Male or Female, Shouldn't Your Boss Be Kind of a Bitch?

Offices without bitchy bosses are often sorely lacking in one critical element: FEAR.

Aug 29, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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A boss who made fun of my jorts once. Still hurts.

In college, I had an Old Hollywood film professor who loved to tell us Old Hollywood stories. They were all wildly apocryphal or at the very least, hugely exaggerated, even when they were first-hand accounts (he once famously recalled watching Orson Welles eat an entire glazed ham over a single, dazzling dinner).

One of my favorites was about Carole Lombard, a brilliant comedian who had wild love affairs and married two of the greatest actors of all time before dying in a plane crash en route to a war bond rally at the age of 33. (I know.) She also kind of a loose cannon, who loved to swear and could be hard to corral.

In the story, some director (whose name unfortunately eludes me and my usually reliable search engineering) found out from the costume department that she had bleached her pubic hair to keep it from showing in a scene where she was wearing a diaphanous white pantsuit. He decided it was the perfect opportunity to try to knock her down a peg or two.

"Carole, honey," he said, in front of all of the cast and presumably a lot of burly old teamsters. "We can still see your pubic hair. Can you please take care of it?"

According to legend, Carole dropped her pants in front of Jesus and everybody and said, "Sure. Can you please get me a razor?"

AHHHHHH CAROLE LOMBARD.

I've tried to check the veracity of this story, but I can't. (You try Googling "Carole Lombard pubes.") But regardless of whether this story is true or not, I try to think about it whenever I've been stung by a co-worker. One, because it teaches you that you can get through anything with a good sense of humor and the willingness to show your pubes to strangers. Two, because I love me a mean boss.

It should be noted, I don't have one right NOW. (Hi, all my bosses! I love you guys, please keep paying me to be an idiot.)

But I have had a couple of bosses in the past -- men and women alike -- who were straight up bitches of the kind mentioned here, in this faaaaaascinating article about how, as Tina Fey put it, "Bitches get stuff done." We've all seen these (admittedly reductive) news stories and studies before: Women get ahead by being mean in the office, women get ahead by being nice in the office, and on.

Can we I just do a little enlightened autocorrecting here? The word "bitch" is so divisive that it makes it hard to extrapolate the important points being made here about the benefits of acting shitty to people. Let's pick a gender neutral term like "assholes" (I call everything an asshole, it should be noted -- men, women, babies, difficult-to-cut bagels -- you name it) and then say that when it comes to bosses, ASSHOLES get it done.

I don't mean like in the above case, necessarily. I just really like that story! I speak of the bosses who use tactics like fear and aggression and don't want to be your friend, who are not necessarily the greatest people to work for but will strip mine the best from you while liberally ripping off chunks of your self-regard.

Of course, I really only like asshole bosses in retrospect. When they're being constructively critical in real time, oh boy. But it's a little bit like a painful spa treatment -- it hurt getting your ass shot with that laser, but look how FIRM it is now. (Kidding, kidding -- we all know spa treatments don't work. But, metaphors!)

I once had a copy editor who so terrified all of us lowly assistants that we went from fighting for bylines to trying to submit things under "Staff" to avoid being savaged for minute syntactical misdeeds. I am not the best grammarian I could be but damned if I've ever seen a single typo of mine in print and not cringed and thought of her. She made us all better writers, even if she didn't say an un-mean thing to me until the day I left the job, to move to New York. I think it was "If a mugger has a gun, don't get yourself killed with that mouth." Helpful!

At another media job where people routinely rolled into work in cutoff camouflage cargo pants, I once paired denim shorts with a blouse on a blazing summer's day. My boss, a genius and first-prize asshole, took me aside and said, "I appreciate that this is a casual workplace, but it isn't a carwash. Dress for work, please."

Still burns, you guys! But she was right.

But whether or not your mean boss is good for you can often be contingent on the sticky gender issues still built in to most workplaces. The double standard -- a male boss is authoritative and critical and he's a leader, a female boss is authoritative critical and she's a bitch -- has actually created a situation in which many of my feminist, well-meaning bosses have overcompensated one way or the other. When there's too much correction to account for this by either gender, the results have been kind of weird.

The "be a bitch" article suggests a few tenets for being a successful female asshole in the workplace:

1) Toss Out the Tact
2) Set Standards and Stick to Them
3) Don't Let Yourself Be Gaslighted

How nice would it be to say that these should apply to ALL bosses, male and female? Like, do men even GET gaslit?

I think that there are offices where there's natural camaraderie between bosses and employees (See please: the lengthy email chain over the weekend where we hemmed and hawed over a group outing to see a movie), but where there isn't, things can get so (I'm gonna say it) gendered.

I've had well-intentioned, forward thinking male bosses who have corrected for their "male authority" the point of absurdity. I rarely feel Republican but there's nothing like somebody apologizing for being a guy to make me feel like a crabby old stoop grandpa. Come the Christ on with that.

I once worked in an office where the young, female staff was managed by an otherwise capable middle-aged guy. He was so deferential out of fear of abusing his masculine powers on a group of subordinate girl children that we ran completely, totally amok, much the way middleschoolers might with an ineffective substitute teacher. We would sit around, breaking all kinds of sexual harassment laws by talkin' handjobs at 10 AM (when some of us might not have rolled in yet, because who would yell?), and he might say something along the lines of, "Maybe this isn't a very appropriate conversation" or even try a lighthearted, "Wow, NSFW, guys!" If we would have had emery boards, we would have looked at him with contempt and gone back to noisily filing our nails and while seamlessly transitioning into a conversation about rough anal.

When female bosses try to "correct" the inequity, it is no better. I had a manager who was a lovely, sweet person who was lovely and sweet to her employees, even when she should not have been. (This was during the time when I was taking my morning showers at the office gym, on account of not having gone home the night before.) Finally, toward the end of her tenure there, she asked me, point blank, if I hated coming to work.

"I'm not a bitch," she insisted. And she wasn't. But male or female, employees won't respect you if you are afraid to hurt their feelings. 

Yes, it's possible to be a good boss and not an asshole. It's also possible to be an asshole and not a good boss. But in my experience, Offices without bitchy bosses are often sorely lacking in one critical element: FEAR. Specifically, The Fear: that thing that makes us innovate, invent, and become better at what we do. Fear is passion's practical, dickhead cousin. A mercurial boss can make people who don't like their career path reconsider whether or not it's all worth it. We all have a little of it now, by default, since getting a new job is not as easy a prospect as it once was, but a little Fear doled out by a boss is invaluable. It's like military school for the spirit, although you're way less likely to be hosed down naked by a sadistic guy in a hat. (I saw that on "Dateline" once.)

I don't think I thought about the fact that the scary copy editor and mean genius manager were women -- I don't think I gave much thought to them as people, actually, because they were mostly just nightmare engines of my growth as an employable person. As female bosses continue to neutralize the relevance of their femaleness with sheer abundance, I think it will be easier to suss out the balance exactly. I think it'll help when we stop thinking of traits as "empathetic" and "demure" as eminently female and by that sad logic, weak.

I'm never for cruelty, obviously, but I'm oddly grateful for the ice-cold boss zingers that still haunt my dreams. Kids with mean dads work twice as hard to please them, which is kind of a fucked up if effective managerial allegory. And a boss who is mean for the sake of being mean? Run. Run far away.

CS Lewis once said that when bad things happen to us, it's because God is chiseling us into better people. I'm not a churchy lady, but that's kind of how I think of positive assholery -- that sharp criticism directed at your work and your conduct can actually make you fitter, happier, and more productive at what you do. Of course, all of this is contingent on you having a job that you like independently of how your boss treats you. If you're miserable, no amount of constructive criticism is going to make you a better teacher, lawyer, fireman, or dolphin trainer. But if you're a miserable dolphin trainer I don't understand you and never will.

I'm sure that there's some kind of middle ground that can be achieved, and I look forward when sex is a non-issue that co-workers can just get together for beers after an eleven-hour workday and agree that man, they hate that lunatic.