Do you have to be a jerk to get ahead in the corporate world? First, for these purposes, we’ll define a jerk as someone who acts in ways that demonstrate that he or she values results over relationships and is willing to ride roughshod over others to obtain those results. A long tradition exists of viewing leaders this way. These leaders tend to act as dictators, give little praise to others and listen poorly.
A number of years ago, I heard of a manager at a large global company who fell under this stereotype. The day following his promotion, he stood in front of his extended team of 45 employees and said, “My current role is just a pit stop on my way to corporate. So, you people do your job, stay off my radar screen, and we’ll get along just fine.” Over the next 18 months, he acted exactly that way. Results mattered — relationships did not. While these leaders do receive promotions, a recent study that my colleagues and I conducted shows that jerks are promoted in spite of, rather than because of, their poor interpersonal skills. According to the online poll, which analyzed 1,650 promotions, 92% said having poor interpersonal skills hinders advancement in their organization.
Why do so many people believe that it’s the self-promoters who do best in the workplace? The key to success in business is to produce results while maintaining relationships. Self-promoters produce results, a main benchmark for promotion, at the cost of relationships. When a manager is faced with the decision to advance a self-promoter or an employee who values relationships over results, the manager will most likely choose the employee who produces strong results.
However, our research reveals that the combination of strong interpersonal skills and strong results are by far the best predictor of whether an employee will be respected as a leader after a promotion. Leaders who lack interpersonal skills are not respected by their employees, and a disrespected leader wields little true influence in the workplace. Thus, employees who place high value on both results and relationships are most likely to excel and exert influence in their company.
If I’m a jerk, how can I change? How do I even recognize the need to change? It can be difficult for a person to recognize the need to change, because co-workers are often reticent to give honest feedback. It takes a great deal of humility to ask co-workers for feedback and to truly listen. First, I suggest you do a self-assessment of both your technical and interpersonal skills. Then, find someone who will give you honest feedback, and listen. If after your assessment you discover you need to change, follow these four steps for navigating crucial conversations — high-stakes, politically risky or emotionally volatile situations — in a way that generates results and improves relationships.
1. Change your emotions. In stressful moments, separate people from the problem. Try to see others as reasonable, rational and decent human beings — even if your opinions clash. Jerks don’t bother with this principle — they make harsh judgments of others and act out those judgments through mistreatment.
2. Help others feel safe. Jerks disguise their harshness as brutal honesty. In contrast, effective leaders find a way to be both 100% honest and 100% respectful. They do both by starting high-stakes conversations by assuring the other person of their positive intentions and their respect. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they let their guard down and begin to listen — even if the topic is unpleasant.
3. Present just the facts. Respected leaders describe problems in factual terms — stripping out the negative labels and punitive conclusions commonly used by jerks. Without the facts, judgmental statements are far from motivating and create animosity and resistance.
4. Invite dialogue. Effective leaders create dialogue, while jerks settle for monologue. After confidently sharing your views, invite others to do so as well. If you are open to hearing others’ points of view, they’ll be more open to yours.