Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mr. Nice Guy or Jerk?

Who doesn't want to be a success in a job?  I know no one who wouldn't welcome a promotion and/or raise, praise for a job well done, and receiving credit for a good idea or innovation.  When I first entered the work force in high school, I thought these things were based on job performance.  With each successive job, however, I've learned about the pitfalls of meritocracy, the reality of office politics, and that it doesn't always pay to be collaborative or "nice."

Jerry Useem agrees with me.  In the June 2015 issue of The Atlantic, he explores "Why it Pays to be a Jerk."  So much depends on perception of observable behavior.  He makes the point that competence is not something that we see in co-workers' behavior, so we note what we actually see and if that reveals power or not.  The more powerful a co-worker seems, the more power that co-worker has.  Behaving like a jerk -- be rude, instill fear, be a taker -- actually creates the impression of entitlement and power.  Behaving like a nice collaborator is perceived as being weak, sometimes indecisive.

On the job, I'm a "giver," a collaborator, a "team player."  I believe that we work for the benefit of the company we're working for, not for personal gain.  Takers, or Jerks, work for personal gain, and if that benefits the company also, fine.  Takers can be effective employees and leaders, actually.  Especially if their manager knows how to channel their efforts in a constructive rather than destructive way.  But if allowed to run wild on their own, outcomes can be quite mixed and often destructive.  Takers have a way, though, of making failure appear as success for them, failure for someone else.

Useem points out that ultimately whether or not being a Jerk will result in success depends on the context in which the Jerk is working.  The Jerk contributes to creating that context.  But sometimes, jerky tactics actually do result in success.  Useem writes about luxury retail, and how shoppers are more likely to spend money in upscale stores when the salespeople are haughty, judgemental, and unpleasant to deal with, i.e. they reject the shoppers as being out of the store's league.  I've not had this experience, but I've had the experience of creating a different impression from what I am.

Maitre d' example (Craig Summers/Photo: seattle.eater.com)
While traveling in Europe, I stayed at a chain hotel in one cosmopolitan city.  I was traveling on a budget, and did not own anything like jewelry or clothes that would signal that I was wealthy or powerful.  The first time I ate breakfast in the hotel's restaurant, I wore jeans, a turtleneck and cardigan sweater with gold chain necklace and earrings, and the maitre d' seated me at a small table near the kitchen door even though there were plenty of empty tables by the windows.  He assumed from my clothing and demeanor that I was not deserving of a window table.  It annoyed me.  The next breakfast in that restaurant with the same maitre d', I wore the same clothes but acted like I owned the place -- lifted my nose in a haughty stance, ignored the maitre d' until he spoke, and I stood and walked as if I owned the place.  This time he seated me at a window table.

I went from being myself, a giver, to being a Jerk or taker at the restaurant, and purely through my behavior and demeanor.  I was successful in achieving my goal -- a window table -- as a result.  I don't think Jerks in business actually think much about how they're behaving, unlike Givers who are more attuned to the team dynamic and collaboration.  A big example of a Jerk CEO that Useem mentions is Steve Jobs, and Useem points out that while Jobs initially failed -- he was kicked out of his job -- he made some changes in his management style so that when he returned to Apple, he was less of a Jerk but never a real Giver.  So, it's possible for Jerks to change their behavior, but it needs to still be to their own benefit.

I finished this article with mixed feelings.  Working for a Jerk is a truly painful experience, frustrating and sometimes downright terrifying.  My takeaway ultimately is that it's not possible to go through a work life and never work for or with a Jerk, so it's important to understand the Jerk in order to survive the experience.  Learn what works from the Jerk and use it in the team to achieve goals, perhaps.....

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