The Business Case For Nice
The Real Cost of Jerks at Work
The topic of jerks at work is getting a lot of attention lately. Just this week, in a breakout session of a webinar I attended, the founder of a start up providing thin-disk services to Wall Street firms— a business for which talent is scarce and technical skills paramount— cited her company’s new ‘no jerk’ policy (she used a stronger word). She noted that the pandemic was forcing her company to rethink HR because, in smaller teams, jerks, no matter how brilliant, had just too big an impact to be tolerated.
I felt as if I had written her script, having talked about this very topic in last week’s newsletter. But of course it’s the Great Reckoning that’s writing the script, by making the link between team cohesion and the bottom line ever-more apparent. Organizations of all stripes are being forced to recognize that bad behavior on the part of bosses and team leaders is the chief reason that people are heading out the door. A point my friend Bev Kaye has been making for decades in her almost-million seller, Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em.
Another person who has been prescient about this, having done in-depth studies in the pre-pandemic era, is Tomas Chomorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University and University College London. He articulates one of the prime reasons that so many jerks have historically ascended to positions of influence and authority: the inability of organizations to spot overconfidence, especially in men.
It turns out that overconfidence is often mistaken for legitimately earned self-confidence, resulting in incompetent managers who think the world of themselves being rewarded with increasing responsibility.
According to Chomorro-Premuzic, many managers on the rise— male managers in particular— have had too few obstacles to overcome in proving their worth. This enables them to maintain a too-rosy view of their own talents. Their dazzling self-assessment serves to get them noticed— if he thinks he’s so great, he must be.
The result? The overconfident are likely to rise to the top.
By contrast, highly competent people who hold a more realistic view of themselves are routinely dismissed as “merely competent.” That is, lacking the self-confidence that would make them leadership timber.
Chomorro-Premuzic’s 2109 classic, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? roots this phenomenon in the difference between leadership effectiveness and leadership emergence. He points out that the ability to emerge as a leader depends on a completely different set of skills and circumstances than the ability to actually, and effectively, lead.
So how do we push back?
As I noted last week, focusing on soft skills such as empathy, listening, tact and self-awareness can help organizations assign greater value to the qualities that actually make leaders effective. And as Chomorro-Premuzic advises, giving recognition to those who demonstrate competence— not dismissing competence as being “mere,”— can help as well. Together, these practices can start to screen out jerks.
And it’s happening already. As Emma Goldberg notes in her recent New York Times article, No More Working for Jerks!, companies as diverse as Strategyzer, a software and consulting services firm, and the financial services giant Baird are adopting policies that preclude the hiring of people with obnoxious behaviors.
There are many ways to do this. For example, potential recruits are frequently asked, “What are you most proud of?” This could be followed up with a question such as, “Who made it possible for you to succeed?” or “How did you share your success?” or “What aspect of yourself do you most need to work on?” The responses to such queries can red flag troublesome attitudes and behaviors.
Of course, being a jerk is not against the law. But the more companies understand the full impact and cost of hiring and promoting jerks, especially in this environment, the easier it will become to weed them out or limit their damage. After all, nobody can make their numbers if they don’t have staff.