If you’ve worked for long, you’ve probably had a boss or co-worker who was a complete, flaming jerk.
Maybe she always scowled as if she smelled something bad while reviewing your work. Maybe he never missed a chance to berate you in front of others. Or he interrupted constantly when you were talking. Or sneaked up behind you at your desk. Or helped himself to your food.
Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford Engineering School, has heard it all while working on a recently released best seller on the subject.
The book grew from a piece he wrote for The Harvard Business Review in 2004 under the headline, “More Trouble than They’re Worth.” The piece, he said, inspired an outpouring of jerk-boss e-mails from around the world. His correspondents included the manager of a roofing company, the CEO of a money management firm and a researcher for the Supreme Court.
Since the book came out, he said he gets at least 15 e-mails a day from people with horrible bosses.
“I feel like Dr. Phil,” the talk-show therapist, he said.
He argues that companies should screen for jerks as they hire and purge the bullies already in their ranks because, in almost all cases, they cost more than they contribute.
One of his other solutions may deflate anyone who works for a jerk: Leave the job.
If that’s not possible, he suggests checking out emotionally. “Passion is an overrated virtue in organizational life, and indifference is an underrated virtue,” he wrote.
The AP interviewed Sutton, who describes workplace monsters with a mild expletive, which has been changed here to “jerk.” Excerpts:
Q: First, let’s define who we’re talking about. You define work jerks as people who pick on those beneath them and leave others feeling belittled and sapped of energy. What are some other signs?
A: To me, the main sign of someone who’s a certified jerk is someone who leaves a trail of people feeling demeaned and de-energized. It tends to be more often associated with power dynamics — they kiss-up to those above them and kick down those beneath them. About a third of the time, bullying is peer on peer.
Q: Since workplace jerks tend to pick on people below them, how can the victims, who usually don’t have much power, fix the problem?
A: In normal organizational life, for people who have less power, the best thing is to get out. If you can’t do that, try to avoid to contact with the person as much as possible. You can also learn not to care.
My favorite story comes from a former CEO who told me about her worst board member. When he’d call and scream, she’d lean back in her chair, put her feet on the desk, put him on speakerphone, turn off the volume and do her nails. She would check in from time to time to see if he was still screaming. When he was done; she would reason with him. She put herself in a relaxed position and did something she could control — her nails.
Q: You describe ways to screen for jerks, such as Southwest Airlines Co.’s refusal to hire a pilot who was rude to a company secretary and Virgin Group Ltd. founder Richard Branson’s ruse on his reality show, in which he picked up contestants while disguised as an arthritic old driver and ejected the two who treated him poorly. How else can an organization separate the monsters from the rest?
A: In fields where there is relatively small and tight networks, people get reputations that are deserved. In my field of academia, we know each other. There are excellent scholars who are not considered because no one wants to work with them.
Q: Is there such a thing as a sick organization? Can a workplace grow jerks?
A: Some organizations are sicker than others. Exhibit One is Hollywood. I have a cousin who works in the industry. I asked her to name the nice people in Hollywood and there was this long pause, and she eventually named Steven Spielberg and Danny DeVito.
Maybe the worst occupation is doctors. Based on studies, as far as a high rate of abuse, nurses really have a brutal time. Ninety percent of nurses report six to 12 incidents of verbal and emotional abuse per year.
Q: You suggest companies perform an audit, quantifying in dollar figures how much a jerk’s poor behavior costs. Then you give an example of a company that did, and figured one salesman’s bad behavior had cost it $160,000 in a year. Instead of firing him, the company took about $100,000 out of his bonus. Can you tell us about a company that purged its jerks instead?
A: I can’t name the company, but it was a Fortune 500 retailer. As part of a turnaround, the new CEO came up with a mafia-style hit-list of 25 of the biggest jerks. He wanted to get rid of them all at once, but human resources said, “Let’s get rid of them through the performance evaluation process.”
The company did and my informant said you could see, even at the store level, less nastiness.
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