High-performing workplaces have historically been synonymous with jerkdom cultures. In fact, there are numerous industries that have embraced this behavior, such as technology, start-ups and investment banking. There’s even been TV series made about this office dynamic: think advertising agencies (“Mad Men”). The thought process, of course, was to aggressively push people to perform their best, intimidate them to overachieve and create even more fear and stress than had already existed in the workplace in order to extract that extra ounce of productivity or, worse yet, convince people they must work around the clock to avoid being replaced. As we’re reading this, it may seem strange to think that this jerk-like behavior would yield great, sustainable results. You would be right, with the key word being “sustainable”. Many studies have been done to prove that being a jerk is not only bad for the organization, but also for the jerk.
- A jerk puts everyone around them in a bad mood. What happens when you’re in a bad mood? You start to tune out. Your motivation shifts and your mind wanders as you think about the exchange you had with that individual. Therefore, it’s the opposite effect and you become less productive. You may not want to do that task as urgently for that person anymore, you may talk to your teammates about the exchange you had, you may even prioritize something else just to distance yourself from the situation. Now imagine how this can resonate throughout the organization, either by this individual behaving badly with others or you gossiping with others about what happened. Spreads like wildfire, and soon others are in a bad mood and are unproductive. On top of that, everyone knows who the jerk is and avoids interacting with them at all costs. Something this person certainly didn’t want to happen as I’m sure they just wanted more attention and respect in the first place but chose a horrible way to display this.
- As a compounding effect, when a jerk ridicules others, dismissing their ideas and sometimes just excluding them, this evokes a threat response within the team. This can undermine cognitive potential, creativity and problem-solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage. People who feel discounted limit their commitment and engagement, even if they aren’t aware of it. Humans cannot think creatively, work well with others, or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert. As a result, these jerky behaviors actually dumb down the organization by decreasing creativity, interfering with intellect and blocking problem-solving abilities.
- Jerk behavior leads to high turnover and is a cost to the organization. People often forget how valuable their skills are in their respective industries as they become complacent and comfortable in their organizations. We forget that we have many options outside of our current organization, it just takes lots of effort and networking to identify them. Companies often forget how difficult it is to find good talent and train them to the level they need them to perform, as they become comfortable knowing that a paycheck keeps their employees happy. Jerks push employees to start exploring new opportunities with competitors that they otherwise wouldn’t have even considered. That creates turnover which leads to disruption within the team and organization, an enormous expense to the company. Turnover costs for low and mid-wage earners averages about 20% of their salary. If you’re losing more senior employees, with specialty jobs or unique skills, the cost can be from 150% to 200% of their salary. Just think about the industries mentioned above. They are known as revolving doors with the carrot of outsized salaries, bonuses and promotions keeping those individuals in place. After a few years, employees get burned out, quit and work for more stable organizations that treat everyone with respect and adhere to work/life balances. Expensive rework. Lost knowledge and intellectual capital.
Many business authors and professors have written about jerks in organizations. In fact, the word has been used so many times that it doesn’t have the same negative impact anymore. Therefore, the more common, explicit term now is “a**hole.” As I’ve done with my previous RockStep write-ups, I’ll leave you all with a great read recommendation. The book is “The No Asshole Rule” by Robert Sutton. The theme is “bullying behavior in the workplace worsens morale and productivity. A rule is suggested to screen out the toxic staff—the no asshole rule. The author insists upon the use of the word asshole since other words such as bully or jerk ‘do not convey the same degree of awfulness’”.Robert I. Sutton is a professor of management science at the Stanford University School of Engineering and a researcher in the field of evidence-based management. He is a New York Times best-selling author and received a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan in 1984. He has been on the Stanford University faculty since 1983.