The Role Of Jerks In Business

By

Prethiba Esvary

15-01-2016

5 min read

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How having a bad boss can make your day!

Not long ago, I listened to a former colleague describe the situation in which he found himself at his new company. The job itself was fine, but his new boss sounded diabolical.

The worst part for my former colleague (we’ll call him Adam) was that he had only been at the company for a few months and felt that it would reflect poorly on him rather than the company if he left so soon.

Adam didn’t want to look like a stereotypical malcontent millennial who couldn’t handle a culture with a few sharp edges.

Because Adam was getting good opportunities at the company, I advised him to stick it out for at least a year unless he was truly miserable.

Having a terrible boss sucks, but as long as the opportunities are good, leaving jobs so soon probably wouldn’t be worth the transition costs.

I’ll say this about bad bosses: they perform a vital role in the economy. By eventually repelling people like Adam who want better for themselves, they inadvertently send talented people out to pollinate other teams, companies, and industries with their brainpower.

From a macro perspective, bad bosses may be a net benefit to the ecosystem. Of course, that matters not a bit to the individuals who have to work for bad bosses and the companies that suffer as a result of their presence.

Why do we admire jerks despite our better judgment?

Not all bad managers are jerks, but jerks in positions of power are usually bad managers. That’s my rough summary of Sabri Ben-Achour’s great piece on marketplace.org, which I found interesting because it explains why we are drawn to bad bosses.

As Ben-Achour says: “Part of the problem is us. Many people think – wrongly – that jerks make good leaders, and so even if we have an inkling that someone is a boorish maniacal brute, we’re somehow drawn in.”

The researchers cited in the article attribute the “jerk effect” to the fact that people who are jerks demonstrate many of the characteristics that people also happen to wrongly associate with leaders.

When I read the above quote, I thought back to an instance years ago when my colleagues and I decided to extend an offer to a candidate who was obviously both smart and a classic narcissist.

I’ve never seen someone show less humility during an interview.

However, the résumé was a perfect fit on paper and we had a gap in our team so we brought this person on board.

Eighteen months, some notable contributions, and one psychologically battered team later, I was relieved when the person finally left the company (a feeling I’m sure was mutual).

Those of us who remembered interviewing this person used it as a teaching moment.

Of all the mistakes we made, the most insane part about the hiring was how taken in we were by the outsized ego displayed.

“No one would act like that if they weren’t the real deal,” was my line of thinking, as if that somehow made it a good thing. And sure enough, this person was whip-smart. Unfortunately, that mental horsepower was bundled with hostility to feedback and a bruising management and communication style.

Not all of the decisions this person made were winners, either. We ended up living with some bad decisions made by this person for quite a while because the debates were so exhausting for those who had to engage with the person often.

People have a tendency to assume that those with low aptitude in one area have correspondingly extreme aptitude in another one. My colleagues and I assumed that the person we interviewed would be a brilliant contributor not in spite of this person’s total lack self-awareness, but because of it.

We unconsciously became apologists for the person’s bad habits, as though the person was so focused on being brilliant that it would be trivial to treat people with basic kindness and respect. Our sin was inferring a causal link between bad interpersonal skills and success.

Too busy to be nice? Think again.

While the fictional anti-heroes can be bad enough, there are just enough examples of brilliant misanthropes from real life to lure people into thinking that being callous is part of their path to success. I worry that people are prone to take the wrong lessons away from stories of someone like Steve Jobs.

There’s little new left to say about the once-in-a-generation visionary that hasn’t already been said before. He was known to be a control freak, which for him was justified by his unparalleled vision.

Look, if you’re inventing new industries out of whole cloth, maybe you should be the one who approves the advertising copy and how the packaging looks. Most chief executive officers of course have no business getting their hands in that many things – not that they don’t try anyway.

But among the many ways in which most bosses can’t behave like Jobs (or Dr House or any other abusive genius you might think of) is that they simply aren’t brilliant enough to treat people like he did and still succeed.

Sure, there are numerous examples and anecdotes floating around that paint a picture of Jobs as someone who was prone to cruelty toward those who crossed or disappointed him. But in addition to, you know, being a genius, he also sat the tippity-top of the most valuable company in the world and could offer his employees the opportunity to be a part of something that few people would ever turn down.

So lest you ever think you’re too busy or important to be civil to people, let’s just go ahead and set the bar there: if you have done something as significant as helping to bring the personal computer into the world, you can be a jerk if you like and you’ll probably be just fine. If you haven’t, don’t forget your manners.

Parting thoughts

The worst, saddest kind of jerks are the ones who adopt that persona as an affectation and deliberately make no effort to be considerate.

If you take pride in your lack of communication skills or civility because of a (misguided) belief that it somehow lets you concentrate more on other things, you should really reconsider what you get out of the arrangement. There really is always time to be nice to people.

If not for your employees and colleagues, it’s worth being nice to others purely out of self-interest. While research shows that being confrontational and self-centred can help people get into positions of power, it does nothing for their managerial effectiveness.

In time, their inability to motivate and retain top people will usually come back to haunt them. The best employees with the most options are the first to leave bosses who don’t respect them.

Christian Bonilla is a software designer, speaker and the author of the “Smart Like How” blog. His new book is about helping people master the subtle skills that accelerate their career development. To engage him for your organisation or connect with him, write to editor@leaderonomics.com. For more Career Advice articles, click here
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