question goes to Machiavellian tendencies, I can’t speak to that, but as far as interpersonal relationships, I hate to say it, but it really depends on the OP’s ethnic and racial background.

    Even if someone else is being totally irrational and impossible, I *cannot* even let any frustration show on my face, otherwise I get taken to task….because then the stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Man ™’ comes out. I had that going on just this morning, where I gave a completely and totally accurate answer to a technical question, and my task lead went back to stuff we already settled. He saw it on my face, and addressed it. I don’t have a poker face, I know it, but come on! Others can mess up, and I’ve just got to smile and roll with it? No.

    But it is what it is.

    1. Zona the Great*

      I deal with the exact same issue except that I’m a white Jewish female. I am generally very even keeled. If one hair on my head is out of place I get, “you seem upset today”. Ugh.

    2. Lusankya*

      Being a jerk doesn’t even mesh well with what Machiavelli actually wrote.

      It’s better to be feared than loved, yes, but Machiavelli’s definition of fear more closely correlated with respect, and is important not because it’s not good to be loved (it is, and if you can get both fear and love, then you’re sitting pretty) but rather because you can command respect from others in a way that you cannot command love.

      And while it’s better to be feared than loved, you absolutely do not want people to hate you. Because when people hate you, they will give up their own self-interest to hurt you.

      In short, people who claim that being a jerk is a Machiavellian principle are just jerks who’ve never read Machiavelli.

  7. restingbutchface*

    I’d look at the definition of success. Maybe being cruel and difficult to work with might get you more money or power. Maybe. For me, I think of success as having three components. Did I 1. archive my goal, while 2. working within my values and 3. being sovereign to myself? I need a yes for all three to class it as a success.

  8. chicago123*

    I relate to LW #2 sooooo much. I worked at a large (300+) PR agency where everyone talked about accountability but no one was willing to take it, so people who did appeared to be problem workers. At that office it was very typical!! The mentor advice resonates with me a lot because that was my solution at the time!

    Now where I work (a tiny nonprofit where everyone is autonomous) we are all very accountable & honest.

  9. Jaguar*

    I used to have an arrogance problem. I still have it, but I used to have it, too.

    It was based on a need for people to think I was intelligent, and I decided it was having a negative impact on my life and I wanted to get past this insecurity. So, I made a conscious decision about a decade ago to recognize when I was about to act in some way that was broadcasting the insecurity and stop it. If I did something stupid or appeared to do something stupid, and it gave the impression to someone that I was stupid, I wouldn’t try to explain my thinking or correct their impression. The first job I took after adopting this behaviour, I quickly developed a reputation as an idiot (and, who knows? maybe I am and that’s actually a more accurate reputation)

    There’s this truism that’s taken on faith that if you’re an intelligent person, that will show through and you don’t have to prove it. It’s a nice belief, but I don’t know how true it actually is. People make snap judgements about others and people are hesitant to update their impressions of people. This isn’t a defense of being pompus, but the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. This is all sprung from a personal anecdote of mine, but I’ve also known a lot of shy, quietly brilliant people that others have thought were idiots. There may be a necessary element of advertising involved even to give people the correct impression of you, let alone the impression you want them to have.

    1. Big Business Man*

      I think a lot of the time people consider intelligence as a measure of how closely the other person’s methods and reasoning align with theirs, not objectively looking at solutions in the context of the problem

    2. puppies*

      I totally get it. I used to worry a lot about how I was perceived, especially assessments of my intelligence and social skills (or lack thereof). Being perceived as dumb and/or socially awkward were my biggest fears in the workplace. However, I’ve learned over the years that isn’t helpful or a good focus of my energy. Instead I try to focus on my work objectives. So whatever the task at hand, whether it’s “complete this spreadsheet accurately,” “produce a presentation that effectively communicates our capabilities,” or even “make this new employee feel welcome.” Focusing on achieving specific objectives and tasks, rather than perception, is extremely helpful in getting out of your own way/head. Basically, if you do good work and are kind to others and behave professionally, you will most likely be perceived well.

      1. female peter gibbons*

        I know someone who definitely broadcasts that she has this attitude constantly by ‘mansplaining’ – (yes i use it for women too)

        – she is always correcting me on things but is actually wrong about those facts herself (I’ll Google the issue later because I’m so confident I know what I’m speaking of)
        – constantly disagrees with facts I state (i.e. “So I read in the news that xyz” “No, that’s not true”. (Well I read it, I”m not making it up))
        – stating her opinions as facts.

        I think it’s an insecurity about intelligence at play here. Most people I talk to have grown out of this tendency or are too sensitive to have it.

      2. Jaguar*

        My point was the opposite: your decision about how to present yourself plays a strong determining role in how others perceive you. If you don’t stick up for your reputation or your competence and rely on the-truth-will-come-out-eventually, you’re liable to wind up being seen as the person you don’t want to be seen as, unfortunate as that is.

  10. Cordoba*

    Waiting for the bosses to “see through” this behavior and then do something about it is not a viable strategy. Most managers aren’t that good.

    As was previously mentioned, a willingness to just own your mistakes goes a long way towards establishing credibility when something *isn’t* your fault.

    Holding people accountable for their mistakes, even when those people are slippery and Machiavellian, might be a skill to work on. My theory is that many of these folks temporarily lose sight of what they’re actually doing, and construct schemes that are very excessive for the circumstances in which they work. The plot becomes more important than the outcome.

    I find it is helpful to call out the behavior as unnecessary and remind everybody of the actual stakes. For example: “This isn’t ‘House of Cards’, you’re middle management at a medium size factory. It’s fine if you made a mistake, let’s just figure out what went wrong and then move on.”

    1. RickTq*

      When a problem that costs the company time or money comes up there only two questions that should matter to management:
      – How do we solve the problem?
      – How do we keep the problem from happening again?

      Finding someone to blame is focusing on the past and not addressing the problem.

    2. TardyTardis*

      I nearly lost my job before grandboss saw through a co-worker who was convincing my actual boss that I should take over her work and she herself could just supervise and nitpick it (the co-worker, that is, just want to make it clear).

  11. Observer*

    Alison, I liked your answers. But, I do think you could have added one thing to the guy who is afraid of being seen like a wimp. If something happens that is not his fault, really truly then it is perfectly ok for him to tell the boss what actually happened. This is NOT throwing someone under the bus!

    And, because he is straightforward about owning his mistakes, he’ll have the kind of credibility most other people won’t have.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      I agree! I know Alison has covered this in some past posts, but standing up for yourself is not “tattling,” nor is going to your boss when a coworker is causing a real problem (like the one in today’s earlier letter who won’t do her share of training new hires). There seems to be a mentality among many – left over from school, perhaps, when it was Kids against Adults and snitches got stitches? – that it’s better to fall on one’s own sword rather than say, “The melted teapot wasn’t me, it was actually Fergus.” Because that’s “throwing someone under the bus” and “tattling,” doncha know.

      Throwing someone under the bus means scapegoating them or making them take the blame for something they DIDN’T do or only had a partial hand in doing. It doesn’t mean sticking up for yourself.

  12. mrs_helm*

    I came here to say that as well. There are ways to say that someone else made an error, while being kind and understanding and honest. Giving the benefit of the doubt, being understanding about circumstances, and knowing that everyone makes mistakes. But still acknowledging the error, as well as any role you may have had…and then quickly moving into solutions.

  13. Justin*

    I think backstabbing and other jerky behaviors are relatively common and it’s probably more common when you’re younger and newer to your career. You might be a little easier to take advantage of or dump blame on since you’re more green. And f you work with other younger people there might be some maturity and integrity issues that work themselves out as people get older.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      I’ve found the opposite. I’ve worked with a lot of jerks that have climbed their way to the top at the expense of others. Once there, they will do almost anything to keep their cushy place in tact.

  14. clunker*

    LW2 seems like he’s worked at a lot of places with bad technical processes?

    I’m a software engineer, and I’m not sure if this applies to LW’s field but it seems like it would be generally applicable to a lot of technical fields?

    I’ve been lucky enough to find a place where we do no-blame post-mortems. We identify issues which caused the mistake in terms of process– if someone committing code failed to test one of the workflows and there was an issue, why didn’t that code have any tests? If someone made a typo in the large configuration repo which handles our deployments, why don’t we have some sort of automated checking in place? Or- why didn’t the code reviewers notice either of these issues?

    While those sort of examples might not be exactly applicable, depending on your field, you can probably work to change processes so that either 1) handling problems if they do occur is easier and 2) more people have a chance to notice problems before they occur. One of the things for us is that we need two approvals for any changes, so if a mistake gets through, it’s at least 3 people’s fault. And it is their fault as much as it is the writers fault– we all signed off on it. It’s harder to point fingers at 3 people, and you can’t really blame anyone without blaming all 3. We do generally avoid mentioning who wrote buggy code or who reviewed it rather than specifically figuring out what section of code caused it- we avoid saying “Fergus caused this bug by doing this” and instead say something like “This commit caused the bug, the code [blablabla]”.

    1. Tau*

      I was thinking this as well, as another software developer who’s happy we don’t really bother with blame when diagnosing problems. The way I’ve always seen this is that it is human nature to occasionally make mistakes or miss something. So if a mistake occurs, the fact that a human being made it isn’t the thing to focus on, and “stop making mistakes entirely” is not a productive approach to take. What’s more practical is to look at the processes surrounding your work that are designed to catch mistakes before they get into a place where they can cause damage, and figure out what went wrong and if anything could be put into place to prevent it from happening again.

      This is a very software development-specific approach, obviously, but I really like it because the focus is where it should be – “something negative happened to our product, how can we prevent it from happening again?” – and it’s a collaborative instead of finger-pointing way to go about things.

  15. voyager1*

    LW1: I might be reading more into your letter, but I get the jist that you feel that because you are honest about mistakes that it is holding you back, while folks who don’t ever take any accountability for bad behavior, mistakes or jerkish behavior move on up.

    Here is the two things that have been hard for me to learn about the workplace.

    1. Many people will let others take the blame or not own their mistakes/behavior.

    2. Managers know about it but don’t care because they get what they need out of those people.

    If you find a manager who actually cares AND follows up with action, those managers are gold… and stay with them for as long as you can.

  16. Stranger than fiction*

    As usual, I appreciate Alison’s perspective on this, because I gotta tell ya, I totally relate to the person whose letter is in the title.
    Sadly, I’m in my forties and have worked in a variety of industries and roles throughout my career and have found this to ring true.
    Not saying there’s no hope, and Alison is probably right. However, I’m convinced it’s something to do with my personality. I’ve had bosses and coworkers lie, take credit for my work, and throw me under the bus at multiple places. Except for one two year stint as a supervisor, I’ve never been able to move up.
    I feel like sometimes it’s because bosses are selfish and don’t want to shine a light that you may be smarter the them. I feel like people that ate candid and not ass kissers get held back sometimes. But I’ve also been working really hard this year on my flexibility. Like the Op, I value my principles but sometimes I get stuck on them.

  17. Father Todd Unctious*

    I didn’t listen to the podcast (I’ll wait for the transcript). But I’ll throw in my 2 cents anyway.
    I have learned that you have to be a bit of an asshole to get anywhere in your career. I”m not talking about blaming others and throwing them under the bus. That will “help” for a short while, but people will notice soon enough. But without some level of arrogance (and I mean arrogance, not confidence) you will get nowhere.
    I can honestly say I produce excellent work. I have a coworker who is brilliant at what she does. But we are just not people who push others out of the way, or suck up to the boss. And for this reason, we are treated like crap. We are not allowed to be involved in any projects, but only get the scraps. Meanwhile, the new guy who has zero experience gets to be involved and gain experience.
    And don’t think I don’t speak up. I have been doing that for year. All I get are promises.
    Unfortunately, if you’re a decent person who treats others with respect, people will walk all over you.

  18. Canadian Public Servant*

    For people interested in one on one’s, I’d highly recommend listening to the Manager Tools podcasts on the subject. They describe weekly one on one’s as the core element of their management trinity (one on one’s, feedback, and coaching), and the single most effective thing a manager can do. They go into a lot of detail about where, how, when, etc., that I found very useful when rolling them out.

    One thing I find interesting is their position that it’s an investment of your time in building a relationship with your staff, and getting to know them as individuals, even more than about managing the work per se. And it has been extremely helpful in learning about some of the quieter members of my team, and hearing about concerns or issues that I likely wouldn’t have been informed of. I do weekly one on one’s with every direct report I have (only 4 right now), and it was a condition of me taking this job that I got the same with my manager.

    TL, DR: check out the Manager Tools Basics podcasts!

  19. Tysons in Boston*

    The subject of today reminds me of a line that another HR person used on a manager who was a jerk. Warning swear words used.
    “No being an asshole isn’t against the law. But do you really think that it is the best long term management style?”
    A real piece of work from a former job got ahead by smooching the appropriate backside and at the same time anyone he considered “beneath him” he treated like garbage. The term bully was also thrown around quite a bit. He must have found a list of most common traits of a bully and tried to do them all.

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