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My number one leadership tip for 2019 – Don’t be a jerk! 

I’ve been stewing over this tip for a while now and I can’t hold it back anymore. In all the research I’ve been doing around high performing teams and leaders, “Don’t be a jerk”, seems to be the common thread that holds all the conventional wisdom together. I really wanted to put “Ar$#hole” in the title, instead of “Jerk”, but thought I had better be polite initially! 😊


Sadly, the feedback I get from some of my clients is that there are still some organisations and people who seem to think that being an ar$#hole is an effective style of leadership. This goes against all the latest research that I’ve delved into about modern leadership as it is counterproductive and decreases the performance of teams and individuals.


Some people also seem to think it’s worth keeping jerks on the team - again despite all the research that shows the costs of this. What can end up happening is that because leaders are reluctant to have difficult conversations with these people, their behaviour goes unchecked and they wreak havoc on the team. Good people’s performance suffers, they experience bullying, go on sick leave or even leave the team or organisation because of a failure to act.


Research done by Georgetown University’s School of Business Professor Christine Porath and her colleague Christine Pearson found that “incivility made people less motivated”. Their 2013 study of 800 managers in 17 industries, found how those experiencing incivility reacted:

- 8% intentionally decreased their work effort.

- 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.

- 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.

- 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.

- 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.

- 66% said that their performance declined.

- 78% said that their commitment to the organisation declined.

- 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.

- 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

That’s a huge cost to the organisation!


Prof. Porath is the author of, “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace” and co-author of “The Cost of Bad Behaviour”. She reports in her 2018 TED talk (Why being respectful to your co-workers is good for business) that, “Researchers in Israel have actually shown that medical teams exposed to rudeness perform worse not only in all their diagnostics but in all the procedures they did. This was mainly because the teams exposed to rudeness didn't share information as readily, and they stopped seeking help from their teammates.


Another study she was involved in found that participants who were treated rudely by other subjects were 30% less creative than others in the study. They produced 25% fewer ideas, and the ones they did come up with were less original.

If you have jerks in your organisation what feedback and messaging about their behaviour do they receive? Is bad behaviour tolerated? Or are standards set, made clear and feedback provided?


Where do the jerks sit in the hierarchy? In another piece of work, Prof Porath found that 25% of managers who admitted to having behaved badly said they were uncivil because their leaders—their own role models—were rude.




Help! I think I’m a bit of a jerk!

I am conscious that we can all have our “jerk” moments every now and again where we’re not the best versions of ourselves or being the people we aspire to be. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being routinely rude – it may be malicious, or it might be your default mode when you’re under stress – you may not have ill intent. But rudeness is like a contagious disease – it spreads.


I’ve been flabbergasted a couple of times this year in working with teams around behaviours that are OK and not OK in the team. A few have noted that it would be good if people said hello to each other in the morning because currently that’s not what happens. Another team noted that one of their behaviours that wasn’t OK was bringing your bad mood to work.


If you’re a person who is perhaps showing a bit too much jerk behaviour, I’d encourage you to ask why. What do you hope to gain? If you think that being a jerk and leading through fear is the way to get people to perform at a higher level, then the good news is that you can let go of your jerkiness and embrace being a good human being. The neuroscience tells us that people who are in mistrust and fear are unable to access their pre-frontal cortex which is the executive functioning part of the brain. Instead, they are in the primitive part of the brain (the amygdala) which is all about fight, flight, freeze or appease.


Conversely, when people are in brain-friendly environments, that is ones of trust and psychological safety, they are able to listen, reason, problem-solve, be creative and innovative, control impulses and persevere.


Being a jerk eventually catches up with you. Prof Porath cited work done by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo when they were at the Center for Creative Leadership. She says, “They found that the number one reason tied to executive failure was an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style. For example, with uncivil executives, it comes back to hurt them when they're in a place of weakness or they need something. People won't have their backs.

And it's not just about you - other people are really affected by the way you choose to show up in the workplace. And the organisational performance suffers too. Being a jerk is selfish.


Be the opposite of ar$#hole

I searched antonyms for ar$#hole and came up with these terms –warm-hearted person, kind person, good human being, good soul, smart cookie, wise person, genuine, humdinger, gem, noble being, person of honour, one in a million, good egg, salt of the earth, paragon of virtue, fine fellow, star.


Imagine if our teams and organisations had more good eggs, humdingers, gems and good human beings! Do you know who these people are in your team? Do you give them feedback about how valuable they are? Are people encouraged to show these strengths?


Prof Porath surveyed over 20,000 employees around the world and found that the thing they wanted most from their leaders was respect. She says that “Being treated with respect was more important than recognition and appreciation, useful feedback, even opportunities for learning. Those that felt respected were healthier, more focused, more likely to stay with their organisation and far more engaged.”


“What I know from my research is that when we have more civil environments, we're more productive, creative, helpful, happy and healthy. Civility lifts people. Incivility chips away at people and their performance. It robs people of their potential, even if they're just working around it.” Professor Christine Porath

Going into 2020, I’d like to think that 2019 could see the extinction of the Jerk as a leadership style and that organisations recognise the significant costs that these people have on performance and tolerate them no longer. Let’s make 2020 the year of the good human being! And remember it all starts with how you choose to show up.

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