Jerks Be Warned: You're Never Too Busy to Be Nice

How Jerks Hurt their Companies

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 (technically his boss’ boss) sounded diabolical. Constantly undermining the credibility of other managers; deriding his direct reports in public; loudly stating which employees he thought should be let go; it sounded like a nightmare. 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 the opportunities are good leaving jobs so soon probably wouldn’t be worth the transition costs. He would be better off moving on to the next thing after he got a promotion. Feel free to disagree in the comments section, but I was at least speaking from my own experience (albeit from a much less extreme situation). Early in my career, I had a manager for whom I did not enjoy working. We had numerous personality differences, but suffice to say that I never realized how much I appreciated hearing the words “thank you” until I stopped hearing them altogether. It’s not hard to tell when a manager only cares about whether you’re getting work done for them and doesn’t really care about whether you’re advancing in your career. This manager wasn’t a bad person, but the management style left me unmotivated and unhappy. I (mostly) bit my tongue and transferred to another team doing cool work at the first opportunity and never looked back.

I’ll say one good thing about bad bosses and jerks in general: they perform a vital role in the economy. By 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.

We All Need to Stop Admiring Jerks for Being Jerks

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 last month, which I encourage you to read. That there are jerks in corporate America is not news. What is interesting though is why we are drawn to them. As Ben-Achour says, “Part of the problem is us. Everybody else. 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 – not even close -- but the résumé was a perfect fit on paper and we had a need on 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 (which fortunately did not include me).

People have a tendency to assume that those with extreme aptitude in one area have correspondingly low aptitude in another one. We expect, even hope to see tradeoffs because it’s unsettling to encounter people who seem like they are great at everything. 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.

We hired this person because we thought that the bad personal skills were not just explained by, but actually justified by superior technical skills. Where did that idea come from? I have no clue. I do think some part of it has to do with the allure of pop culture characters who combine excellence in their domain with wretched behavior. I’m looking at you Dr. House, Miranda Priestly, and (yes) Don Draper. These jerks are weirdly likable because they were scripted and portrayed that way. Their brilliance wins us over to the point where we look past their faults. In the real world we don’t usually feel so benevolent toward people who insult our dignity.  

Too Busy to Be Nice? Think Again.

While the fictional antiheroes can be bad enough, there 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 CEOs 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 Steve 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 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.

A hard-charging manager can demand high performance from his or her team without being a jerk. Some of the most relentless, driven people with whom I’ve ever worked have been also been among the kindest. All it takes to not be a jerk is treating people respectfully and fairly. Fox News President Roger Ailes (I recommend reading his interesting Hollywood Reporter interview) once said something about his relationship with News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch that stuck with me in this regard. Ailes described his relationship with Murdoch as direct and joking but also that it was, “a relationship based on arithmetic.” All the pleasantness of their relationship sprang from him making his numbers. That doesn’t make Murdoch a jerk; he just doesn’t let friendship cloud business decisions. It reminded me of another quote from John D. Rockefeller: friendships built on business are far better than businesses built on friendship.

Lastly, 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-centered 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.

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.