Does it pay to be a jerk at work?

A recent documentary and a feature film about Steve Jobs paint an uncompromising portrait of the late Apple founder. In the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a former college friend of Jobs and an early Apple employee notes that: “Steve was so hugely successful, yet he treated so many people so badly”.

He then goes on to ask, “how much of an asshole do you have to be to be successful?”

In the same documentary another former co-worker remarked of Jobs: “His stuff was beloved, but it wasn’t that he was beloved.”

Jobs was renowned as an often abrasive leader, difficult to work with, and sometimes even directly abusive. But he also founded and led one of the world’s most successful companies, creating some iconic products and leaving a legacy that continues to have millions of admirers.

Here faculty from NUS Business School’s Department of Management & Organisation give their view on a simple but enduring question: Do you have to be a jerk to succeed?

freseCriticism can be stimulating
Professor Michael Frese: Head of Department

Steve Jobs is often held up as an example of a successful jerk. He was, but he was also something else: a visionary and a magician. He had a rare ability to paint what was possible and drive people to achieve it by giving everything.

That is not to say that being a jerk was necessary to Jobs’ success, but a critical part of leadership is about execution; turning vision into reality. In Jobs’ case the success he brought to Apple was largely due to the high standards he expected. To meet those standards he motivated those around him to pour their all into achieving his vision and did so largely through criticism.

Criticism can be highly stimulating if those it targets have the self-confidence to believe they can improve. In large part, Jobs surrounded himself with personalities who fitted that mould. But in other situations, relentless criticism can be deeply counterproductive, demoralising and ultimately destructive.

Like Einstein, Picasso and other geniuses of their trade, Jobs achieved success through single-minded dedication. Everything else was secondary. But his genius was not because he was a successful jerk; his genius was that he was a success despite being one.

yiouHumility builds collaboration
Assistant Professor Amy Ou Yi

The characteristics of the “jerk” leader are closely related to narcissism – those who believe in their own superiority and look for reaffirmation by demeaning others. Narcissistic CEOs favour dynamic and grandiose strategies, and pursue more and bigger acquisitions. But their impact on firms is often to create more extreme and fluctuating performance.

Steve Jobs was often described as a narcissistic leader and in 1985 was fired from Apple as a result. He later described the experience as “awful tasting medicine”, but acknowledged it was something he had needed.

Studies suggest that humility – recognising ones’ own limitations and appreciating others – can restrain narcissistic CEOs. Like the reins on a horse, humility prevents characteristics such as narcissism from reaching an extreme. While narcissism demands power over others, humility enables CEOs to build a communal power base, achieving goals by working collaboratively.

My own research shows that humble CEOs are willing to narrow the pay gap with top management team members, they develop strong teams that make decisions together and form a common vision. In this way, they build loyal and highly motivated managers and achieve extraordinary firm performance. Other research concurs that when narcissism is tempered by humility, leaders become more effective, more charismatic, and more innovative.

jaynarayananWarmth matters more than competence
Associate Professor Jayanth Narayanan

Research on how we store, process, and use information about other people – known as ‘social cognition’ – suggests that we make judgments on two primary dimensions: warmth and competence. Warmth encompasses qualities such as likeability and sociability, whereas competence encompasses qualities such as ability.

Studies have shown that warmth matters more than competence when people decide who they choose to work with. They prefer the lovable fools over the competent jerks. So why is the idea of an effective jerk so alluring? In my research we examined how people think about being likeable versus being competent. Many people assume they are related and even more worryingly, our education system rarely if ever provides feedback on warmth-related dimensions, raising a generation to believe that competence is all that matters. As a result people looking to signal their competence, may seek to be low on warmth and become a jerk in the process.

The trouble is that this flies in the face of evidence that warmth is a key attribute for workplace success. As my grandmother said, be nice and the world will treat you well – wise advice for any leader.

richarveyWhy people tolerate abuse
Visiting Professor Richard D. Arvey

Being a “jerk” manager at any level within an organisation is something generally not going to work well. Yes, we have seen several high-profile examples of abusive leaders who have lead their company to game-changing success. But was it the fact they were a jerk that was the deciding factor?

By far the majority of research shows that abusive behaviour by managers tends to alienate subordinates who, understandably, leave if given the opportunity. Haemorrhaging talent is not a great path to a sustainable business, and unless you’re already at the top of the firm, being a jerk is no guarantee of promotion.

That said, there is little doubt that many successful companies have leaders who might fit into that category. So we should ask why do people tolerate abuse from jerk managers?

In the case of Steve Jobs, I suspect that many of his employees enjoyed great compensation through stock ownership. If the company was not so successful – and if that success was not so clearly identified with Jobs himself – would they have stayed? I doubt it.

danThere are times when force works
Associate Professor Daniel McAllister

Driving change in today’s complex and resource-constrained world requires a full arsenal of capabilities, a willingness to confront resistance, and a readiness to take positions that are not necessarily popular. From time to time, truly transformational leadership can require being a jerk.

We can’t expect that all leaders be tough guys all the time, but I’m not convinced either that being an abrasive boss necessarily disqualifies someone from leadership. Some leaders go overboard and use force where it’s not appropriate, but the alternative of requiring that leaders always be nice guys would be unwise, even damaging.

Machiavelli’s 16th century advice remains relevant: use as little force as necessary to accomplish a goal, but also be prepared to use sufficient force to ensure successful goal accomplishment. Tough bosses, teachers, coaches and drill sergeants often have keen insights into human psychology, care deeply for their followers as well as performance objectives, and are skilled at bringing out the best in people. Just as importantly, they’re often clear thinkers and level-headed, even during the toughest of times.

At the end of the day, what matters most?  Is it more important that a leader maintain a reputation of being nice, or that the hopes and aspirations of the organisation and followers are reached?  Perhaps true leader humility means being prepared to forego the short-term reputational benefits of being seen as a nice guy when the situation requires you to take an unpopular stand that better serves the organisation and its mission.

The writers are professors of Management & Organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

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