Of Jerks, Bozos, Dorks, Fatheads, Nincompoops, Dunderheads, Twerps, Bamboozlers, Fakers, Hornswogglers, et al.

Posted by jlubans on December 07, 2015


Who finishes last, the jerk or the nice guy? Who gets the glory? Or, as the song goes, who gets the “bird of paradise (flying) up his nose”?
We all know “competent” jerks who have gotten ahead by crushing other people and we all know “incompetent” jerks who have stayed in place, their poisonous personalities denying them access to the top.
We all know “lovable stars”* who have done great things and are loved and respected by their work colleagues. And we all know some “lovable fools” who have been skipped over because someone at the top’s decided a dour punctilio is better than a cheerful bungler.
Complicating all of this - lest anyone think that mankind can be pigeonholed - is that fascinating array of people who just don’t fit on any short list of stereotypes. That array would includes the covert jerk who pretends not to be a jerk to higher ups (kiss up) but is petty and nasty to subordinates (kick down).
A breezy 28-page article in The Atlantic magazine, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk
gives us the latest on jerks, in and out of the office. Jerry Useem, the author, takes an incisive look at anecdotal evidence of success among jerky people like the insufferably temperamental Steve Jobs, the egocentric, pistol-packing General George S. Patton, and the “inaccessible and arrogant” Howell Raines, ex-editor-in-chief of the New York Times. Useem uses the latter’s resignation from the Times as an example of how jerks often fail to build up any reservoir of good will so that when there’s an organizational crisis and a whipping boy must be found, the jerk, however powerful, gets the boot. Of course, in the Times example, it helped that the jerk’s boss (Arthur Sulzberger Jr) supported the group consensus that Raines was the problem not the solution. The downside costs of Sulzberger’s siding with Raines were far greater than the cost of losing Mr. Raines’ services.
Psychological research**, Useem suggests - albeit a bit too uncritically - provides counterintuitive answers as to why it may pay to be a jerk. Studies reveal that sneering behavior by luxury goods store clerks results in higher sales!
Or, another study implies that a rude customer - no greeting, no eye contact, no please or thank you, just outright insolence - will get better service from a retailer
It brings to mind what I call the “fur coat condition”. Does a woman in a fur coat get better service than the same woman in a cloth coat? In days gone by, the story goes, a woman in a fur coat always got more and better attention from retail clerks.
And, then there’s the more recent stealing coffee study involving pairs of people. A person who steals coffee only for himself will be seen as less powerful by the other person – a bit of a selfish jerk, and not someone you want as a leader.
But, a person who steals coffee for himself AND the other person, acquires more power in the eyes of the other person. Supposedly, the research indicates, “People want this man as their leader.”
Useem concludes that both sides, the jerk and non –jerk just might benefit from knowing each other better, melding the best qualities from the jerk sector research with the best behaviors from the nice guy or gal side. Learning and practicing when to be politely assertive and when to be graciously accommodating could make a big difference in one’s career trajectory and how she is perceived by her peers.
Here is Mr. Useem’s short list of melded behaviors for getting ahead, being more a nice guy or gal than an outright jerk:
“Smile at the customer. Take the initiative. Tweak a few rules. .… Don’t puncture the impression that you know what you’re doing. Let the other person fill the silence. Get comfortable with discomfort.... Be tough and humane. Challenge ideas, not the people who hold them.”
So, neither doormat nor dipstick be.
Organizationally, adopt corporate values, like New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team that makes it clear if you are a jerk you won’t play for the All Blacks. A jerk would undercut the Maori concept of whānau or the “extended family” of the team.

*Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

**The field of psychological research may have a jerk problem à la Diederik Stapel.
In August of this year Nature, the prestigious science magazine, concluded, “Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature. In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted.” Emphasis added.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

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