“Nasty people don’t just make others feel miserable; they create economic problems for their companies.”
It is a bigger problem than you might think- jerks and bullies in the workplace. Research shows that they not only hinder recruiting and retention but also raise levels of client churn, damage reputations, and diminish the confidence of investors. Companies that harbor jerks also suffer from reduced levels of creatively and innovation. It also creates impaired or dysfunctional cooperation, within and outside the organization. That is no small matter in an increasingly networked world.
Researchers who write about psychological abuse in the workplace define it as “the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact.” After an interaction with a jerk, people feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled.
Workplace jerks do their dirty work in all kinds of ways, but here is a summary of “The Dirty Dozen.”
- Personal insults
- Invading coworker’s personal territory
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation; verbal and non-verbal
- Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
- Withering e-mails
- Status slaps intended to humiliate victims
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they were invisible.
Lists are useful but leave a sterilized view of how workplace jerks act and the damage they inflict. Stories, often painful ones, are necessary to understand how workplace bullies demean and de-energize people. Consider the story of this victim of multiple humiliations:
“Billy” he said, standing in the doorway so that everyone in the central area could see and hear us clearly. “Billy, this is not adequate, really not at all.” As he spoke he crumpled the papers that he held. My work. One by one he crumpled the papers, holding them out as if they were something dirty and dropping them inside my office as everyone watched. Then he said loudly, “Garbage in, garbage out.” I started to speak, but he cut me off. “You give me garbage, now you clean it up.” I did. Through the doorway I could see people looking away because they were embarrassed for me. They didn’t want to see what was in front of them; a 36 year old man in a three-piece suit stooping before his boss to pick up crumpled pieces of paper.”
The human damage done by these kinds of encounters is well documented- especially the harm that supervisors do to their subordinates. A recent study of 712 employees in a Midwestern town found employees who felt their bosses had engaged in abusive behavior, including ridicule, put-downs, and the silent treatment—demeaning acts that drive people out of organizations and sap the effectiveness of those who remain. A six month follow-up found that employees with abusive supervisors quit their jobs at accelerated rates. Those still trapped felt less committed to their employers and experience less satisfaction from work and life, as well as heightened anxiety, depression and burn-out. Dozens of other studies have uncovered similar findings; the victims report reduced levels of job satisfaction, productively, concentration, and mental and physical health.
In addition, in McKinsey’s 2010 August newsletter, researchers stated that “lousy bosses can kill you—literally. A 2009 Swedish study tracking 3,122 men for ten years found that those with bad bosses suffered 20 to 40 percent more heart attacks than those with good bosses.”
Leaders who are committed to building a civilized workplace don’t just take haphazard action against one jerk at a time; they use a set of integrated work practices to battle the problem.
Five intertwined practices are useful for enforcing the no-jerk rule:
1. Make the rule public by what you say and, especially, do.
2. Weave the rule into the hiring and firing policies.
3. Teach people how to have constructive confrontation.
4. Apply the rule to customers and clients too.
5. Manage the” little moments” by intervening at the time of the interaction.
Finally, being a jerk is contagious. Once disdain, anger, and contempt are ignited, they spread like wildfire. Researcher Elaine Hatfield calls this tendency “emotional contagion”: if you display contempt, others (even spectators) will respond in much the same way, creating a vicious circle that can turn everyone in the vicinity into a mean-spirited monster.
So what can you do? Well, one thing is that if you get an offer to join a team, take a close look at the people you will work with, successful or not. If your potential colleagues are self-centered, nasty, narrow minded, or unethical, you will have little chance of turning them into better human beings or of transforming the workplace into a healthy one. In fact, the odds are that you will turn into a jerk as well.
Copied and adapted from Building the civilized workplace by Robert Sutton, The McKinsey Quarterly, October, 2010.