Nasty people do more than make others miserable.  They create economic problems for your business.  And the problem is more widespread than most people think.  Especially in some occupations driven by a “sales” or “technical” culture.  So, that’s the bad news.

The good news is that your business  culture doesn’t have to become a hostage to jerks and bullies.  In a recent article (By Invitation:  Building the civilized workplace) appearing in The McKinsey Quarterly, Robert Sutton defined a workplace jerk as someone who leaves others feeling “oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled.”  

Jerks and bullies attack in any number of ways, whether in business or in family settings.  Some of the more common include insulting and sarcastic humor; turf invasions; status slaps; two faced attacks; verbal and non-verbal threats and intimidation; and public shaming or time-honored hazing disguised at team building (remember the Miami Dolphins scandal?).  Nasty interactions like these are more powerful than a locomotive, spread faster than a speeding bullet, and affect people five times more strongly than positive ones.  

These kinds of behaviors, often condoned because the perp is a great “producer” who brings in a wonderful revenue stream, can destroy an organization or a family in several ways.  Walls go up, morale goes down, customers and applicants stay away, and family members have as little to do with each other as possible.  Steven Covey, author of Principle Centered Leadership, talked about behaviors like these as withdrawals from an emotional bank account.    

So how do you prevent these behaviors from happening?  Our experience suggests that a variety of covenants – family, management, and organizational – help set the tone for building a civilized culture. A couple of well known companies like Gold’s Gym, Southwest Airlines, Success Factors, and Netflix have a “we don’t hire or keep jerks” covenant or policy.  It’s communicated in three ways:  verbally, in writing, and – most importantly – in practice.  If you’re not ready to part company with a jerk, don’t say you will when you know you won’t.  Your failure to do so speaks volumes.

Other steps involved in creating a jerk-free environment include:

  1. Creating covenants that describe how you expect people to treat each other – positive behaviors.  One of my personal favorites is quite simple:  Be loyal to those not in your presence. 
  2. Develop and implement recruiting and hiring practices that make it difficult to hire a jerk.  If you don’t hire them, you don’t have to let them go.  Go to great lengths in interviews to ask the questions that give you clues as to how the applicant will fit into a jerk free culture.  If s/he won’t fit then take a pass, regardless of the “proven record of performance”.  
  3. Teach your staff the art of constructive confrontation.  A great many people are conflict averse and don’t know how to fight.  Invest time and money in teaching people how to disagree respectfully.  In Sutton’s words, “argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong.”  
  4. Remember that rewarded behavior is repeated behavior.  Create compensations systems that reinforce what you want to have happen.

Finally, remember that toxicity is contagious and deadly.  If you hire, reward, and promote self-centered, unethical, and nasty people the odds are strong that you will not turn them into better human beings or team players.  In fact, the odds are strong that you’ll become another ENRON.  Is that what you want?


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