Globe and Mail
Picture an office where you’re surrounded by decent human beings. Your co-workers share responsibility in good times and bad. They listen, they co-operate, they keep the office kitchen clean.
Sound much like your office? Not likely. Nearly three-quarters of us face rudeness and condescension at work, researchers at the University of Illinois say. Jerks lurk behind the cubicle walls of every office.
Organizational psychologists call them extreme personalities. Human-resources departments call them problem employees. The author of a recent bestselling book – along with much of the working world – uses another name.
“For me, more polite synonyms, such as bully, abuser, despot or tyrant, don’t quite capture the pain and anger that these creeps provoke in others,” says Robert Sutton, author of The No-Asshole Rule, which has sparked a movement among such companies as Google, Mozilla and Southwest Airlines to purge workplaces of all varieties of jerk.
But is the jig really up for the office jerk? Don’t count on it, many experts say. For better or worse, office jerks get noticed.
In other words, if Dr. Sutton’s tag describes you, perhaps you should keep doing what you’re doing.
“They do it because it works,” Toronto-based career coach Alan Kearns says.
“They are bold, they take risks, they have a sense of mission. They can also be very charming.”
What’s worse, that brazen charm often comes off as a sign of intelligence.
“When people are engaged in dominance behaviour, others see them as smarter and more competent,” says Larissa Tiedens, who teaches interpersonal and team dynamics at Stanford University’s business school.
In one study, Dr. Tiedens played for subjects one of two clips that showed former U.S. president Bill Clinton responding to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In one clip, a fiery Mr. Clinton defended himself and demanded that impeachment proceedings be dropped with forceful hand gestures and strong speech. The second clip showed a more remorseful, apologetic Mr. Clinton. Those who watched the furious Mr. Clinton were much more likely to say his actions were beyond reproach.
“We think of these people as deserving even more status,” Dr. Tiedens says. “Not only do they have it, but they should have more.”
Jerks are scrappy by nature. They see co-workers as incompetent rivals rather than colleagues. The office becomes a Royal Rumble.
In place of pile drivers and body slams, these workplace grapplers have visual and verbal moves that researchers have identified. They tend to stand with an open posture, speak in deep, loud voices, gesture wildly, impinge on co-workers’ personal space and stare directly at others.
A researcher at Harvard University, Teresa Amabile, has traced the outcomes of jerk-type behaviour. In a comparison of book reviews, Dr. Amabile found that authors of negative reviews were seen as more intelligent than authors of positive ones.
That “brilliant-but-cruel” effect is a strong incentive for biting criticism in the workplace.
Even Dr. Sutton’s book includes a chapter on the virtues of being the workplace jerk. He shows that, while being an office pest may not be good for your status in the eyes of co-workers, it could do wonders for your career.
“The academic evidence generally says that if you need to establish your position in the office, then glaring at people, maybe insulting them, maybe fighting are actually going to be quite constructive,” Dr. Sutton says. “If you’re an office pushover, sometimes you just have to fight back.”
Career coaches don’t wholeheartedly encourage taking on the persona of a jerk just to get ahead, but they do agree with Dr. Sutton that office pipsqueaks shouldn’t let others kick sand in their faces either.
“If I’m coaching someone who lacks assertiveness, the office doormat so to speak, I might want them to start weighing into conflict more often,” agrees Dr. Stéphane Brutus, a career coach and organizational psychologist at Montreal’s Concordia University.
“Whenever a conflict arises, even a small one, you have to get in there. It could even be in the line at the grocery store.”
While Dr. Sutton doesn’t advocate picking up jerk traits, he says that in some workplaces it may be unavoidable if you’re ambitious: “In some cultures, though, being tough is necessary. It’ll still make you an asshole, but a necessary asshole.”
Some workers ride the jerk impulse all the way to the corner office. In fact, narcissistic employees, nasty as they can be, comprise some of the most visionary of business leaders, according to Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails, an influential book by psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby published in 2003 and reissued in May.
Dr. Maccoby finds that the most revered business leaders in the United States – Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos among them – are driven, above all, “by power and glory.”
Narcissists can be “emotionally distant and highly distrustful,” Dr. Maccoby says. “Perceived threats can trigger rage. Achievements can feed feelings of grandiosity.”
Sound like anyone you know?
There are well-documented drawbacks to picking up career tips from narcissistic jerks, of course.
“They may get promoted, but nobody is loyal to them,” Mr. Kearns said. “Because of that, they’re not sticky in an organization. Good people with friends get the benefit of the doubt if they screw up.”
But for the rest of us – the non-jerks, of course – there’s at least one good reason to tolerate them, Dr. Maccoby says.
“If you hitch to them at the right time, you’ll get rich. You could come out a multimillionaire.
“But you’ve got to be careful not to fall in love with one who’s got no moral compass – just look at Enron.”