Jerks No More

Posted by jlubans on March 02, 2022

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Jerks play big in my blog.
Here are several I’ve written:
“Fifty Shades of Jerkiness”
“Of Jerks, Bozos, Dorks, Fatheads, Nincompoops, Dunderheads, Twerps, Bamboozlers, Fakers, Hornswogglers, et al.
“’Bossholes’ and Other Dour Denizens”
“Telling-off the Jerk Boss: Bad Idea?”
“How Jerks Happen”
and finally an exploration of New Zealand’s “No Dickheads” rule in “Rugby in the Workplace”.
A friend and colleague – long retired - has been writing workplace vignettes on social media (SM). She writes, without giving names other than her own, about her experiences working with a jerk boss at an ultra-prestigious university.
Her boss displayed common jerkiness traits like vindictiveness and an erratic pettiness. While the boss no doubt could recite good leadership qualities such as fairness, awareness of self, developing and inspiring others, flexibility, and effective interpersonal communication, she practiced few, if any.
My friend’s SM posts are more than tragi-comic; they are instructive and invariably I come away admiring her courage and acuity of mind in speaking frankly to the boss, face to face.
My friend was unafraid to tell the boss when she was screwing up. Had her boss listened she’d have been a star performer instead of a petty tyrant.
I would call her boss a jerk. I know the word is not the kindest but it does capture for most of us someone who is unfair, petty and narcissistic toward others.
Today’s question:
Why do jerks get hired and stay hired? Some even survive into retirement and are often sent off with accolades.
I recall someone saying that when a bad leader leaves there’s no reason to spew negatives. Instead, like the song, “Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone” leave it at that.
OK. How do jerks get hired?
First a clarification: Incompetent jerks tend not to move; it is simply too difficult for them to cultivate a support network. Often, they stay in place illustrating the Peter Principle of how organizations are reluctant to admit a hiring mistake, so instead they create face-saving ways to sideline the individual.
However, competent jerks do move.
In my experience jerks can come into a new job via a side door, an access point that limits their exposure to intensive review and analysis. Taking this route requires influential friends outside an organization who can bypass – in a closed system - the more public recruitment process.
Not that an open recruitment is any guarantee for flushing out the potential jerk.
I have had a candidate’s boss lie glowingly to me about a person’s capabilities; to such an extent that I began to question why would this boss want to give up such a paragon. Well, that was just it. They were lying to get rid of their bad apple.
Bosses who turn out to be jerks often have an inordinate ability to cultivate others – they are pre-eminent suck-upppers.
And, of course, in passive professions (most bureaucracies) standards may be low. Indeed a mediocre performer – no boat rockers, please! - might be valued over someone with a reputation for innovation and getting things done in spite of ruffling some traditionalist feathers.
My SM friend’s boss probably was well practiced at kissing up/kicking down. Had someone asked the jerk’s boss – far removed from this organization’s day-to-day operations – they’d get a largely one-sided recommendation. The more removed – but well cultivated by the subordinate jerk - the more favorably biased.
How to avoid hiring jerks.
A NYT’s article recommends asking interview questions like
“What aspect of yourself are you most proud of?”
Followed by “What aspect about yourself would you most like to change?”
The hard-core jerk is unlikely “to recognize (personal) failures and try to improve”.
The person you want to hire will have the capacity to admit failure and how he or she changed direction for the better.
And, the organization can codify and put into writing for all to see that jerky behavior is an organizational “no, no”. For example, New Zealand’s rugby team (mentioned above) has the No Dickheads Rule.
The NYT article suggests that the free pass days for jerk bosses may be running out. Driving this is the phenomenon termed the “Great Resignation” which suggests many people are leaving their fields of work for other interests.
Those fleeing the 9-5 treadmill may include some of your best people and it would be wise to listen to them on their way out.
Someone quitting for other challenges may not worry about burning bridges by giving a candid assessment of their supervisor.
If enough negatives accumulate for any one boss, maybe you – if you are the organizational leader – might want to probe some more.

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And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

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