06 June 2011

The Jerk Coefficient

I bet I don't have to explain this one.  But just in case:

When I worked for a mining company for a summer in Arizona (I was in grad school and needed summer work), fully half the individuals in the building where I was based were people you would duck into an office to avoid having to pass in a hallway.

Jerk Coefficient: 0.5

When I joined the US Geological Survey, I was impressed that people with BS degrees supervised people with PhD's, and that everyone was helpful to a fault.  "How do I get the plotter to do this?"  "Here, let me show you."

Jerk Coefficient: 0.02

Being a jerk correlates very closely with selfishness. Variants including being pushy, being a manipulator, or just being the wrong end of a small mammal (what my Dad once called my futile attempt to grow a beard on my acne-scarred face).

The Jerk Coefficient can dramatically ramp up when there is stress. When Mount St Helens erupted in 2004 and we were all routinely working 80 - 90 hours weeks, I noticed several different kinds of changes. Some people became grouchy, some people became manic-depressive, some people would shout and yell at others, some people just went home because they were exhausted and uncomfortable in the changed environment. My Administrative Officer was typical of the majority: she was just as quiet and kind and hard-working as at any other time. She didn't change. I was new as a chief scientist at the time, and a wiser and older volcanologist reassured me "It ain't a real eruption unless there's a fist-fight."

Jerk Coefficient: 0.10 (temporarily)

How do you deal with a jerk?  There are really only two ways: avoidance whenever possible, and when it's not possible, then screw up your courage and confront the jerk.  I call this the Sting.  A bully can beat you up because he's bigger, but if every time he beats you he gets stung - he feels pain - he will stop.  Usually, a bully needs the Sting just once.  The surest way you know you are safe is when the bully switches from physical intimidation to an ad hominum attack: foul language directed at you.  You can relax then.  

Good people also change when stressed: office downsizing, a tornado, a divorce (but perhaps there is a Chicken-vs-Egg thing with this one).  Some people are sociopaths, however.  Once there was a guy, passed over for the volcano chief scientist job in favor of me, who then spent the next three years trying to take over the job by subterfuge, taking advantage of the vague position descriptions written into our two jobs.  Speaking behind my back, undercutting me in any way possible, tasking people below me who would assume that the instructions came from me.  You know the type.  I finally had to confront him.  He backed down several times, but wouldn't quit - just tried something new - and I finally had to bring in higher management.  It took months, but I was tasked to re-write the position descriptions, the bully was spanked, and a year later he left the organization, glass-ceilinged. Afterwards I was amazed at how many people had really, really angry words about him... and only then did I realize that I wasn't the only one he had beaten up on.  I was just the last one.

I am sure that I became a less pleasant person during that stressful time, though I really tried hard to be kind and patient with everyone, especially the humbler people on the staff.  When one of those quiet, hard-working, but underpaid people was dying of cancer, I would take turns with many others in the office and stay at his house overnight.  We would do this in case he started choking, to help him take his meds, to walk with him.  He opened up with me then like he never had before - I've notice there is a shyness in many people when around Authority - and he told me how much he appreciated me as his bosses' boss.  He thanked me for being the first person in 20 years who had made the effort to increase his humble grade 7 to a grade 11.  I had done this out of a sense of honesty: he was doing the work that later took three people to handle.  On those long walks together, Dave shared things with me about his time as a LURP squad leader in Vietnam - things that just blew my mind.  My respect for him as a smart, kind, hard-working person, already high, went stratospheric.  I took copious notes - which I re-read every anniversary of his death in August.

You will be happier in life if you always look for the quiet, humble person - seek them out, listen to them, help them... and be enriched.

This is how you can lower the Jerk Coefficient.  Does this sound familiar?


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