Are Jerks Winners?

A headline from The Atlantic recently caught my eye, “Why It Pays to be a Jerk”. I have counseled “jerks” in my Executive Coaching practice from time to time — I am highly skeptical about the “payoff” for being a jerk. In a nutshell, the article focused on new “success” research suggesting to get ahead “put your feet up on the table, take the last doughnut, speak first and interrupt” offering “assholes” (his words not mine) like Steve Jobs and General Patton as success models.

What kind of message is this sending to the workplace? Ugh.

In one research experiment, individuals violating long-standing norms (invading personal space, claiming undo credit or taking the last cookie) were seen by viewers as someone they would see as a boss or worthy of being “put in charge” over those acting “normal.” Academics name this “prestige” factor – from cavemen days to today, we are more apt to follow leaders who think can provide what we need —build a better fire, kill game or fight off threats. In workplaces, we want a leader to get us what we need to succeed–resources and providing protection from threats (think competitive advantage or other senior leaders roadblocking your important project).

Back to the experiment– someone who helps the team gain resources is viewed positively even if (sadly) they behave like a jerk to get it. I must admit this resonates with some of my client experience–leaders often send messages to staff that its OK to be a jerk if doing so improves the bottom line. For example, take performance reviews–I see many that are contradictory around “jerk” behavior. An individual is reprimanded about behavior that upsets peers but applauded for their ability to drive projects forward.

Leaders need to be seen as capable of driving change and taking a position but never in a toxic way. There is a big difference. In my coaching practice, professionals seen as critical contributors are often “sent” to me for coaching and counseling about how to drive action without offending people. I am brought in to help them tone down their dysfunctional or problematic behaviors and learn skills in persuasion, conflict resolution and negotiating to get results but without offending everyone in the room.

C suite wannabes also need to monitor overdone people pleasing ways. Amy Schumer’s viral video of women constantly saying, “I’m sorry” is a wake up call for professional women.

How we behave in workplaces adds up to how we are perceived by others. Constantly accommodating, acquiescing and deferring can negatively impact whether or not people will want you as their leader just like acting like a jerk can.

My take on the “Be a jerk” headline-context matters greatly. There are times when taking a difficult stand, interrupting a droning peer (you may get applause for this act) or making a tough decision like laying off the office problem person (even if they are a star performer) is the right answer.   But how you do it is critical–these leadership challenges are the crux of many of my coaching conversations.

Watch how your behaviors impact peers–seek feedback and get a 360 review if you haven’t had one done. The one I use with clients is 100% confidential and is designed for leadership development. My clients regularly walk away from my 360 review sessions with vital new feedback that helps them become more successful leaders. If you are a leader or manager seeking to improve or move upward–you simply can’t afford not to know how co-workers, reports and superiors perceive you.

One final thought –jerk behaviors viewed as offensive, abusive or toxic will lead you only one place—out the door.