The Real Cost of Workplace Jerks

proud businessman loser signUsing this checklist, can you think about someone in your workplace who exhibits some of these behaviors?

  • Belittling people or their ideas
  • Excluding someone from a meeting who should have a voice
  • Ignoring someone in a conversation
  • Failing to respond when greeted
  • Impatiently interrupting someone who is expressing a point of view
  • Failing to acknowledge someone who enters a group
  • Expressing criticism; rarely finding the good in anything
  • Being demanding of people, even when it doesn’t matter to results

I’ll bet you can.  We don’t admire these people, but we tolerate them in our workplaces, often because they have performed well.  And while their behavior is unappealing, no one episode is so egregious as to generate a ‘crucial conversation’.

We would not count these people as out-and-out bullies in the workplace, but new research shows that the effect of these ‘workplace jerks’ can be just as devastating on the work environment.  Research led by Gretchen Spreitzer of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business demonstrates that interactions with these types of ‘jerks’ is de-energizing and confidence-sapping.  People feel “depleted, fatigued, and exhausted” in their interactions with workplace jerks.  The authors of the study found that “the more people you interact with that you report as de-energizing, the lower your performance”.  In fact, a worker’s degree of interaction with jerks was associated with the lowest levels of job performance. The study goes on to demonstrate that the effect of these jerks is so significant on performance that it cannot be counteracted by an equal or greater exposure to energizing, positive people and behaviors.

So not only are jerks an annoyance.  They bring down the performance of everyone around them because of their behavior – significantly.  For you as leaders, that means you can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the jerky behaviors of people in your world.  So if you have jerks in your workplace – even genius jerks – what should be your actions to thwart the destructive impact they are likely imposing on the overall performance of your staff?

  • Set a cultural tone of respect and inclusion. Make it clear that you both value and expect that your staff will treat each other with the utmost professional and personal respect, and that inclusion of all relevant voices is critical to success of your area’s work and you expect that everyone will look to maximize inclusion.
  • Model the behavior you want. Make sure your own behavior is positive, optimistic, generous, inclusive, attentive, and respectful.  Don’t complain about anyone to others.  Reward these behaviors in others.
  • Be thoughtful about boundaries, and work them. Once you’ve set the cultural tone, also explore the boundaries for what you consider acceptable.  Failing to greet someone in the hallway may not be disrespectful, but failing to respond to a greeting may be shaving pretty close to one.  Err on the side of having a conversation when people close in on the boundaries as well as when they clearly cross them.  Remember that these conversations are not punitive; they are about developing a good performer into a better one.
  • Give regular feedback and opportunities to learn the difference between positive and negative behaviors. Feedback to jerks should not be just occasional.  The behavior you are trying to change is often subtle.  Go for the movement toward a better-rounded performer with an emphasis on the positive aspects of his or her behavior.  Offer ‘instead of this, how about this?’ feedback for how to present themselves more positively.
  • Make sure your reward systems reinforce positive behavior. Raises, bonuses, and promotions should be based not only on what people do, but also on how they get it done.
  • Consider where you’re using the jerks. Should they be entrusted with your most important work, when there’s a chance they’ll demoralize the rest of the staff to the point of underperforming?
  • Give people time away from the jerks. While you’re working on the jerks’ behaviors, give other staff some respite where possible.  Can they work with a different project manager for a while?  Can you appoint another lead for crucial work?
  • Redirect venting. Jerk behavior elicits a lot of backroom complaining – another performance drain.  Where you become aware of venting about jerks, work with the venters to identify one positive action they might take on their own to neutralize the effects of the jerk on their own feelings and performance.

As a leader, know that your response to jerks is being measured by your employees.  If you implicitly tolerate their destructive behaviors, you are seen as complicit, and your own stock is devalued.  On top of the poor performance generated in the work group when a jerk holds sway, it’s a rough combo for your own sense of accomplishment.

You owe it to yourself, your staff, and your organization’s performance to take that opening checklist and identify the jerks – then set the plan to root out these hidden costs from your organization’s bottom line.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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2 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Workplace Jerks

    • Great question, Ian. When your boss, or the main person in control, is the one exhibiting these behaviors, it takes some courage to confront him or her. But it is the only option that promises some chance at different behavior, as the ‘jerks’ rarely see their behaviors clearly without a tap on the shoulder. Some language you can use to begin the conversation might be, “John, I know it’s not your intent to demean me in our meetings, but sometimes your language has the impact of making me feel that way. May I share an example?” The intent vs. impact language offers a neutral starting point by assuring John that you assume his good intent, and that your purpose is to bring some clarity to an unintended impact of his behavior. Usually the ‘jerk’ behavior is bravado, and these people are only using it to inflate their confidence, so if you treat them respectfully, you’ll get a better reception. Of course, if the powerful ‘jerk’ really doesn’t want to change, and likes being the guy who can inflict discomfort on people, you do have the other option: leaving him to take out his jerky behavior on others as you exit stage right.

      Best wishes to you, Ian.

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