Senior M&A Advisor at Woodbridge International
I vividly remember the first jerk I met when I started my career. I’ll bet you do too. Everyone else in the office had been so supportive helping out, showing me the ropes, pointing out the politics, where the mailroom was, the vending machines; you know….the important stuff. Then I met Jorge.
Jorge was a jerk. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him, I did like him. That’s my problem. I like everybody. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t be bothered with details that other managers in his position were okay taking care of. It was that he was an arrogant jerk. That was it.
One day I committed the ultimate sin against men. Jorge came back, ostensibly from a trip to the men’s room, and forgot to zip up. I decided to keep that to myself as he paraded around the office with his personal brand of panache and shirt tail hanging out. Eventually I couldn’t take it and I let him know. It seemed too cruel and as much as I wanted to let him go the entire day, I just wasn’t that kind of kid. Apparently
I ruined the fun for the older women in the normally staid accounting
department who were churning in silent hysterics.
There miiiight have been a few re-tellings of the “Great Zipper Caper” at the local watering hole, to the joyful delight of the company crowd. Because Jorge was a jerk.
The jerks come in all shapes and sizes. A few of them are actually pretty good at what they do. But I don’t need to work with them. You don’t either. There is some psychology behind jerks, I’m sure. Some are jerks because they are making up for something else. They feel inferior. Some jerks are jerks because of the opposite: they think they are all of that. Some jerks got results early on in life, as in “Give me your lunch money Patrick, or else I’ll bop you over the head.” Then with the coinage in their sweaty hands they promptly believed they had found the life-long key for employee motivation. You can almost see the thought bubble over their head as they worked it out: ‘If I can bop people off the head in banking, I suppose I can bop them off the head in technology too!’….so they kept right on being jerks as a tactic.
Listen, I firmly believe the following:
"The employer generally gets the employee he deserves" Sir Walter Gibley
My interpretation of that is, particularly in toxic cultures, there is a ratio of good to bad. For every good person in a toxic company there is roughly one each:
The indolent, sycophant, and idiot you can manage up, around or out. The jerk in the wrong position just ruins everything.
Some jerks never set out to be that way. They just got so self-centered, so on their own trip, they forgot that there might be other people in the world, and that those people actually might have a point of view. They lost themselves in their sole pursuit of title, money or power – or behind whatever fitting psychological/sociological label there might be.
There are jerks and then there are Jerks. A jerky moment is one thing. It’s the preponderance of jerkiness that really makes a jerk a Jerk. Notice the difference in capitalization. Here are some small “j” examples.
Around the same time as the “Great Zipper Caper” there was a guy named Larry that worked in the same office. I know it sounds crazy but people used to band together to buy and make coffee at work. You’d just have to contribute a quarter per cup to help defray the costs. This guy Larry would take coffee and never pay. Everyone knew. I was at the copy machine one day and saw him look stealthily up and down the hallway where the coffee machine was, jingling the change in his pocket so people would think he was paying. Larry was a jerk. Small “j”.
Then there was Karl, the mid-level manager that couldn’t take the time to put paper in the copy machine when it ran out. He’d go to the closest copy machine and leave the next person with the job. Listen, adding paper is not that hard. I swore on all that was holy I would never do that. Karl was a jerk. Small “j”.
The small “j” jerks I actually enjoy. They still have a value that outweighs the negative. It often comes with an element of comedy of which I wholly approve. It’s the big “J” Jerks I won’t work with anymore.
One time I worked with a guy who would give a soul-numbing soliloquy before every marathon meeting he held in order to ‘set the tone’. In one particularly yawn inspiring opening half hour monologue he essentially confessed that he himself had become a Jerk. Note the use of capital “J”. He wasn’t entirely sure when it had happened but he had an epiphany that he was now a class-A certified Jerk. It was an expansively awkward and uncomfortable moment for everyone around the table, except me. In short, it was great. You could have heard a fly burp in that room it was so still. Like, seriously, as I looked expectantly into the eyes of that bewildered, beleaguered, and befuddled group of corporate drones: which one of them was going to agree or disagree with him?! He in fact was a Jerk. And for what it’s worth, after his admission he did make subtle and not so easy strides to change. I applaud him for that.
But I’d never work with that Jerk again.
I wrote an article about CEOs recently that seemed to resonate with readers (thanks to all of you for sharing it). Some of the comments amused me because there was a contingent of folks that confused bad behavior, performance, and being nice.These well-meaning individuals made the assumption that I was interested in ‘nice’ CEOs and further that a few highly successful, very recognizable CEOs we all know weren’t actually ‘nice’. Folks, there is a difference between ‘abuse’ and ‘nice’. One or the other is like unto a fallacy of false choice: you don’t actually have to be nice to not abuse people. The beauty of choice is that YOU get to decide what’s more important to you as an employee. You can decide to work for a nice successful/unsuccessful CEO or an abusive successful/unsuccessful CEO…or any of the many shades that exist in between.
In any case, it’s pretty clear a number of commenters lacked critical reading skills, inferring things that were never actually said nor even close to being implied. So on this one let me use bullets here, just in case.
A Jerk is not someone:
- In authority over you who holds you accountable for your work
- That tells you like it is when you prefer to believe how it isn’t
- Changes their opinion when they gather new input
- That disagrees with your point of view openly or in private
- That works hard and takes their work seriously when others don’t
- Who is trying to look good for a promotion or is concerned about their career more than yours (unless they are your manager and subscribe to the next set of bullets)
- Who says “no” to you
- That is not overly concerned with the ‘human’ side of performance
- That may simply be blunt
You get the point.
Here is what a Jerk is.Someone who is:
- Underhanded, game playing or passive-aggressive
- Misogynistic, bullying or abusive
- Dismissive of earnest feedback or the contributions of others
- A scorekeeper or grudge-holder waiting to ‘get back’ at someone or some group
- Untrustworthy or lacking candor (meeting ‘nodders’ who are backroom ‘plotters’)
- A Turf protector who roadblocks improvements or positive change
- Blamestormers, credit stealers, under-the-bus-chuckers as well as
- Sideline-sitting, non-committal, I-told-you-soers who try and wheedle into the glow of success after all the risk is gone
- Work shifters who push their obligations on other people or departments
I met with the CEO of an interesting human capital branding startup not too long ago. We were having coffee at some local place on a pouring, rainy, NYC day, talking about her business. She had asked to meet me to talk through her challenges, the market, competition, and selling, when I offhandedly asked about potential partnerships. As the conversation continued I realized I could make an introduction or two that would ostensibly be helpful but I hesitated because, well, she was pretty super and I wasn’t going to bring any Jerks her way.
When I mentioned she didn’t need any Jerks she summed it up best the way I wish I could have back when I was a young gun like her:
“We have a no a**hole policy.”
It was that exact moment I realized I did too. It just took me a while to get there.
Now what about you? What’s it going to take for you to implement that policy for yourself?
David Walsh is a founder and Managing Partner of Harbinger Partners, Principal of the Sales Foundation, Sr. M&A Advisor and Group Director at Woodbridge International, and general all-around can’t-sit-still kind of guy. There are plenty of people that think he’s a Jerk. While they are entitled to their point of view, he certainly doesn’t do anything on that second bullet list, thank you very much.
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