24 Jul Can we really jerk-proof the workplace?
Is your workplace spoiled by a few narcissistic nabobs, haughty honchos, dysfunctional divas, shameless shysters, or obnoxious opportunists? Is there a Miranda Priestly running your organization? A David Brent in the office down the hall? A Bill Lumbergh roaming the cubicles? A Vince Downey prowling the floor?
The personalities and interpersonal dynamics of the workplace are garnering more attention in the entertainment and news media, if not the executive suite, as the concept of “collaboration” among workers across different teams, businesses, and national cultures has emerged as the latest holy grail of business. But getting people with diverse views, experiences, styles, and skills to work harmoniously together is no mean feat, even for the best of leaders. It requires not only the right blend of skills but a compatible group of individuals. A few misplaced jerks can spoil things for everyone – torpedoing teamwork, crippling collaboration, and pauperizing productivity.
How jerks poison the workplace
According to Professor Robert Sutton of Stanford University and author of the book, “The No A@@$&*! Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” what we will more politely refer to as “jerks,” are a bane to the workplace. He defines them as nasty and demeaning people and asserts that they are a widespread problem. Sutton cites various studies to demonstrate how pervasive abuse and mistreatment is within the workplace. Some industries and professions such as healthcare are particularly bad. Apparently physicians are the most frequent abusers of their co- workers.
Before you start thinking this is all a bunch of cry baby complaining suitable only for the group-hug crowd, you should know that Sutton points out that jerks cause real economic damage to their organizations and that there is a strong business case to not employing them. They make it harder to recruit and retain the best and the brightest, cause higher turnover, increase client churn, damage the reputation of the business, diminish investor confidence, decrease innovation and creativity, and impair collaboration and cooperation.
In case you’re not, Sutton even offers a way to calculate the “Total Cost of Jerks” to a business – using an extensive list of the direct costs and negative effects of jerks. In one example, management at a high-tech company calculated that the extra costs generated by their star sales person, who happened also to be a jerk, totaled $160,000 for a single year.
So jerks can certainly hurt the bottom line of a business. But aren’t we really talking about a few mean, nasty connivers? Surely, hard-driving competent people are a positive force in the business, aren’t they? Well, according to another in-depth research study of workplace personality types, maybe not.
Likeability trumps competence
Research by professors Tiziana Casciaro of the Harvard Business School and Miguel Sousa Lobo of Duke University asserts that most people prefer to work with a “likeable fool” rather than with a “competent jerk.” Not surprisingly, the most preferred co-workers are “likeable stars.” But in situations where people can choose or influence whom they work with, they are more likely to pick someone who is likeable, even if they are not the most competent, rather than work with someone who may be extremely competent but is difficult to get along with.
Writing in “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” (Harvard Business Review, June 2005), the authors discuss the importance of informal networks in the workplace; how they take shape and how people choose those they work with. They assert that two criteria above all affect this choice – competence at the job and likeability. The authors collected data on more than 10,000 work relationships and from this concluded that likeability more often determined who people picked to work with than competence. In the author’s terms – people preferred to work with lovable fools (people who were easy for them to get along with who were not necessarily the most knowledgeable or able) rather than competent jerks (people who were difficult to get along with even though they were very knowledgeable and skilled).
This research suggests that people are more willing to accept or try to make up for deficiencies in the skills of people they can work well with than they are to deal with the unpleasant personality of a highly-skilled person who is a jerk. Thus, a little extra likeability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with. But if likeability is a preferred trait, then why do there seem to be so many jerks in the workplace?
Blame it on the overachievers
In their article, “Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers”, (Harvard Business Review, June 2006), a trio of Hay Group consultants argue that the plague of workplace jerks is a consequence of the achievement obsessed ethos of many large corporations and the people that populate them, especially those in leadership positions.
They claim that “too intense a focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity and eroding confidence in management.” There are simply too many leaders driven by a “results, results, results” mentality that are quick to rationalize the means used to achieve them.
Citing work of the Harvard psychologist David McClelland, the authors assert that achievement is one of three personal “social motives” that explain how people behave. The other two are affiliation and power. All three of these motives are present in people and drive their behavior.
According to the authors’ empirical study of the motivations of over 40,000 leaders and managers, achievement has been rising among these respondents since the 1990s (compared to affiliation and power), and is now the dominant motivator of corporate executives.
On the positive side, measures of innovation and performance such as patents filed have been increasing steadily for two decades. On the negative side however, the obsession with achievement has pushed many to rationalize all manner of selfish and inappropriate behavior and pushing many to cheat and cut corners and to go after goals at all costs.
Jerk-proofing the workplace
It is an understatement to say that creating a jerk-proof workplace is not easy. It requires a commitment from the top and explicit measures and actions to enforce civilized behavior at all levels and from all staff. Sutton suggests making “No Jerks” an explicit rule and having leaders and managers adhere to it through what they say and do, including weaving the rule into hiring and firing policies. Interviewers look for and disqualify people who exhibit jerk tendencies. This behavior standard is also embedded into performance appraisals.
Jerks that don’t play by the rules are asked to reform or leave. Jerks unable to reform are shown the door. He recommends that the rule also apply to customers and clients. Equally helpful in Sutton’s view is instilling a culture of “constructive confrontation” in which people can challenge policies, ideas, and viewpoints in an open, non-personal and productive way – and managing the little moments – handling the small, subtle stuff before it escalates into big problems.
Casciaro and Sousa Lobo exhort leaders to “leverage the likeable” and “work on the jerks.” Likeable people need to be identified and protected by leaders. Because likeable people get along with almost everyone, they can be used to bridge gaps between diverse groups of people that might not interact otherwise. The contribution of jerks should be reassessed in light of how their behavior affects the whole organization. They should be rewarded for good behavior but punished for bad behavior. It is also important to socialize and coach them.
If these measures fail to reform a person that’s too valuable to let go, then the authors suggest repositioning them to work independently to minimize their contacts with the rest of the organization.
The Hay Group consultants offer an “achievement-lite” formula that tempers the downsides of achievement focus while keeping the positives. Their research found that the most successful groups had a strong drive to achieve but were led by people who could work through others, create strong teams, provide coaching, and focus on increasing the capability of the whole organization, not just their group or department.
All this advice is no doubt worthwhile, but none of it seems to address the most difficult obstacle that exists in many organizations – jerks at the top and in other key positions. How in the world do you jerk-proof an environment when the people in charge are the most egregious offenders? And when the Board of Directors overseeing the jerks leading your company is loaded with jerks from other organizations?
Short of a workplace revolution, perhaps the best that most of us can hope for is working in an environment led by a competent jerk. Or maybe you prefer a likeable fool?
How civilized is your workplace? Do jerks hold high- ranking and influential positions? If so, what are the impacts on your morale and performance? Please e-mail Tony DiRomualdo at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experiences and perspectives.
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