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Social Media & ‘Toxic Workers’

The “Status Update” episode of of This American Life was one I almost didn’t listen to. Why? Because the first segment is a discussion of among the most annoying people on the planet — young teenage girls — talking about the most boring subject on the planet: their social media habits. But I’m glad I kept listening, because it was actually pretty interesting. It was also pretty horrifying, and cemented my resolve to keep my kids off of social media for as long as I can.

If you don’t want to listen to the segment, you can read the transcript. In it, three ninth-grade girls give host Ira Glass a glimpse into how they exist on social media. What looks like mindlessness to fuddies like me is actually a highly sophisticated, crazy-making form of communication. It emerges that these girls, like their friends on social media, monitor it constantly, intensely aware of who is offering them affirmations (“likes,” etc.) and who is commenting on their posts in ways that convey subtle loss of status. Finally, this from the host a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, and its exhausting demands:

Ira Glass: I have to say, like, oh my god, this is such a job.

Girls: Yeah.

Julia: It’s like I’m– I’m a brand, and I am like–

Ella: You’re trying to promote yourself.

Julia: The brand. I’m the director of the–

Ira Glass: And you’re the product.

Jane: You’re definitely trying to promote yourself.

Julia: To stay relevant, you have to–

Jane: You have to work hard.

Ella: Relevance is a big term right now.

Ira Glass: Are you guys relevant?

Ella: Um, I’m so relevant.

Jane: In middle school. In middle school, we were definitely really relevant.

Ella (SARCASTICALLY): We were so relevant.

Jane: Because everything was established. But now, in the beginning of high school, you can’t really tell who’s relevant.

Ira Glass: Yeah. And what does relevant mean?

Jane: Relevant means that people care about what you’re posting on Instagram. People–

Julia: Care about you.

Can you imagine being formed by a cultural environment in which you felt obligated to monitor a machine that measures your popularity, and therefore your sense of self, in real-time? Can you imagine what that would do to you, and your sense of self-worth? Can you imagine the kind of person that would turn you into?When I heard that segment, I thought, “Well, yeah, that’s where all these campus snowflakes come from. Anything that troubles them or challenges them they take as a threat to their identity. Social media has trained them to be terrified of microaggressions.”

I’m wondering this afternoon if character-formation via social media has anything to do with these new findings by Harvard. Excerpts from the WaPo study:

In a provocative new Harvard Business School working paper, researchers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor crunched data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies to come up with what may be the world’s most detailed personality profile of a “toxic worker.”


The study’s findings aren’t exactly what you might expect.

First, a toxic worker isn’t necessarily a lazy worker. In fact, they tend to be insanely productive, much more so than the average worker.

Housman, a workplace scientist at an analytics firm, and Minor, a visiting assistant professor at Harvard, explain that this may explain why these workers tend to persist in an organization despite their questionable ethics and morals: “There is a potential trade-off. … They are corrupt, but they excel in work performance.” They cited as an example a rogue trader who is making millions. A firm might be tempted to look away when he’s found to be overstepping legal boundaries. And then there’s this maddening fact: At least one previous study has found that unethical workers actually have longer tenures at companies than ethical ones.

The second characteristic is a bit more obvious. They tend to have what’s known as high “self-regard” and a lower degree of “other-regardingness.” Or put more simply, they’re selfish. “All things equal, those that are less other-regarding should be more predisposed to toxicity as they do not fully internalize the cost that their behavior imposes on others,” the researchers wrote. This characteristic was teased out in the job screening program by asking applicants questions like this one that makes them choose between two statements: “I like to ask about other people’s well-being” or “I let the past stay in the past.” Selecting the first would give them a higher other-regarding score.

Third, the toxic employee also has an tendency to be overconfident of his or her own abilities — a trait believed to lead to unreasonable risk-taking. “Someone that is overconfident believes the expected payoff from engaging in misconduct is higher than someone who is not overconfident, as they believe the likelihood of the better outcome is higher than it really is,” the researchers explained.

Read the whole thing.

Am I reading too much into this? Do you think social media use has something to do with this phenomenon? Granted, this sort of person has existed since time immemorial, but my sense is that social media encourages this way of thinking, exacerbating the overall problem. Thoughts?


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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