A popular narrative put forth by business schools and Steve Jobs worshippers is that jerks get ahead and prosper because we will permit an employee’s unpleasant social shortcomings if the results are worth it.
Fred Kiel, founder of leadership firm KRW International, said that the successful jerk myth persists because we are taught to reframe toxic behavior as good leadership. “So they’re a little rough on people! At least they’re taking action, they’re action oriented!’” he said. “It’s embedded in the wallpaper in business schools, it’s embedded in our psyches.”
But multiple studies have found that there’s a limit to how far you can go being a jerk co-worker. Competent jerks can use their boorish bullying, narcissistic charisma, and manipulative mind games to get into leadership — but if they succeed it’s despite being a jerk, not because of it.
Jerks ultimately hurt a company’s bottom-line because they lose companies time and money with turnover and hiring and training costs. No one wants to work with a jerk, and we’ll flee to other companies to avoid them. A Harvard Business School paper calculated that avoiding a toxic hire can save a company an estimated $12,489.
Study: We value likability over competence
We dislike jerk co-workers so much that when faced with the choice between a competent jerk and a lovable fool, one study found that we’ll take the fool. Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo studied more than 10,000 work relationships at small and big organizations to see how we pick work partners.
“We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer,” the researchers said.
The lessons of Facebook’s ‘Boz’
The case of veteran Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth shows how being a superstar can’t save you if no one wants to work with you. Bosworth revealed that he was almost fired when he was running one of the social media giant’s most successful products, Newsfeed, in 2015, because his “callously indifferent” actions had alienated his co-workers. This behavior resulted in him being pulled from the Newsfeed product. Bosworth said that when he demanded to know why he was being sidelined as a successful engineer, then-Facebook CTO Dustin Moskovitz showed him anonymous quotes of employees acknowledging his brains but also admitting they would not want to work on his team. For Bosworth, the feedback was a wakeup call.
“I thought my job was to be right. I thought that was how I proved my worth to the company. But that was all wrong,” he wrote in a blog post. “My job was to get things done and doing anything meaningful past a certain point requires more than one person. If you are right but nobody wants to work with you, then how valuable are you really? How much can you realistically expect to accomplish on your own?”
The value of civility
What these stories show is that how you make your co-workers feel matters as much, and sometimes even more, than what you actually accomplish at a company.
Working on a successful team means you prioritize civility and congeniality as much as deliverables and deadlines, because being a jerk genius will certainly get you noticed — but that attention can sour into notoriety and sometimes even job-ending failure.