In Defense of the Jerks in the Workplace

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Black chess piece isolated from group of red chess piecesMost Leaders Don’t Realize They’re a Jerk. A Culture of Courageous Feedback Helps.

While researching information for a leadership development program I’m creating for a client, I came across a weekly e-newsletter from McKinsey & Company that touched on jerks in the workplace.  In the issue, they revisited the “jerk” concept popularized by Stanford’s Bob Sutton in his iconic 2007 book, The Asshole Survival Guide, that draws attention to power-wielding, competitive, and oppressive (among other egregious things) people in the workplace, and offers strategies to avoid them.  While we have all encountered disrespectful and poorly behaved colleagues, the McKinsey & Company’s piece zeroed in on the self-absorbed leader whose poor behavior makes their employees feel undervalued and underappreciated.  After reading the article and reflecting on my work with leaders, it confirmed my belief that it is important to recognize the interrelationships between being a self-aware leader and receiving courageous feedback from those committed to organizational success.  Without one you cannot have the other, and without both you have jerks.

I remember working for a jerk, and I know that I was probably seen as one by those who worked for me. Through time, my academic studies, and my work as an executive coach and organizational consultant, I have not only developed a better understanding about the importance of feedback but have also come to understand that jerkiness is a symptom of the larger cultural landscape that transcends any one person and requires shared values to set a different course.

Leaders typically have a strong sense of the competitive landscape and a frame of reference that helps to mitigate constraints and maximize the bottom line.  Unfortunately, most leaders lack the critical information required to gain the competitive advantage that comes from a strong organizational culture that celebrates the output of high performing teams.  This lack of awareness comes as a result of leading in the moment rather than leading the culture.  Leaders who do not encourage transparency and courageous acts find themselves isolated from the information they seek.  As a result, they falsely believe they are the ones with the solutions and expertise to handle issues of organizational dysfunction, high turnover, and disengagement.  As profits or results decline, the conversation often takes the trajectory of re-organization as a way to “fix” the problems.

The context also matters.  Leaders may find themselves isolated, but they do not live in isolation.  It is well known that organizations are complex systems that consist of interrelationships and feedback loops.  It is also well known that each of us is responsible for our own behaviors.  With regards to behaviors, this refers to the actions we take as well as those we choose not to take.  This is critically important in relation to feedback.

CEOs and senior executives I coach or consult to do not wake up in the morning and reach for their jerk suit.  Instead, they operate from the mindset that comes from being rewarded for behaviors and actions that helped them reach their level as a leader.  Through executive coaching, many are flummoxed when they receive 360-feedback that reveals the open-door policy they thought they lived by was actually closed shut with a thick screen.  Or, as they gain insights from the coaching process, they find that the culture they thought existed was not the same one employees experienced day to day.

Transparency is important for people at all levels of the organization.  A clear line of sight into what behaviors are acceptable, and thus rewarded, is necessary but insufficient for the organizational culture to coalesce around the elimination of jerks.  It is also critical that the organization honestly support giving and receiving feedback that is courageously offered, accepted, and acted upon to ensure shared agreements for what is rewarded and where behavior must shift so everyone in the organization can operate at their best.  Too often companies say that behavior is important but fail to offer adequate rewards and recognition to those that display them well.

This is especially critical for those at the highest levels of an organization.  Dr. Rodney Napier introduced the concept of “seduction of the leader” in 2000, drawing on his years of experience with leaders who are seduced by their power and authority. In his book, he points out how the feedback (or lack thereof) they receive reinforces their perception of their abilities.

Much of my own work focuses on helping with feedback and how not living into this important behavior results in an institutionalized fear of speaking truth to power, which amplifies staff alienation and dependency, and spurs the belief that only the leader’s skills and appeal will pave the way for success.  We see this in many organizations that suffer from high turnover or fail to achieve results.  We are witnessing it in the leadership of our government, where the choice is to remain silent or exit rather than act and speak courageously.

Edgar Schein’s model of organizational culture still reigns supreme in my book.  Without shared assumptions of what is true and what matters in the organization, the values and importance of interrelationships cannot be shared equally among all employees. All of this results in a blur of boundaries and agreement of what are acceptable behaviors towards one another.

To gain competitive advantage requires attention to all levels of talent within an organization in order to leverage strengths and operate at capacity. Leaders must show managerial courage to step into the messiness of leading a culture that values communication, mutual respect, and openly acknowledges the gift of true feedback.  The entire organization develops this culture together and the leaders—jerks and non-jerks alike—must take the steps necessary to change the organizational mindset and get down to business!

Adena Johnston, D.Mgt.
Vice President and Practice Leader, Talent Development
CCI Consulting

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